Chamonix is one of the best known mountain towns in the world, attracting holidaymakers and serious mountaineers from across the planet to it’s high altitude Alpine playground. While there are lifts and pistes a plenty on the mountains, the real attraction is in the backcountry, some of the harshest and dangerous on the planet. By Ian Sansom, Photos by Arthur Ghilini
Despite snowboarding for more than 20 years I’d only been to Chamonix a couple of times and had never got into its backcountry, but an invite from clothing manufacturer Patagonia to visit their Backcountry camp would change all that. We were set to stay at the Patagonia Chalet in Chamonix on the first night before ascending the top of the Col du Montets lift, then skinning into the wilderness where we would stay at the Refuge d’Argentiere mountain hut, before two days of touring.
To be honest, I was nervous – I have virtually no backcountry experience or knowledge and I don’t like not knowing what I’m doing. But we would be with qualified mountain guides, Patagonia staff and some Patagonia team members like skier Pep Fujas, Max Turgeon and Zoe Hart, one of only four American women to earn her International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, the highest level of certification available.
We were in good hands.
Even though we took the lift to the top of the Grand Montets, the difference in altitude where I live at sea level and the top of a 3000m mountain was hard on me physically and after we’d ridden down from the lift and then skinned along the base of the glacier, approximately 3km of a relatively flat route, I was done in and glad to reach the Refuge d’Argentiere, our base for the next two nights. The rest of the group carried on up a couple more hours and got some turns in before returning, but I spent that time drinking water, chilling in the sun and taking in the scenery.
The Refuge d’Argentiere is an incredible place…
Rebuilt in the last few years, it sits on a rocky outcrop and is south facing to take advantage of any sun to help warm the place. The refuge can hold 90 people and sleeping accommodation is in simple bunk rooms, ten or more to a room, but warm and dry. There are no showers or running water toilets, but to be honest after a day’s hard work on the mountain you’re happy to just sleep and any bad smells are likely to be coming from you. We sat down to a three course meal, with a little wine, but most people were happy just to hydrate and get ready for the next day’s mission – skinning up and then riding back down the Col d’Argentiere.
I was glad that we’d been given some Patagonia kit to test – The Capilene first layers were also my pyjamas for the night and they kept me warm throughout the trip. I was glad to have been given some ear plugs as well – the snoring in a room full of ten dudes was out of control and sleeping would have been hard without them. A bad night’s sleep is not what you need in order to prepare for the next day.
We rose early the next morning, while it was still dark, so I was surprised to find the refuge all but deserted. It seems like a 6am start is late in refuge terms, but before long we were kitted up and ready to go with snacks and water in our packs. The top of the Col was apparently a few hours climb and as we left the refuge and craned our necks to try and see the peak, it seemed a mighty long way away. Before long, we had split into two distinct groups – the athletes and experienced at the front, with a smaller group of the less fit and inexperienced (where I was) bringing up the rear. Skinning up a track behind the others was hard work – split boards are wider than regular touring skis and consequently harder to move. Our progress zig zagged up the mountain and at the end of every zig, we would have to kick turn to head up the zag. This is the point where it’s easy to fall and it’s a surprising amount of effort to get yourself back up when carrying that amount of gear.
“Slow down, mate, it’s not a race. Take it easy, one step at a time”
Jon, our guide was urging me to just chill out. We were working our way up to the top of the Col du Tour Noir, almost a vertical kilometre above and I’d started to speed up, keen to narrow the gap between our groups. My heart was racing and although I felt pretty strong I decided to heed Jon’s advice. The sun was high in the sky and although the weather was crisp and cold, I was sweating with the exertion. I was glad of the Patagonia gear I was wearing, my Gore Tex pants in conjunction with my first layer were moving the heat and sweat away from my skin; while I’d stripped down to my first layer with a hooded midlayer on top, which was doing a great job of keeping the cold off while dumping the heat I was producing. Wearing my neck warmer as a hat made me look and feel like a Euro, but it was by far the best way to both keep the chill out and the temperature in my head regulated.
We stopped often, taking a couple of minutes to stretch, hydrate and eat some food. I was nervous about crevasses, and avalanches. I was out of my comfort zone but Jon helped to put me at ease. We carried on touring up the mountain and between furtive glances at the peak, it was definitely getting closer. I could barely see it at first but as time went on it was clearly in view and when we saw the fast group sitting and donning their jackets for the descent, we knew we were there. I took a moment to sit and drink in the surroundings. Here I was, having just climbed up a Col I never thought I’d ever get the opportunity to, surrounded by unbelievable terrain and some of the best athletes in the world. Having exerted so much energy, when we stopped moving, the started to chill on our bodies, and we were pleased to have the extra layers in our packs which kept our temperatures even. All that was left to do was to strap in and enjoy the ride down. I zipped up my I zipped up my hard shell jacket, took a deep breath and got ready.