It was an early start as usual at the Gourmandine restaurant to catch up with Andreas Bjorklund partner and guide of Alpine Experience ready for a morning of ski touring somewhere in the Val d’Isere region.
With the snowpack in its current condition we knew whatever route we chose would be mellow and most likely avoid steep pitches. Andreas decided we would ski the Col Des Fours route which begins in Le Fornet and spits you out underneath the Manchet Express chairlift in the Manchet Valley. Andreas highlighted that with the current conditions route selection both on the ascent and descent would be crucial in order to ensure group safety.
With a plan in mind we headed up to Le Fornet and met up with Sacha, Hanibal and Chippie on the way. Once up the Vallon cable car we did a quick transceiver check and skied off down into the Vanoise national park where our ascent would begin. The initial hike up is relatively straight forward at a fairly shallow gradient.
As this was my first tour this season it was incredibly refreshing to get away from the crowds on piste and take in what is in my opinion some of the most incredible scenery I have ever come across. As we walked up there were plenty of signs of recent avalanche activity across all aspects. The latter part of the ascent gets slightly steeper with Andreas opting to bootpack the final ridge line in order to avoid a potentially dangerous traverse across a loaded south facing aspect. We reached the summit in one hour and twenty minutes which considering we were taking it easy was pretty good timing. At the summit the views of the surrounding national park looking out towards Italy are truly breath-taking!
After a quick water stop at the summit we were all set to head off for the descent. We dropped into the Col Des Fours bowl and traversed across to the main pitch one by one, which to our delight was completely untracked. The pitch is pretty mellow allowing for great wide long turns in what was some brilliant snow! Andreas took the first track and we all subsequently picked our own lines and as always it’s interesting to see great skiers interpreting the terrain in their own unique way.
The second stage of the descent is a little trickier with a few narrow sections and fairly mellow couloirs. As we descended the snow cover did thin out in sections with a few rocks poking their noses out and definitely catching a few of us off guard! In the conditions that we were skiing and with the relatively low snow cover it is important to maintain a slower speed, as obstacles can be only an inch or two below the snow.
One of the things I enjoy about skiing with Alpine Experience is the time that Andreas and all the guides take to stop and explain the current snow conditions and the reasons behind the decision making process that goes into planning a day of off piste skiing. Throughout the morning we stopped to inspect the snow pack, which constantly keeps you clued up on the current conditions which will ultimately dictate route selection not only for that day but for weeks to come.
With the very unique and frankly dangerous conditions we are experiencing at the moment Andreas was keen to highlight the very unstable base layer that we are stuck with. Putting it very simply the snow crystals in the base layer across many aspects have almost zero cohesion. Holding a handful of snow from the base layer is like holding a handful of sand. This is due a high temperature gradient occurring on a thin snowpack. Snow crystals in the base layer have become angular rather than round which dramatically limits their cohesive properties. This unfortunately is an irreversible process. Essentially the only way that the snowpack will now stabilise is through a thaw-freeze, rain or skier compaction. Therefore slopes sat above the freezing level are likely to remain unstable for some time!
Having said all this there is still some great off piste skiing to be done in the region as we proved on Thursday. With the correct knowledge and guidance it is possible to find untouched, relatively safe snow to ski. Skiing with Alpine Experience is always great fun but more importantly it is a highly considered and safe experience. Not only that but every time I ski with Andreas and his team I learn something new about the mountains and how to ski safely!
Alpine Experience are based in Jean Sport on the main road in Val d’Isere opposite the Morris Pub. They are open to take bookings from 16:30 every day and can accommodate anyone from first time tourers or highly advanced skiers. Jean Sport also offer some great off piste touring equipment to hire on your day of skiing. Pop in and book yourself an unforgettable day of skiing!
NB: Off piste skiing and mountaineering are dangerous. The opinions expressed in these articles are very much time and condition specific and the content is not intended in any way to be a substitute for hiring a mountain guide, undergoing professional mountaineering training and/or the individual's own back country decision making.