A First descent in Chamonix

The crows Johanna Stålnacke and Tom Grant teamed with skier Ben Briggs and snowboarder Luca Pandolfi to open a new descent in the Mont-Blanc massif, the SW face of aiguille du Tricot. Johanna guides us through this beautiful airy adventure achieved in a wild part of the massif.

“Skiing a first in Chamonix”, I still need to taste the words… The realization of the SW face of Aiguille Tricot was one of the most exciting ski adventures I´ve had in the legendary Mont Blanc Massif.

Surrounded by so many excellent skiers, climbers, alpinists and history, I had not thought so much about the possibilities of exploring virgin ski lines, a descent that had not already been skied. After all, there are already a great deal of wild descents realized in Chamonix.

Being privileged to experience my own journey as a free skier and alpinist, evolving and growing on this legendary ground called the Mont Blanc Massif, exploring and savouring every adventure, I had been happy to follow in the footprints of my mentors and many legendary skiers that had opened up impressive descents long before I was born.

aiguille du tricot - o'sullivan direct 5.3 e4 900M Firts descent 18/03/2016

aiguille du tricot – o’sullivan direct 5.3 e4 900M
Firts descent 18/03/2016

Then I teamed up with Tom Grant, Ben Briggs and Luca Pandolfi. In company of these three musketeers of steep skiing, it was introduced to me the idea of actually trying skiing something ground-breaking in the Chamonix mountains.

Our objective was a descent that Ben had spotted years ago, an unskied line down the south west face of Aiguille du Tricot, 3665m, the neighbor mountain of the majestic Aiguille de Bionnassay, on a wild and quiet corner of the massif.

My realms of possibility were about to be expanded. Was there a dash of madness involved in such an endeavor or what had Ben actually seen?

What a desire. My entire being wanted to be apart of the adventure of such an exquisite opportunity to go out and explore in the unknown. The thought made my heart beat faster.

The thought of such an exquisite opportunity to go out and explore in the unknown made my heart beat faster.

The thought of such an exquisite opportunity to go out and explore in the unknown made my heart beat faster.
skis: ova freebird

In summer 2012 I had realized one of my first longer alpine climbs in the massif, the mythical Aiguille du Bionnassay traverse over the knife blade snow ridge leading from the top of Bionnassay 4057m over to Dôme du Gouter 4375m. I remember admiring the spectacular scenery from the Plan Glacier hut under Bionnassay. There had been mountain goats paying a visit outside the hut and the guardien was a cool woman namned Isabelle who offered us home made Genepi liqueur when we arrived. She said that people sometimes came to ski here in the spring. That made a strong impression on me.

As Ben, Tom, Luca and myself approached the Plan Glacier hut this time, it was winter and the setting would be a quite different one. After 1600 vertical meters of climbing on skins, we arrived at the Plan Glacier as the sun was about to set. But to our big surprise, the hut was no where to be found.

Aiguille Tricot and the Plan Glacier hut that normally would be seen left under the cliffs, at the end of the snow ridge. Imagine our surprise to arrive and discover that the hut was gone.

Aiguille Tricot and the Plan Glacier hut that normally would be seen left under the cliffs, at the end of the snow ridge. Imagine our surprise to arrive and discover that the hut was gone.

Welcome to the Plan Glacier Hut! Deeply hidden under snow we dug a hole into its covered terrasse.

Welcome to the Plan Glacier Hut! Deeply hidden under snow we dug a hole into its covered terrasse.

Covered in avalanche debris, the only trace of the Plan Glacier hut was a part of a solar panel sticking out under some rocks. The hut was buried. Holy Shit. We were tired and it would soon be dark. Now having to dig for hours? This was not what we had expected.

While probing for the hut, several thoughts passed my mind. Being back on this ground again, almost 4 years since last time, made me think about life and how much these mountains have shaped me and transformed my visions. As the sun set, I got caught in a spiritual moment of contemplation. But before I got time to get cheesy-nostalgic about it all, Ben´s voice electrified my bubble: They had probed the roof of the hut! Time to dig….

At 8pm, the four of us sat comfortably inside the Plan Glacier hut having dinner and listening to Lucas italian anekdotes until it was about time to sleep. The luxury of having an entire hut on 4, is that it is perfectly ok to upholster oneself in at least 4 blankets each.

The boys climbing up the SW face of Aiguille du Tricot in the early morning light.

The boys climbing up the SW face of Aiguille du Tricot in the early morning light.

Beeeeep! The alarm rang at 4.30. The starry night lighted up the mountains. I had bad batteries in my head torch. Skiing down the icy slopes to the glacier in poor light was probably the most scary thing I did that morning.

