April 15th 2016
“I’ve got three days, the weather looks ok and there will be windows of opportunity. Pack light and bring good snacks”, she said. Floss from FREEFLO has a reputation; she’s an awesome skier, a great instructor and is highly skilled in the backcountry. As ski tour buddies go, they don’t get much better. I packed light.
All season I’ve been ski touring in Tignes, but I’ve been on piste and in familiar areas – this was the trip I had been hoping for – an opportunity to explore the back-country, expand my ski touring horizons and go on an adventure.
We were a small team – Floss, myself and another friend Steve. We met early in Val Claret in Tignes and drank tea. Looking out at the thick snow falling, this was going to go one of two ways: the weather would clear and we’d go or we’d have to postpone. We took the Col du Palet button lift, dropped off the back; the snow stopped falling and the cloud lifted. It was on! We were stepping into the back-country, the untouched mountains stretched out endlessly in front of us, it felt like freedom and it looked spectacular.
After a short exhilarating powder ski down we put our skins on to head up to the Pointe de la Vallaisonnay (3020m). Knowing that Floss had previously tried twice to get to this this point without success made reaching our first peak in a little over two hours even sweeter. On mountains in the back-country, nothing is a given: conditions, weather, team and individual fitness all must align in order to reach goals.
With Floss finding the route it was a fun ski down off the back of the Pointe and lunch in the valley floor by a nice big rock was delicious. Ski touring is hungry work and I’ve found that in the mountains, the harder you work for it, the better it tastes. Steve whose background I discovered was in geography, told us a story about the glacier we could see retreating on the Grand Casse in the distance – apparently it once formed part of a natural dam and we were at the bottom of the lake it created until the glacier broke, releasing an almighty volume of water wiping out all the villages below!
Re-fuelled, our next move was to skin up and around the Aiguille Noir back up to the Col Du Palet where we had begun. We had a good pace as a team but Steve had been pushing hard all day and decided he was going to finish here.
Floss and I still had time to blast down to Val Claret and catch the last lift to the Grand Motte, so that we could reach the Leisse Refuge in time for dinner and our adventure would continue.
The weather was closing in but Floss was familiar with the route to the refuge so it wasn’t a problem. We skated for over an hour and were delighted to reach the refuge, the lit fire and sit down to a hearty meal.
The next morning we woke up to fresh snow and no visibility. We took a long breakfast. We wanted to reach the Refuge Femma and from there we could attempt to get to the peak of Mean Martin, 3330m, Floss’s ultimate goal for the trip. Floss had casually said before we set out that it would be amazing to get there. It’s crucial on a trip that you understand each teammate’s goals. I knew I had the fitness and ability to get there and could support Floss’s ambitions. I also knew that in doing this I could achieve my goals of exploring the backcountry and having an adventure. This was teamwork making the dream work!
The visibility was lifting a little but it wasn’t ideal. Honesty within a team is vital – it’s no good pretending you can do something and finding yourself up on the mountain in a situation, stuck. You can put your own life in danger and even worse put your team in danger. My navigation skills are ok; Floss’s are very good. Both aware of each other’s skill level, we set off South, touring up the steep slope of Cotes De Leisse dessus, stopping regularly to read the map and setting the reciprocal compass bearing in case we needed to back track. We soon reached the Col De Pierre Blanche 2842m. The cloud lifted for a short while and we enjoyed the day’s high point but we were both highly aware that we needed to get to the refuge. It was only 5km away and 380m down. The thick fog set in and we were engulfed, we could only see a couple of metres in any direction. We knew where we were on the map and I listened as Floss explained a plan. She knew there was a river in the valley below; we could ski down to it, avoiding the cliffs beneath us and then it was simple – we could follow it all the way to the refuge. It was a really good learning curve for me. I was so fixed on following the route we had planned which was to traverse along the ridge and drop down to the refuge that I hadn’t considered another route. We carefully made our way down the steep gully and reached the river, which we aptly named, “relief river” for obvious reasons and soon after we reached Femma.
Refuges are wonderful places; simple, functional and warm. There’s no tv, no wifi and no phone signal. The outside world is a million miles away. We drank tea, ate snacks and reflected on the day’s adventure. It had been a really good day.
Both awake before the alarm went off, we were up and out early! The weather was good and we both knew Mean Martin was within our reach. There was fresh snow and no one else in sight. It was day three of our adventure and we had found a rhythm. We silently made our way through the snow, stopping occasionally to take in the absolute beauty of our surroundings and to enjoy some of our remaining snacks!
We reached the summit in under 3.5hrs. It was windy and the weather was closing in once again, we had timed it just right.
The ski down in the fresh powder was exhilarating and brilliant. We were delighted – we had achieved our goals and we were rewarded with this incredible powder descent.
In order to get back to Tignes we had a little more touring to do – we had to head up and over the Col De Fours, make our way to the Manchet Valley which would take us into Val D’Isere and from there make our way back to Tignes on the pistes.
We took our time, stopped and sat in the snow for a while – I wasn’t ready for the adventure to end. It was a privilege to have been touring with Floss. What an amazing trip we’d had and I was now armed with more knowledge, more experience and a huge feeling of excitement about our next adventure.
If you’re interested in joining us on a ski tour adventure then please sign up to my mailing list on the homepage of my website or send me an email squash@squashfalconer.
Click here to read Floss’s blog about the adventure.