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The Alpine Trilogy – Ross Hewitt

Skiing the Triple Crown

The Alpine Trilogy Project
Ross Hewitt

The objective was simple – a considerable personal challenge to ski a trilogy of the biggest, baddest faces in the Alps. I rated my chances of success at around 50%

“Brenva is good.” A simple, three-word text, but still it was sufficient catalyst for Enrico Karletto Mosetti to drive seven hours straight from the Italian-Slovenian border to Chamonix. A descent of the Brenva is a coveted run on the remote Italian side of Mont Blanc, first skied by the Tyrolean steep skier Heini Holzer in 1975. It was to be the first route of my Alpine Trilogy Project.

The objective was simple – a considerable personal challenge to ski a trilogy of the biggest, baddest faces in the Alps. A project completely reliant on seizing those special snow conditions that come along once every few years, and only for a handful of days. I rated my chances of success at around 50% with the reality being that I might never achieve this dream in my lifetime. Texting those words to Enrico was the start of something huge for me.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Matterhorn’s first ascent and, to celebrate this, the world’s most iconic peak could not be left out. The Ostwand of the Matterhorn, its east face, is the skier’s line on the mountain, first skied by the legendary Jean Marc Boivin on June 6th, 1980. Mont Blanc also had to feature in this line up and its Himalayan-sized west face was the clear winner. Sylvain Saudan made the first descent of this face on June 25th, 1975. However, a 2,200m run, starting at 4,810m and with no easy way to check conditions, can prove fickle for the ski mountaineer. I’d been trying to ski this face most years since 2009, but so far it had eluded me. Not this time, I promised myself. The Eiger might have been the obvious choice for the final route, but I’d already climbed the Eigerwand and skied the long west face years ago. My attention shifted to something more remote, a run that was completely new to me – the east face of Mont Blanc, home to the elegant Brenva Spur. The face is remote, vast, and with no easy access or exit this year due to the lack of snow below 2,500m. Several days of warm temperatures and heavy rain in early May had removed all the low-lying winter snow and caused a series of avalanches, mudslides and rockfalls. The exit would involve traversing the Brenva Glacier, climbing over Col de La Fourche and skinning 600m back up the Valleé Blanche to the Aiguille du Midi, all in the searing heat of the day. A fitting challenge.

Once Enrico arrived, we spent a morning on Tour Ronde examining and photographing the Brenva Face, checking for any ice and noting the active serac areas. This gave Enrico a chance to acclimatise – his home in the Julian Alps was considerable lower than the Alps. Tom Grant and I had already bivouacked on Col Simond at 3,600m so were well acclimatised and fit for the longer days. Back home I studied the photos, checking once more for any grey areas that indicated underlying ice, and memorising the line to traverse through the upper seracs onto the spur.

The Alpine Trilogy – Ross Hewitt

The Alpine Trilogy – Ross Hewitt

The Brenva Spur

We arrived at the Cosmiques hut with the plan to climb Tacul and Maudit and ski the Brenva Spur on-sight, but news there had been 40cm of snow dampened our enthusiasm. Tour Ronde and the Brenva Face had been in the rain shadow, while the Chamonix side had received a pristine bounty. As the afternoon cloud lifted we studied the voie normale and considered our options. There was a good chance of being forced back in the dark by avalanche risk if we opted for Tacul and Maudit, so we went the long way round, over Col de la Fourche.

We woke just after three in the morning, forced down as much food and water as possible, and headed out into the night to ski the Vallée Blanche. The night was black as ink and the usual summit reference points were cloaked in darkness. Even my powerful head-torch’s beam seemed to be absorbed by the night. Navigation became difficult. Suddenly, something unfamiliar began to form in the darkness – a strange shadow against what little light there was. We broke left to ski parallel to a chaos of huge ice blocks as much as four metres high. The seracs under Col du Diable had fallen. We continued to ski down the Vallée Blanche beside the avalanche, all the while adding yet more distance to our day. Eventually, after a considerable detour, we were able to ski round the toe of the debris and start back towards Cirque Maudit. Our friends had passed this way the previous afternoon while traversing from Torino to Cosmiques, so we knew this biblical serac fall must have happened in the last few hours. It was an ominous portent for the Trilogy.

