The last couple of days it had snowed so much on the Italian side of Mont-Blanc that I couldn’t find where I had parked my car in Entrêves. According to my friend Pete it was the perfect moment for a photo shoot on the Toula glacier, one of the Alps’ best places for free riding. Pete is a rider for Grace Skis’ team, and a mountain guide by profession. I had an early ‘rendez-vous’ with another friend, Richard, at Luisa’s bar for some espresso shots. We are going to ride on glaciers and in very steep corridors on the south face, one of the best places to see huge avalanches. It means that when the sun has reheated this slope it could become a real deathtrap. If you are a beginner, or just less adrenaline prone and prefer sunbathing on the terraces, Toula is not for you. Instead, just drive a few kilometers further to enjoy the dolce vita of Courmayeur resort.
So first of all, security check: rope, harness, Karabiners, sling, ice screw, shovel, probe, avalanche transceiver (ARVA) and airbag rucksack. The first four pieces are for if you fall into a crevasse. If you are still conscious you can secure yourself using an ice screw in case the snow bridge which stopped you breaks. Toula glacier is a labyrinth of crevasses dozens of meters deep. Winter snows plug the holes, but these are fragile and could still break under your weight! So never remove your skis on a glacier, keep a big security distance between the riders and if in doubt, use your rope!
In the steep corridors there are no crevasses apart from the deep rimaye at the bottom. But when you ski a 50 degree corridor, your first turn can transform it into an avalanche of several tons of snow. If you are fast enough, you can escape on your skis. If not, you have two solutions. Either you have enough time to pull the red handle and inflate your airbag rucksack. This will allow you to stay on the surface of the avalanche. But you will travel very fast and will have to pray not to be pushed on a steep rock bar.
If not, you will be buried under the snow and your friends have just twenty minutes to find you before you suffocate. That’s why you must ski one at a time in the corridors. They switch their transceiver to search mode, and try to localize the signal sent through the snow by yours. When they find your approximate location, they search for your exact position using the probe. As soon as they find you, they start to dig with the shovel. Using only their hands takes too long given your life expectancy under the snow is only 20 minutes…
The cable car takes us from 1325m to 3465m, and a descent of more than 2000 meters on this steep face.
Today’s menu: Warm-up in the Toula Glacier (35°), for super-fast turns on the glacier snow bridges. Then really steep in the Canale del Tedesco (45°), falling is forbidden. And Canale de la Passerella (45°), very steep, narrow and rock bars!
No avalanches today. Just powder, nice pictures and a pizza to finish the day.
JC Van Waes