The first week in March I went to Chamonix to attend a mountain safety course. This is one of the modules I have to complete in order to achieve the next and highest level of teaching qualification with BASI (British Association of Snowsports Instructors). I was actually supposed to join the final 3 weeks of training in Zermatt in April but I changed my mind and I am not going to attend the course.
After all the years I spent on my board travelling the world riding on different mountain ranges (US, Canada, NZ, Autralia) I already had some knowledge as far as mountain and avalanche safety go. What I didn’t have was a decent knowledge of Chamonix area and mountains. Which if you think about it it’s something I should probably feel a bit ashamed about. Chamonix is the birth place of alpinism and big mountain skiing. You are not a big mountain skier if you haven’t skied Chamonix. I don’t know how much you know about the valley of Chamonix but only saying that the Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and that every year around 200 – 250 people die in the area due to climbing and/or skiing should give you an idea of the place.
Clearly Chamonix is not only for serious climbers, skiers, mountaineers and whoever is in need of an adrenaline rush. You can easily go to Chamonix, buy your ski pass and cruise the mountains within its boundaries, stop for hot chocolate and all the rest like everywhere else in the Alps. But, given what those mountains have to offer, going to Chamonix just to do that would be a shame.
I remember being super excited about the course since, months ago, I read the content: avalanche and mountain awareness, transceiver search, leading a group off-piste, map reading and navigation, personal performance off-piste, personal fitness, skinning/snowshoesing. Spending a week with a very good proper mountain guide and learning more of all of the above sounded like a dream coming true. And it was. I have always had a genuine interest for the subject so by the time the course started I had already read: “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” (the best book ever!!), “Avalanche Safety” and… “Freeriding in Avalanche Terrain – A Snowboarders’s Handbook”. Apologies for the digression, I better move on.. I know that only few of you share my passion for the whole avalanche world!
The week was super interesting. We used skins and snowshoes, normal lifts and we skied a lot off-piste. The rhythm of the day wasn’t frenetic. We use to stop a lot in the middle of nowhere, dig snow pits to study the different layers of the snowpack and try to assess the avalanche risk on a specific aspect of a slope. We also used map and compass quite a lot. At some point , we were in the middle of the clouds..zero visibility and the guide looks at me and asks: “ok matteo, we are all tired and hungry, please take us to the nearest refuge”. The most challenging part was to navigate using altimeter, map and compass without being able to see 10 meters in front of me!
The best day of the week was when we completed a proper ski touring itinerary. Not the most difficult one but definitely not for beginners either. We used the lifts up to about 1,500 mt. Then we hiked for approximately 3 hours to 2,000 mt. the last bit was a bit scary as we had to take off skis and snowshoes and climb a wall of.. not sure, probably about 50 degrees, it was steep! I had to use an ice axe and I really wish I had crampons on my feet..mmm.. definitely another purchase for next winter. It’s such a shame I didn’t managed to take pictures of the climb but to be honest, I didn’t even think about it. Then we skied down for a bit, then we hiked again for another hour or so and then we skied all the way down in a different valley.
It took all day and it was probably the longest and nicest ski tour I have ever did. You can see from the pictures how beautiful the surroundings were up there. Those valleys, so isolated..it almost felt like being on another planet. We were also lucky with the weather and the snow. Although it had been snowing on and off pretty much the whole week the snowpack was stable and we have been able to ski safely on different aspects of various slopes. I was the only one in the group using a board, everyone else was on skis. I would occasionally struggle a bit on the way up, trying to follow the tracks left by the skis of the people in front of me (the guide wanted me to go last not to ruin the tracks with my snowshoes) but on the way down I was always the fastest, right behind the guide’s skis tails. The last part of the valley was a bit tricky as we had to go through tight trees, very narrow paths, cross a river, .. the usual mountain hazards. When we got at the end the guide wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me for the performance. Apparently not many people decide to do the course and try to pass the test on a board and he thought I was one of the strongest riders he has ever seen in his courses! I knew I did well but hearing a very experienced mountain guide saying it to you made me feel really good!
Then we walked to the little train station and in about 20 minutes we were back to where we started in the morning. Another great aspect of Chamonix is the railway which connects the whole valley. So you can ski everywhere you want, ski across 5 different valleys.. and when you finally get to the bottom of one, you just have to walk to the train station and wait for your little red train. Definitely one of the best week of my life. I will spend more time in Chamonix
The mountains welcome you to Chamonix
3 hours hike to get here. something tells me it was worth it, every minute of it
not always easy stay behind the guide, but around here you don’t really have another option. snowpack is stable, let’s drop in
I am not sure where we came down from but it was steep and snow was hard. as jeremy jones would put it “..screwing up was not an option..” I trusted my toe edge and I didn’t. memories were made and lessons were learned
ok guys, take your maps out and tell me where we are
only about 1 hour to get to the top (right corner) nice face, nice snow. my friend giovanni was one of the first people years ago who gave a name to this: time ans space. it doesn’t happen often, but when it does you remember it for a long time
many mountian huts are closed in the winter months and don’t open till june
do you see that convex roll on the right hand side? the guide told us that 3 years ago 3 swedish boys (with obviuosly very poor knowledge of the terrain) skied it, it avalnached at the top (where usually a convexity avalnches) and buried 2 of them under 8 meters of snow. the families tried to convince the french autorities to keeep looking for the bodies but after 2 weeks of searches they decided to wait till spring. in similar cases, around here it seems to be the most sensible thing to do. they paid the highest price to ski the line of their life
the building in the back is where I stayed for the week with other 3 proplr who were in the course with me. it’s 5 minutes outiside town, nice and very quiet, just the wa I like it. the night before the exam we have been practising with the tranceivers till midnight! we all passed