At Col de la Fourche we met with dawn as the sun peered over the eastern skyline. That moment of first light is a revelation for the mountaineer whose senses have been deprived in the dark. Fear, anxiety and doubt evaporate as all becomes clear, calm is restored and the low point in the soul disappears. In front of us the Brenva face revealed its magical hidden secrets.

After crossing Col Moore at just before seven that morning, we stashed excess kit in the snow to reduce pack weight before starting up the route. We left behind our skins, ski crampons, ropes, shovels, probes, and extra food and water for the return leg. We would travel through survivable avalanche territory on the way back, but on the route itself only a transceiver was needed for body retrieval by the rescue services. Having estimated the snow would be soft enough to ski by half past eight, that gave us a leisurely hour and a half to bootpack 700m. The air was still and a blanket of cloud was drawn over the landscape below, keeping Italy snug. Most people would still be curled up in bed enjoying a lazy Sunday morning. Snow and ice crystals glimmered, and the temperature was pleasant enough to climb the iconic curling arête of the Brenva Spur in thin mid-layers. We quickly covered the final few hundred metres to the pyramid rock tower, gatekeeper to the serac exit onto Col de Brenva.

After stamping ledges in the snow, we swapped crampons for skis and took in the magnificent surroundings. The endless east face of Mont Blanc lay to our right, a crazy mix of couloirs, buttresses and tumbling seracs that held historic alpine climbs such as Route Major. Sun-warmed powder waited for us on the upper section but, as I gazed on it, I wondered how it would ski. We skied some cautious turns initially, allowing our sluff to run in front until we had passed a section of shallow snow over the ice. Then the angle eased, allowing us to open it up more and a dozen turns of almost sensual skiing took us to the narrow arête. We dropped onto wide-open slopes holding perfect spring snow, descending a couple of hundred metres in five or six swooping turns. Smiles all round.

Now, however, we had to cross back over the Brenva glacier and Col de La Fourche before the final 600m skin back up the Vallée Blanche to the Midi. We were all hit by a sudden slump in energy as we skinned back towards the Fourche, the adrenaline of the descent fading, replaced now by heavy fatigue. The fun was over and it was time to push hard for the last three hours and escape the searing alpine sun.

That moment of first light is a revelation for the mountaineer whose senses have been deprived in the dark. Fear, anxiety and doubt evaporate as all becomes clear, calm is restored and the low point in the soul disappears.
The Alpine Trilogy – Ross Hewitt

The Matterhorn East Face

The Alpine Trilogy – Ross Hewitt

The West Face

Safely back at elevation in town, we came across Guilhem Martin Saint Leon who had been on a solo mission to Col Diable’s north side. When I mentioned the west face of Mont Blanc he showed me a recent picture of snow on the Saudan line and we too discussed the swell of serious weather dominating everyone’s conversations. Others around us were keen to go in the next window, but that unsettled weather in Cham had reduced all windows to 12 hours. Throughout Monday everyone monitored the reports continuously, trying to anticipate how this complex weather system might play out. Wednesday appeared to be the best – and possibly only – opportunity to go, and then it was hardly ideal accompanied by a strong, frigid north wind. Yet later in the week it would only intensify and swing to the west. Tuesday dawned cloudy despite a good forecast, but the Cosmiques hut reported 10cm on Col Simond and that Tacul and Maudit were passable.

When I woke, excitement burned inside me as I looked out of the window to see the stars glistening in the night sky. We each went through our final preparations in silence, eating and drinking as much as possible before making our way out into the frozen, predawn air.

