As a Chamonix resident, Team Petzl member Liv Sansoz takes full advantage of the valley's dynamic atmosphere for a skillful mix of climbing, mountaineering, skiing, paragliding and BASE jumping adventures. As February 2013 came to a close, snow conditions were perfect; the forecast was for blue skies and warmer weather due to a temperature inversion. Reports confirmed that the Whymper couloir was completely filled in and skiable without needing to rappel.
Steep skiing also means mountaineering
We head up to Les Grands Montets for an easy bivy and a spectacular sunset. At dawn the approach on skis was a formality and we quickly got down to business at the base of the Couturier couloir. Our ascent up this imposing north face took the most direct, well-known, and sustained line, alternating between loosely consolidated winter snow and sections of ice. At this point our simple day of skiing turned into a serious mountaineering endeavor. For most ski-mountaineering routes, even for those steeper than this one, crampons and a light ice axe are usually enough, and the rope stays in the pack or at home. At high altitude, on a slope with glacier ice, good crampons are essential and a technical ice tool in each hand is more than reassuring. The rope allows you to back off if needed, since being anything but humble when attempting the Aiguille Verte would be a serious mistake.
With skis on our backs, we gladly roped up for a short section of black ice, as well as through the last steep sections where finally started to feel the fatigue. The sections of snow proved just as tiring as the sections of ice, with mediocre, weak, and even worrisome pick and crampon placements. Higher up, the summit icecap turned out to be a jumble of seracs, and we weaved here and there to find a path to the top, all the while overlooking the Grands Montets ridge and the Nant Blanc face. As we approached the summit the entire range came into view, breathtaking. After the rather austere atmosphere up the Couturier couloir, sunshine and a quick break on the summit made for an overall exhilarating experience!
Putting on skis at 4000 meters
The Aiguille Verte is not a peak like any other, so we took our time to savor the summit, knowing that the hardest part of the day was behind us. Mountaineers often consider the Aiguille Verte's descent like a second route for the day, since it takes almost as much time as the ascent. For us this was not the case; although our skis were a burden on the climb, they allowed us to make quick work of the descent. Thus the appeal of steep skiing! Nevertheless, putting on your skis at 4000m elevation in the Alps is never a simple task, and committing to skiing a route that you did not scope out on the ascent adds an additional level of stress. Even though conditions were ideal, looking down such a steep route was dizzying, and sliding on skis proved surprisingly unsettling after having had the secure feeling of crampons all morning long. Liv is not a steep skiing specialist, so she asked for a belay for the first few turns, just to be sure. In this situation, the belayer clips into an ice axe buried as a deadman anchor, plants one ski tail deep into the snow, and then provides as dynamic a shoulder belay as possible. One turn, a sideslip, another turn, and slowly but surely the mind gets used to the slope angle. After one full rope length, Liv gained confidence, her legs found the right rhythm, and from there she continued the descent unroped. What followed was almost too easy; in spite of the steep pitch and our elevated heart rates, the snow was great, and we enjoyed the rest of the descent. It started getting late, so we needed one last burst of energy to descend through the exit couloir, over the bergschrund, and out onto the flat glacier before turning around to see what we'd skied… We couldn't stop smiling all the way into the valley. Given the Aiguille Verte's illustrious history, this outing was nothing exceptional. But for us, two simple ski-mountaineers, the combination of effort, elation, and the shared experience was more than perfect.
-- Boris Dufour
Products used for this ascent