Last spring, Ross Hewitt joined forces with a few ski partners to challenge a beautiful trilogy in the Northern Alps: the Brenva Spur, the West Face of Mont Blanc and the East face of the Matterhorn. A ten days adventure related and illustrated by the instigator himself, posted hereinafter in three episodes.
All it took was a three-word text “Brenva is good” to motivate my Italian friend Enrico Mosetti to jump in his car and drive seven hours from the Italian-Slovenian border to Chamonix. It would be the first route of my Alpine Trilogy Project, taking advantage of the short window for skiing big steep mountain lines in late May.
The project was simple, a personal challenge to ski and photograph three of the biggest, baddest and hardest ski lines in the Alps: Switzerland’s iconic Matterhorn, the Himalayan-sized West Face of Mont Blanc, and the historic Brenva Spur on the East Face of Mont Blanc This project would prove to be a challenge enough just to ski, but to carry the extra 2.5kgs of my SLR and take photos of my partners on these steep faces would add another level difficulty that had me second guessing my likely hood of success from the off.
A 3am alarm tore us from our dreams in the Cosmiques refuge. After forcing down as much food and water as possible, Tom (Grant), Enrico and myself headed out into the night to ski down the Vallée Blanche.
It was ink black and the usual summit reference points were cloaked in darkness. My powerful torch light seemed to be absorbed in the dark rather than lighting up my path. Suddenly something unfamiliar started to appear out of the dark. We hung a left to ski parallel to the chaotic jumble of ice blocks that were up to 4m high, now aware that the serac under Col du Diable had dropped.
We continued to ski down the Vallée Blanche parallel to the avalanche, all the time adding distance to our day. Eventually, after nearly a kilometre, 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-sized serac fall had happened in the last few hours.
At Col de la Fourche we met with dawn as the sun peeped over the Eastern skyline. That moment of first light is one of revelation for the ski-mountaineer who’s senses have been deprived in the dark, inducing fear, anxiety, doubt. Now all becomes clear, calm is restored and you feel the low point in your soul disappear. In front of us the Brenva Face revealed all its magical hidden secrets to us in a scale that was difficult to judge.
Crossing Col Moore at 7am we stashed all excess kit to reduce our pack weight before starting up the route. Skins, ski crampons, food and water for the return leg, one rope, shovel and probe. 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 8:30 gave us a leisurely 1.5 hours 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. The largest thermonuclear fission reactor know to man was already demonstrating its power. As the sun’s ray passed horizontal, every snow and ice crystal sparkled, and the temperature was so pleasant we climbed in thin mid-layers. I kept my mind occupied watching the contrast of light and shade on the peaks and troughs of each wave in the sea of clouds.
Soon we joined the iconic curling arête of the Brenva Spur and covered the final few hundred metres to the pyramid rock tower, gatekeeper to the serac exit onto Col de Brenva.
Stamping ledges in the snow we swapped crampons for skis and took in the truly magnificent surroundings. The vast 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, testament to a bygone era of adventurous times.
Boot-deep sun-kissed powder over the glacial ice waited for us on the upper section but how would it ski? You are never quite sure how the ski will react but after the first turn revealed no surprises we skied some cautious turns allowing our sluff to run in front until we had passed a section of really shallow snow over the ice. From this point the angle eased allowing us to open it up more and a dozen turns of sensual skiing took us to the iconic arête. I took a few more pictures before we dropped right onto wide open slopes holding perfect spring snow dropping a couple of hundred metres in five or six swooping turns. As Col Moore came into sight we all skied down together with smiles on our faces.
Words by Ross Hewitt, photos by Ross Hewitt