I took the last lift up that evening to the Aiguille du Midi in order to join the others at the Cosmiques refuge, my pack laden with five litres of water. The weather had not broken all day with heavy cloud coming and going, and I slid forward onto the arête only to be enveloped in thick fog. There was over 30cm of new snow on the arête, too much for our west face plan. It felt more like winter than spring. I stood patiently, waiting for it to clear, but soon grew cold and resigned myself to waking down the arête. Where it levelled I skied down the south face, hugging the buttress and using the Midi as a handrail. There was only 10cm of new snow here so, if the sky cleared as promised, we were back in the game! Like a sign to us, just before we retired to bed the cloud dropped and we were treated to a majestic sunset above the inversion. It also enabled us to check the Tacul for any large accumulations. We enjoyed its warm glow, then turned in early to get some sleep before what we knew would be a very long day.

When I woke, excitement burned inside me as I looked out of the window to see the stars glistening in the night sky. We each went through our final preparations in silence, eating and drinking as much as possible before making our way out into the frozen, predawn air. For the next few hours we just needed to keep to time, eating and drinking on the move and avoiding unnecessary stops. As we skinned up Tacul the temperature continued to plummet and the frigid wind increased in strength. The whole place felt thoroughly hostile.

On Col Maudit the wind was driving snow and we stopped to put on all our clothes, suffering in silence, trying to keep the extremities from freezing. The cold was in my core making me pee a lot and lose fluids. We were all cold and there was nothing to say or do except keep going. By now my skins were falling off regularly and we weren’t setting any records between stops to rewarm fingers and toes and to reseat skins. After climbing the Col du Mont Maudit in boot-deep snow we kept walking as the wind had scoured the slopes to Mont Blanc.

On the summit it was a relief to drop down the Italian side a few metres and get out of that north wind. Below us the west face fell out of sight in vast, featureless snow slopes. It would be easy to head off on the wrong line here and we knew there was only one skiable line in condition. Normally I’d strip off some layers to ski, but I was so cold now that I only swapped mitts for gloves – just to be able to handle my camera better.

I put in the first turn on the relatively flat upper slopes. As the skis punched through the light crust the edges started to bite and squirm. Beneath the crust, and above the glacial ice, was a thin layer of sugar that meant we were unable to read where the ice lay. It made for tense skiing. I watched as the others tested the snow below them with their poles, traversing back and forth and finding a safe passage through this zone. These are ‘fall-and-die’ lines and there is virtually no margin for error. The tension tightened in my chest and I forced myself to stay calm, breathe deeply, and make each turn count.

After 100m we were through that potentially lethal section and onto good snow alongside a buttress. Below it we skied a long, enjoyable pitch on what must be the highest spine in Europe. We were all working hard – race-pace hard, where you smell the blood in your nose – trying to keep to time, knowing that was the only way to negotiate safe passage through the glaciers below. A short traverse took us into the south-facing Saudan line, a 50-degree couloir that fell away below us for over a thousand metres. Now the exposure had eased, we could relax a little. We enjoyed good, consistent snow all the way down to the lower apron.

We had by now recovered from the cold and took some time to strip off shells and down jackets in preparation for the coming descent. The hanging seracs left of the Benedetti line were very active and, as our route through the lower slabs was right beneath this shooting gallery, we picked up the pace to exit the face over the final bergschrund. I needed to ski swiftly to limit the exposure time, but serac debris slowed us all right down. This old game of Russian Roulette beneath seracs tightened the tension across my chest again. Finally we cleared the face and relaxed.

On paper the principal technical difficulties were over, but we still expected some combat in order to make it down to the Miage. Glacial recession has made it difficult to negotiate the Mont Blanc Glacier to the Miage Glacier so our chosen escape route was to skin to the shoulder above the Quintino Sella hut and then ski the west-facing couloir down to the Dome Glacier. Our timing was perfect and the couloir skied so well we covered the distance quickly. The Dome Glacier had been a big question in our minds but after roping up it only took a few minutes to cross and the weight of uncertainty was lifted. A few hours of effort would get us to the road.

On the final walk we were spread out, allowing us to reflect on the day and think about some of the moments we hadn’t had time to digest properly in the heat of the action. Without doubt, it had been one of the most intense days I’d spent in the mountains – incredible situations and high-quality skiing. After being in the world of snow, ice and rock all day long, the lush green alpage near Chalet Miage appeared particularly vivid and beautiful.


