Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ski Mountaineering in Chamonix

I was lucky enough recently to go to Chamonix for my first week of skiing there - including a couple of days of off-piste. I had only been there once before, climbing, and that was the first time I'd ever used a guide. I've figured out that certain places and activities benefit hugely from a local introducer, and without one in Cham, you may die. And, as my friend Jim Lawyer says, hiring a guide is a good way to get up something.

My guide the first visit two years ago was Gael Pernollet, who referred me to Sylvain Ravanel this trip. Both are superb men, guides, and members of the the La Compagnie Guides de Chamonix ( For all the guides winter is a key season, and as Gael was occupied he referred me to Sylvain.

Sylvain's contribution to this blog has to do with simplicity. He is a big proponent, and there were plenty of instances where it was hard to argue with the guide and his experience. For example, putting on skis just below the Aiguille de Midi is a fairly standard exercise: you walk down the ridge, complete with handrails and cut steps in winter up until around May. While crampons are likely a good thing, aluminum will suffice, and Sylvain loaned me some as I had none. The little landing where you clip into the skis is a bit exposed, and I was having trouble with my Dynafits, which I've only used for a couple of seasons. Fortunately I'd just put on runaway leashes (G3), because the bindings did not want to engage properly for me, and I don't have ski breaks. This is when Sylvain expressed his disdain for the 'tech binding' of which the Dynafit is the pre-eminent and original example. He, like most off- and on-piste skiers I saw, has a step in binding (Silvretta Pure Carbon in his case on a light rig, Rossis for a heavier weight setup he used another day.) The Fritchi was a very pervasive binding, and heavier ski setups than mine were on about 70% of those I saw.

While I'm still very happy with my light weight AT gear (see earlier posts) I can concede that a heavier setup would be good to have for all the on-again off-again skiing in Cham: the piste seems to be mostly the access and easiest way down, with much of the terrain which is 'off-piste' being right next to lift accessed runs. And there is no question if I were a good enough skier to hit steep or icy couloir I'd want a step-in rig with heavier skis. There is more food for thought to come on Sylvain's 'simple is right' approach.