On The Shoulders Of Giants
Ski Touring The Argentiere Glacier
Charley Radcliffe // Photography by Alex Buisse
Charley Radcliffe and photographer Alex Buisse head to the Argentiere Glacier high above the Chamonix Valley to discover what adventures and opportunities lie beyond the groomed pistes.
I can’t work out what has taken my breath away most: the exertion of skinning up the glacier at over 3,000m above sea level; the massive north faces of the Aiguilles Verte, Droites, and Courtes; or the fact that I am finally here, where I have dreamed about being since moving to Chamonix in 2014.
High on the Argentiere Glacier, above the town with the same name, and not far from the world-famous Grands Montets ski resort, the feeling of wilderness, exposure, and peace is like nothing I have felt before.
Access All Areas
The Chamonix Valley often feels like two worlds in winter, separated by a very thin line. You have the pisted resorts on one side – families hurtling around, mountain refuges and cafes at regular intervals, and the security of knowing it is managed by highly experienced professionals. On the other side, crossing a thin cord with a yellow and black signpost warning ‘Danger – off piste’, you have a world of limitless possibilities following in the footsteps of some of the greatest skiers and alpinists that have ever lived.
As we emerge from the gondola we see the Grands Montets Ridge ahead of us, drawing the eye up to the summit of the Aiguille Verte next to the imposing north face of Les Drus. Both areas are high on any aspiring alpinist’s list of dream climbs. The immensity we find ourselves face to face with, immediately as we step out of the gondola, is what makes Chamonix such an incredible place to explore. Lifts take you from a lowly 1,000m in the valley to well over 3,000m – and it is this accessibility that attracts people all year round.
The amount of terrain you can cover by ski creates opportunities that I never thought possible. But here I am, clipping into my skis, about to quest up onto the Argentiere Glacier, to explore a popular yet remote and adventurous itinerary of the Col du Tour Noir – a snowy saddle that rises up and bridges the Aiguille d’Argentiere and Aiguille de l’A Neuve, forming part of the natural border between France and Switzerland.
A short way down from the gondola and we are leaving the safety of the mountain resort, passing under the rope and by the warning signs, and out on the glacier below where gaping crevasses and hidden snow bridges welcome us into their wild world.
We see the Grands Montets Ridge ahead of us, drawing the eye up to the summit of the Aiguille Verte next to the imposing north face of Les Drus. Both areas are high on any aspiring alpinist’s list of dream climbs.
The Shadows of Giants
Descending onto the Glacier d’Argentiere, I find myself looking to the perfect pyramid of Mont Dolent at the head of the glacier, nearly 9km away. The summit is the intersection of the French, Swiss, and Italian borders – an inspiring objective that I put to the back of my mind. Not one for today but some day, certainly.
Having dropped down to nearly 2,800m, we now have to skin up approximately 750m to reach the Col du Tour Noir. Most of the climbing, however, is just below the col, giving us a good hour of gentle incline leading up to the beginning of the difficulties.
We strap on our skins and flip our ski boots into touring mode, giving us a more comfortable fit and the ability to flex at the ankle, and we’re off. With the winter sun barely able to crest the giants surrounding the glacier, it isn’t long before we are in the cold shadows of the mountains. Only the exertion keeps us warm.
The Aiguille Verte is the only peak visible from town. To see these mountains you have to get in amongst them, and it was only a few summers ago, when I climbed the north face of the Aiguille de Chardonnet, that I saw the massive peaks towering above me for the first time. The chain of the Courtes, Droites, and Verte – topping out at 3,856m, 4,000m, and 4,122m respectively – is an impressive sight. Their north faces are all over 1,000m high, with dozens of steep and technical routes: ice gullies splitting rock, towers of rich red granite thrusting out of the glacier below, and steep snow couloirs that, unfathomably, people ski.
I have long dreamed of climbing these iconic lines but it is only now that I truly understand what will be involved. As we make our way up the glacier, under the watchful eye of the mountain giant, I start to absorb what will be required of me and what I will need to do to prepare for them. Then I breathe a sigh of relief that it isn’t today. But some day, soon.
On the shoulders of giants
Today is about exploring an unknown world, accessed from my back doorstep. The freedom to access these magical and inspiring places is made possible by those who have gone before me. For hundreds of years, mountain guides and keen amateurs alike have opened up these trails, routes, and mountains, enabling the likes of me to enjoy them and learn from their experiences – something for which I am very grateful.
As we reach the foot of the col, the slopes steepen and our breathing gets deeper. We have caught up with a few teams that had set out before us, and now we settle in behind them, following at their pace. The glacier starts to break up and we’re weaving between crevasses, gaping wide from the warm temperatures in the summer, then we drive on up beside the icefalls of the Glacier des Amethystes.
As we climb metre by metre, the thinner air makes every stride a challenge but is tempered by the stunning environment around us and the knowledge that we get to ski every metre back down. Before I know it we have reached the end of our climb and sit back on a red granite bolder, warmed by the winter sun. And now, after all that hard work, after all the sweat and heavy breathing, there is the encore. As if we have not had enough today, we get the bonus of skiing from the heart of the big mountains at 3,500m all the way back to town, to a beer, and a feast waiting for us. I can’t wait.
We grab a drink of water, a bite to eat, and strip the skins off our skis, ready for the long descent back home. What took us hours to climb takes minutes to descend. The beauty of winter ski touring and ski mountaineering is summed up in the wind beating against my face as we race down the mountain.
A sport that is new to me is already becoming something I focus on more and more. As I gain strength, skill, and experience, these mountains that dazzle and amaze me will become realistic and achievable goals. For now, I am just enjoying these small steps out into the wonderful world of the Mont Blanc Massif in winter.
What took us hours to climb takes minutes to descend. The beauty of winter ski touring and ski mountaineering is summed up in the wind beating against my face as we race down the mountain.
Charley Radcliffe is a climber, skier, and personal trainer based in Chamonix, France, following a new path from his previous city life in London. Late to the outdoors, he is making up for lost time, exploring his love of climbing rock of all kinds, frozen waterfalls, and steep alpine north faces.
Alex Buisse walks the walk when it comes to the capturing adventure and lifestyle imagery. He lives, breathes and takes active part in the variety of assignments and personal projects he undertakes. His expedition photography has led him around the world and the mountains are where Alex is most comfortable, and where he thrives as both an image maker and an alpinist.
Produced in partnership with Salomon.