The Matterhorn East Face

The Matterhorn

We had to ski the Matterhorn the hard way. A closed hut meant camping and carrying all the equipment that entails. It meant a longer day too – the campsite is 350m lower than the hut – and we would have to get through the lower rock band to the hanging glacier in the dark. It had been 10 years since I skied in Zermatt and that rock band didn’t feature in any of my reconnaissance photos of the east face, or on the map. The upper face remained covered in cloud, preventing us from choosing our line. Access to the lower face might even require some mixed climbing. It was definitely going to be an adventure.

I went to bed early, aiming to wake at two o’clock, but sleep was intermittent. When I finally poked my head out of the tent, there was the Matterhorn lit up like a stadium under the pale glow of the full moon. Even in my sleep-deprived state, it inspired me.

The tip of the Matterhorn was the first thing to be hit by the warm haze of the rising sun – a blood-streaked blade shearing the indigo sky. The freeze was superficial and in places we punched through the crust up to our thighs. We raced the sun up the large median slope, then followed the central couloir though a maze of bends, finally arriving at an ice bulge. It was already hot and the timing for the snow was perfect – with the weak freeze lower down we needed to get off the face. On the way up, there had been a steadily increasing cascade of small rocks and balls of ice zinging at us and, inwardly, I was afraid of being hit by something bigger.

Hard ice under the snow forced us to chop ledges with our axes to enable a smooth transition to skis. These transitions are somewhat like those in a triathlon – switching from the bike to the run often leaves you uncoordinated, with jelly legs. The feeling soon dissipates as the body adapts to the new stimulus. Here on the Matterhorn, our legs were in climbing mode, muscles and nerves coordinated to propel us uphill as fast as possible in an almost short-stab, metronomic rhythm. Now we required power-based plyometric muscle action to make each jump turn, guided by subconscious micro-adjustments to land the ski perpendicular to the fall line with a gradual increase in pressure to make the edges bite. Every fibre in the body would be working overtime to keep us from crashing out.

I watched Mikko leave the sanctuary of his ledge and, with axe and pole in one hand, commit without hesitation. When my turn came, I was excited yet nervous. I needed to loosen my muscles and focus on skiing, and I was going to be turning to my weaker side. Skiing second here, I had to avoid where Mikko had skimmed the softening snow and find my own edge-able spots. After side-slipping a few metres to get the feel of the skis on my feet, I was ready for that critical first turn. Time to commit.

As we shed height behind us, and the angle eased to the 50-degree range, the snow softened further and the turns become more sensual and rounded. Once we entered the central snowfield, the angle was almost friendly and we had fun, skiing fluidly and playing with the sluff down to the lower rocks. The angle increased here once again, and it took some time to find our boot pack to lead us through the lower slabs. Below, the lower crux traverse led through a peppered, icy zone to take us to the bergschrund. Even that was magical.

But all too soon it was over and what remained was to get well clear of the face, which would soon start shedding thousands of tonnes of snow in the summer heat. We made one short rappel through the lower rock band and then skied back to our camp.

Amazingly, we had completed the Alpine Trilogy in merely 10 days, skiing the Triple Crown of alpine steep skiing routes. I gained an enormous sense of satisfaction from the skiing, the challenging work in remote areas and the overall performance we had put in. As we packed up the tent, the blistering summer sun began to strip the rock slabs of their snow and I knew they would be my last turns of the season. And probably some of the best of my life.

Photography by Ross Hewitt except for the fifth and final photos taken by Guilhem Martin Saint Leon

Ross grew up in the North East of Scotland and started skiing at the age of 7. Since then his skiing has morphed somewhat from resort skiing and slalom racing into ski mountaineering where an impressive list of achievements sees Ross at the forefront of the steep skiing today. Ross’s passion has him regularly exploring the big mountain ski lines in and around his home of Chamonix, France as well as adventuring the world most interesting mountain ranges around the world.

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Twitter: @ross_hewitt74