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A Matter of Degrees

We are in late January when an old dream comes to my mind, simple, pure and full of adventures: travel around the Dolomites in search of the most iconic couloirs and ski them from the top down to the valley.

I have been dreaming of climbing and skiing these legendary big brown walls of the northern part of Italy for many years. This project has always been crystal clear for me: find a van, convince my friends to join me on this journey, grab a camera to immortalize those moments and go exploring this couloirs’ paradise. To be honest, it was a double dream: to live the winter road trip life in a van and doing it in the Dolomites. But seriously, who could resist to the idea of putting your skins on right next to the van, skitouring, bootpacking a 600 meters long couloir and ride it with friends in perfect conditions… Nobody.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get the project off the ground these past years because of my studies. But this year, everything changed…

An unfeasible Dream

During winter 18/19 I’ve met Julien, a professional outdoor photographer and cameraman who became a friend as we spent hours and hours together in the mountains. We had a common vision of the mountain and he was always opened to tricky adventures. So, when this trip came to my mind, I directly thought about Julien to join me. “Are you in for a road trip in the Dolomites to ski some couloirs and make some images?”, “Let’s find a date”. After a few emails, topos-guides readings and terrain scoping we were ready to explore these transalpine couloirs.

The 7th of April after having crossed France, Switzerland and Austria we arrive in the Badia region, Italy, in the middle of the night, just at the foot of our first couloir. After a short night, hearing what every skier fears, I open the door and see the rain pouring; ruining this wonderful white blanket. The first “cloud on the horizon” appears. The all trip is called into question and we must double check the weather and decide if staying in the area is worth it or not. Spending our first day checking the weather instead of skiing was not really what I was expecting for. However, we have to admit it, the all week will be cloudy, warm and rainy, according to the forecasts. Thus, it is impossible to ski the lines, for evident security reasons, and even more to shoot a single image.

A new game starts now: find a single mountain all across Europe on which the clouds are not holding. The decision is made, we will move to the Piedmont. It seems that a part of my dream will remain unreachable for some time.

Sometimes Plan B is even better…

We are back on the road, crossing the northern part of Italy, and entering into this valley I heard so much about but never went to, Bardonecchia. It is located just on the other side of the French border, at the exit of the Frejus Tunnel.

The season has been tough in this part of Italy this year with very little snow and for this reason the resorts are already closed. A ghost town atmosphere looms over the city while we arrive in the afternoon but the white peaks and the sunset waiting for us at the pass just above let us regain confidence in our decision.

This time the awakening is much more promising: a red bright light caresses the summits as the sun is rising and a multitude of lines are visible already from the van.

We jump in our ski pants, put the skins on the skis and start skitouring towards “Spaccacorna Canale”. The landscape is typical from this Italian region, the path winds through pine forest and leads us to the feet of a big brown/yellow mountain: “Guglia di Mezzodi” or “Rochers de Barrabas” in French.

The counterpart of skiing in Italy is that it is much more difficult to find information about the spots. So, after dealing with the maps and struggling with the steep terrain we end up by bootpacking a couloir, following a ridge and reach the summit. “We will finally be able to ski our first Piemontese couloir” Julien tells me; and he is right; finally! And the waiting was worth it: the entrance of the couloir is marked by two big yellow towers, that contrast a lot with the white snow; and then the line dives into a big crack in between brown walls. After a few big turns and the images shot with the camera, we go back to the van. This first day is a good omen for the upcoming ones.

…sometimes not

The day after we planned to ski a very aesthetic face finishing into a couloir. After 2 hours of skitouring Julien says out loud what we were both thinking quietly “the weather forecast was right, it is super hot, even here at 1.800 meters”; but we didn’t expect to experience the consequence of the heat that fast. Arrived at the foot of the couloir we decide that it is not safe enough to bootpack the all face and ski it down, but we choose to give the couloir part a try. However, mother nature did not agree. Effectively while preparing ourselves, nestling against a cliff, a snow slide smashes the walls of the couloir and jumps over our heads finishing a few meters from the couloir exit. After two other snow slides, we got a short time window to move away from this spot and get back home safely. Day 2 was ruined, and we couldn’t get serious skiing images but we were happy to finish the day alive.

