It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we move from one season into the next. Often too quickly, without enough time to reflect on what has been and gone. Now that we are engrossed in one of the hottest and driest alpine summers that I have ever known, I thought I’d take a moment to look back on one of my most memorable days of the winter.
“STOP!!” I shouted as we drove along the side of the Fjord. James braked sharply wondering what all the fuss was about. As he looked up, he could see what we were all looking at. Directly in front of us was a distinctive couloir dropping right from the jagged ridgeline high above, straight into the Fjord, over 1000m below. Other cars passed, wondering what we had stopped to take photos of. Unfortunately this discovery was made on our journey back to the airport in 2013. The descent was going to have to be left for another day.
Two years on and we were once again inside the Arctic Circle, on the Lyngen Peninsula. Faced with a relatively bleak, but calm, forecast it wasn’t a day for skiing wide open faces or venturing on to the glacier, due to the poor visibility. Perhaps this was ideal for a line with two huge towering walls on the either side, where navigation wasn’t going to be a problem. The impending walls would hopefully give some definition to the snow in the couloir. A plan was then hatched to go and ski the line that we had spotted a few years ago.
We knew navigation wasn’t to be a problem once we were in the couloir. However getting to the bottom of the couloir was another story. There were two things that would have made the journey to the bottom of the couloir easier; a boat or local knowledge. We had neither! The approach to the couloir involves either a short hop across the water, or a rather long walk along the edge of the Fjord. With no sign of a boat we opted for the walk …
After three hours of up, down, around, over, through, and across, boulders of all sizes and a forest of all thicknesses, we eventually found ourselves nearing the bottom of the couloir. There were times when I was questioning if this was going to be worth it? What kept me going was that unless I went forward, I wouldn’t have the answer. At 1pm we still hadn’t stood on snow. If this were the Alps we’d be having a beer on the terrace. On-sighting this walk was nothing short of horrendous. Obviously on reflection it never seems that bad.
Things didn’t get much easier once in the couloir. The half hour of skinning gave slight relief. It was fantastic to feel no weight on our backs for a brief period. This was short lived. As it was soon too steep to skin, our skis were on our packs again. At least this time our ski boots were on our feet.
Due to the cloud we couldn’t see the top of the couloir, which was probably a good thing. The information we had on the length of the couloir turned out to be inaccurate as we were still breaking trail three hours later, having done considerable more height gain than we had planned for. I suppose that was good thing from the descent point of view!
Just like on the walk in, there were times when I was contemplating whether this would be worth it. You’ll have guessed by now that the snow must have been good, or otherwise I’m pretty sure I would have bailed.
It was cold now. We needed to take turns trail braking to stay warm. We needed to take breaks to let our heart rate return to something nearer normal. Small tick off features proved highly motivating, focusing on the next rock, not the top. Through counting steps I could find my own rhythm that allowed for steady upwards progress though the deep snow.
It was early evening when we reached the top. It was cold on the col, with a harsh wind blowing that made things slightly unpleasant. A brief break in the cloud allowed us a glimpse of the Fjord below, and an indication of the length of the ski that was yet to come.
Following a quick transition, we were carefully putting our first turns in. It called for accurate skiing, watching out for the few icy patches that we had spotted on the way up, in amongst the good cold snow. We quickly found our downhill rhythm; leap frogging our way passed each other to give us each the space to enjoy our turns. Due care and attention had to be given to each turn but there were still a few moments were I reminded myself to look up and take in the beauty of being able to ski such a defined channel straight to the sea.
As the slope eased we were able to appreciate the view of the Fjord much more, although it was still a long way below. Our skiing began to flow as we relaxed, comfortable and content in our surroundings. Even with plenty more turns still to be had, it was all over too soon. All too quickly we found ourselves back beside our trainers which we had left on the boulder were the snow ran out.
Was the five hours walking (with some prior knowledge the walk out was reduced to a mere two hours of boulder hopping and tree bashing.), half hour of skinning and three hours of boot packing really worth it for a descent that was over all too quickly?
You’ll need to go to find out.
Alison operates Off Piste Performance, based in the Chamonix Valley, where she has been teaching and skiing for over 10 years. She delivers Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to the British Mountain Guides and works as a trainer on the BASI Mountain Safety Courses tutoring aspiring instructors.