The Aiguille Tricot face is pretty impressive. Ben had skied another beautiful line some years ago down its E face, but the SW face was undoubtedly another ball of game. We looked up from below, trying to anticipate a way up between the rocks and small cliffs.

Ben soaking the exposure during our climb up the SW face

Ben soaking the exposure during our climb up the SW face

It was a grateful task to climb the face in the morning with 2 ice axes and enough snow and ice to solo a steep gully in the start. We contemplated different possibilities of what way to choose. Eventually some evil facets under an icy crust upon a thin snow pack made our choice of route easy. We climbed up to the W shoulder some 50 m under the Tricot summit, and continued to the top over a rocky section. Perhaps the very top could be skiable with a thicker snow pack.

I love approaching a mountain, the closer you get to it, the perspectives change. It´s almost like you mature with the mission, gradually absorbing the impression of what lies ahead.

Tom and myself on the last scramble up to the Tricot summit. A top section of about 50m verticals we couldn´t ski.

Tom and myself on the last scramble up to the Tricot summit. A top section of about 50m verticals we couldn´t ski.

Ben was surely in his element, reaching the summit well before the rest of us. While Tom, Luca and myself relaxed in the sun and had lunch under the summit, he soloed his way up on some mixed sections. After all, we would have to wait for the snow pack under us to transform into softer snow. Skiing down on the icy morning crust was beyond question.

Timing a ski descent is as crucial as it can be difficult, especially when the descent covers various terrain in a high alpine environment. You want the snow to be soft enough, but not too warm that it can sluff you off in a wet slab. Such conditions are as dangerous as ice. We had to wait for hours before skiing down and eventually Tom and myself also took the last climb to the top.

The view of Aiguille du Bionnassay, Dômes de Miage and Aiguilles de Trélatète were simply stunning, weather was perfect and the wind gods enjoyed a pleasent siesta.

Tom enjoying the views of Dômes de Miage and the Aiguilles Tré-la-tête from the summit, 3665m.

Tom enjoying the views of Dômes de Miage and the Aiguilles Tré-la-tête from the summit, 3665m.

After scrambling down from the summit, it was about 2 o´clock and we decided it was time to go in ski mode. The feeling of placing the first turns is always interesting, a first encounter with the snow pack on my edges.

Oh, it felt nice. Like flying!

The upper part of the face. The feeling of a good snow arouses a playful desire to make big turns on a big face.

The upper part of the face. The feeling of a good snow arouses a playful desire to make big turns on a big face.
skis: ova freebird

Navigating through the steeps was a delightful experience, the snow was good, at least for skiing. Luca made an impressive work on his snow board. The technique of riding steeps on a board with all weight on only one edge at the time, surely seems quite challenging – especially when there is firm crust under the soft!

The team manifested some stylish turns and found a creative way down the rocky sections. The exposure gave an extra flavour to the descent in such a beautiful scenery.

Ben Briggs in action. He had spotted an unskied line on Aiguille du Tricot years ago and we were happy to join him on this magical descent!

Ben Briggs in action. He had spotted an unskied line on Aiguille du Tricot years ago and we were happy to join him on this magical descent!

There is a special sensation of being so dedicated to the mountain and inhaling nothing but prescence. When every turn is important, and every shift of snow and angle, we dive into the moment and feel close to our skills.

That is perhaps one of the reasons why people love skiing in the big mountains, extending themselves to a flow of riding and being one with every action. It is a form of mastery and maybe as close to a personal religion as you can get.

Our descent was namned O´Sullivan Direct, after a dear friend of the guys, Brendan O´Sullivan who I never had the chance to meet. For anyone interested in objectification of grades and such subjective matters, it´s estimated 5.3/E4/900m.

Thank you Ben, Tom and Luca
for sharing your company and the experience of skiing into the unknown.
I am grateful.

Texte : Johanna Stålnacke
Photos: Johanna Stålnacke for the pics where she doesn’t appear & Ben-Tom-Lucas for the pics where she does.

For further reading, check out:
Penteraide.com online magazine
Montagnes Magazine
Ben Briggs website
Tom Grant website
Luca Pandolfi website
Here are a few more pics:

Luca Pandolfi getting closer to the exit of the face.

Luca Pandolfi getting closer to the exit of the face.

Tom Grant enjoying spring snow as he approaches the lower part of the face.

Tom Grant enjoying spring snow as he approaches the lower part of the face.

We made one 10-15 m rappell over some rocks at the exit of the face, then a last fun little couloir brought us back on the glacier basin under the Miage North face.

We made one 10-15 m rappell over some rocks at the exit of the face, then a last fun little couloir brought us back on the glacier basin under the Miage North face.