After a debrief over a beer we decide to start the next day before the sun has risen, to avoid high temperatures and hopefully get some sunrise shots. We set our sights on a peak I spotted the first day, a bright yellow mountain with a big hole in its top, the scenery was very promising. The alarm rings at 4:30 am this morning and the cloudy sky makes it even more difficult to put the skis with enthusiasm. Never mind, we will give it a chance, the weather forecast is predicting a sunny morning. Headlamps are turned on and the steam flowing out of our mouths renews our confidence. The forest is so quiet and dark at this hour, and we enjoy the calm while looking down at the illuminated valley. Then the first rays enlighten the rocks while we start climbing the couloir; but with it the temperature rises. Halfway from the top I leave Julien who is looking for the perfect spot from where he will capture the images, and I continue to reach the cave at the top. But, just the once won’t hurt: the clouds are going up, creating a roof that keeps the heat below. I am just arriving at the top when I hear Julien in the walkie talkie “a small slab just released and ruined the entire couloir, let’s move away before we get triggered”. So, it is stressed and as fast as I can that I ski down the couloir and get to a safe zone before Julien meets me and we reach the bottom of the face up to a calm place. But the adventures are not over. We assist to an impressive scenery offered by the mountains: a gigantic snowy “waterfall”, making one heck of a racket, arises from the suspended plateau in front of us. The signals are now too evident to be ignored: up to 2.000 m the snowpack is completely wet and destabilized, the conditions are no longer safe to ski in this area.

The Happy End

Starting the mission during the night was not sufficient to escape the heat presents in the middle mountain regions. So, it is time to go playing in high mountains. While I am checking the weather forecast on the other side of the border, Julien’s calling his friends based in Briançon, France, to get some information on the conditions.

“Ok let’s give it a try, we move to France, to the Col du Lautaret where there are plenty of great couloirs starting from this point”. That’s how, after crossing Switzerland, Austria and Italy, we were back in France. The col du Lautaret is above 2.000 m and the mountains around offer some peaks up to 3.150 m, it will be a great basecamp. We have our first freezing night and the frost inside of the camper van makes us very happy; strange feeling if you don’t have the context. On our way to the couloir we meet up with a super cool Kiwi, Brenna, who makes it to the top with me, despite a questionable equipment and training, while Julien is positioning a bit lower to get the shot. The view from the top is breath-taking and I can see the Arsine cirque, a mythic place I want to go since the beginning of the winter. The ski down is steep, narrow and in great conditions, magic! A last high five with Brenna, a second run at the sunset on the other side of the mountain and the day’s over; and what a day! We finally found good conditions, so the decision is taken, we’ll stay in Les Ecrins mountain range one more day.

I convince Julien to go riding these amazing couloirs hidden right to the end of the Arsine Glacier.

We park the van in the last “parking lot” and after having evacuated all the water by error we go sleeping because tomorrow will be tough. The approach up to the feet of the cirque is very long but when you stand in front of those white giants, after having dreamed about it months and months, you definitely fall in love with this area. We are now facing this vertical wall, discussing whether Julien should come with me and climb the couloir or not. But the scenery from this point of view is just mind blowing and we can’t miss the shot to get the perfect images from this place. It is set, Julien will stay here, 2.5 km away from me and 800 m below. While I’m crossing the glacier, I realize that I’m finally gonna ski one of the big objectives I listed for this winter. But first I need to bootpack this monster. As soon as I pass the rimaye, the slope becomes much steeper and it is no longer possible to keep my skis on my feet. From this point I start to climb the couloir. It is very special to be alone in the middle of this endless white chute, I’m feeling so small and vulnerable compared to the surrounding environment. But these kinds of situations also make me vibrate and recall me why I love so much being in the mountains and pushing back my limits. I can’t reach the top because of a big cornice and rocks blocking the way but I’m standing 20 meters below when a microlight plane passes over me. I can’t help thinking that, if they see me, they are certainly asking themselves why someone would hang here in the middle of nowhere with 450 verticals meters under his feet; that’s the beauty of this sport…

Hey, enough thinking and dreaming, the skis are put, crampons and ice axes are packed, let’s leave your mark on this beautiful mountain. My legs are burning after this long trip but the line is amazing, exactly how I expected it: steep, straight and long. I jump the rimaye before finishing straight screaming my joy and contemplating this place.

I am crossing back the glacier remembering how tricky this journey has been but in the same time focusing on the great moments shared with Julien in this amazing playground called the mountains. We stay here contemplating the white giants before going back to the van, 10 km away…

A stop by La Grave and a last day filming in Julien’s home mountains will conclude the trip.

We had very difficult snow conditions to deal with and I can’t deny that it was hard to admit that we wouldn’t ski the Dolomites. However, discovering the Piedmonte and the Ecrins, I only went to in summer, has been wonderful and I’m sure I’ll be back there. See you soon big friends, hanging on a rope or skiing…

Text: Colin Gomez
Photo: @ubacmedia & @colin.gomez

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