Last month we were obsessed with checking the weather in Chamonix, and the weather was good, even too good, beautiful summer a good snow layer on the mountains. Another obsession was training – we were planning to climb Mont Blanc on split-boards, and snowboard down it.
Split-boarding is a mix of ski-touring and snowboarding, the snowboard can be split half, long ways, and used like skis to climb up, and then connected together for snowboarding down the hill. It opens the whole mountain for exploration and finding those special runs, those fields of powder untouched by anyone else before. It brings adventure back to snowboarding.
The plan was a bit ambitious, but doable, the preparation was exhausting; at least that was what I was thinking. My weekly routine for last 3 months before the climb was swimming twice a week, gym with strong focus on my legs twice a week, and hiking up the Slieve Foye from Carlingford with a rucksack filled with 20kg (40 lbs.) of weights also twice a week. It was tough at the beginning, but soon I felt quite strong, climbing up with the load was not that hard anymore. I was able to do it up and down under 1.5h, I felt almost confident. I am saying almost, because after all this years in the mountains one thing I have learned – confidence and mountains do not go too well together.
Two weeks before the date, weather forecast – perfect, one week before the date – forecast… not so perfect but not bad, some clouds, some snow falls not more than 20cm which made us almost ecstatic, few days before the date, well, not great, but just some clouds, wind not that bad, nights will get very cold, which we will cope with. So we should be OK, have to be OK! Temperature -10C made me repack just one day before departure, I have put in extra layers of winter Columbia Omniheat thermals, which should do the trick.
Finally long awaited day, I flew to Geneva, where Eryk and Wojtek picked me up and we head on to Chamonix. At 1pm we were already at the top of Aiguille du Midi (3840m) to acclimatise. My and Erik are living in Zakopane in Polish Tatra mountains, which is 900 m above that sea level, so we should be well used to the altitude, but last few months I have spent at the sea level in Ireland, so I could fell the effect of the altitude. For about 2 hours we were enjoying stunning view of Mont Blanc and considering our route options. We could take shorter path called Cosmique route, which starts from Aiguille Du Midi, then crosses the glacier du Tacul and then steep climb on Mont Blanc du Tacul, descend and traverse to the Col du Mont Maudit.
From here ascend a long snow slope to the final piece of technical ground, which can be very steep and requires good front pointing technique and use of an ice axe. Descending once again to Col de la Brenva with stunning scenery towards Italy, then climb the last few hundred metres to the summit. But with the recent snowfalls there was no path at all and a tragedy just a week before with 2 climbers killed at Tacul made us decide to take longer route through Grands Mulet. It goes from the mid-station at the Plan d’Aiguille, traverse horizontally SW under the N. face of the Aiguille du Midi passing the derelict Gare des Glaciers lift station to reach the “Jonction” of the Bossons glacier. This is a heavily crevassed area. Then ascend a steep uniform slope to a rock island and the Grands Mulet hut. That was the plan for the first day. Second day we were going to climb up the glacier passing the “Rocher de l’Heureux” to the Petit Plateau and another steeper slope (the Grands Montets) to the easier slopes of the Grands Plateau. At 4000m climb up and right to the Col du Dome. Cross the bergeschrund and head left up to the Vallot hut, spent the night there and next morning attack the summit and snowboard down the way we climb up. This way we would have much better knowledge of the condition and the snowpack that we were going to ride. That sounded like a plan!
So we went down to Chamonix, we started to prepare for the hike, splitting gear, checking everything out. Very soon we realised that our bags were getting extremely heavy, mine was 36 kg (80 pounds), and there is absolutely no space for taking a tent. We were thinking about sleeping in the snow caves, so tent stayed in the valley.
Next morning our adventure begins. We caught the first lift to Plan d’Aiguille and started our hike. One of my poles broke straight away; luckily duct tape never leaves my rucksack. Somehow I managed to fix it. First 15 minutes were fine with nice morning breeze and rising sun, but after a short walk on the path we have entered a terminal moraine. Balancing on massive boulders with very heavy bags and long split-boards was more like acrobatics than walking. I had to focus really hard on every step and I did not notice the change in the weather. The visibility fell to about 50m, still good enough to follow the trail, but with no real points of reference. After a while we got to an unexpected Y junction, left which should be more or less the direction which we should travel. It was very steep 20m drop but it did not feel safe at all, so we followed the track up with hope of easier route. After about 30-40 minutes we turned back to the Y junction. Getting down this step was just outside my comfort zone, everything was loose, traversing a slight overhang with a heavy bag and split-board on, it was very sketchy. Then we continued to travel across the moraine with visibility steadily getting worse.
After a while the fog lifted for a moment and we spotted a big yellow sign on the rock high above us. That was our path. Only thing now was that it was on the top of an even bigger and steeper cliff than the last one. This time we took the rope out, it was not a technical climb but it was steep, exposed, about 30m high and everything was loose, not fun at all. When we managed to get to the top we were stunned by what we saw, the clouds had disappeared and we could see in front of us on the other side of the moraine the place where we started about 2.5h ago. Plan d’Aiguille was maybe two km away in the straight line, it should take not more than 30 minutes. To make up lost time we picked up the pace. We were already above 2500m and the bags were not getting lighter, then the fog came back, then light showers, then a bit of wind, nothing too extreme, but because we were pushing as hard as we could I did not analyse what was happening around, the mountains were speaking to us but we were not listening.
From time to time we found an old ski or a piece of rope and I could not help but wonder if it was a sign of us being on the path or remains of some past tragedy, but we could do only one thing keep walking.
After another 2h and a few turns back to find the path again and finally we get to the edge of Bossons glacier. I was exhausted, Eryk and Wojtek were coping with the load and the altitude a bit better, and we took a short break. I got my breath back, got my head straight and started to notice what was going on around. I started to listen and the mountains were screaming to us. We were only more or less where we should enter the glacier, with no visibility we couldn’t be sure and the glacier was alive, cracking, shrieking nonstop, every moment something BIG was falling somewhere. It was time to put the crampons on, to tie the rope, to enter the most dangerous leg of whole trip, it was time for decisions.
I was quite surprised that saying “no” to my friends with whom I climb so many times, came to me rather easy. I was not entering this glacier with no visibility, no tracks, no clear bearing, no time and no strength left. We had alternatives, we could wait till tomorrow, there was long list of reasons but one was enough – my family was waiting for me at home, not for some result, not for an achievement, not for victory, they were waiting for me and I was not going to risk taking it away from them. I had no doubts, I was just surprised, I have never backed out before, now I think that I finally grow up. But there was no way to persuade the guys otherwise, they were so ready to slay this dragon, to conquer the mountain, so they took the rope and without much talking went on.
I started walking down all the time thinking how am I going to climb down this bloody cliff, without rope, really tired and solo. Had enough time to get my motivation right, I was by the cliff getting my crampons on and really ready to dry-tool it down, when the guys called me – they were lost, surrounded by massive crevasses and needed help.
I left everything where I was standing my board, snowboarding boots, helmet, extra food, everything that was not necessary to survive the night and ran back up again. When I got to the edge of the glacier it was already 5.30pm.
Wojtek and Eryk had 45 minutes to find the way back, after that I had to get back to the place where I could spend the night. I climbed up the slope of Midi to be above the glacier and started whistling and flashing the rescue strobe. But we could not hear or see each other. It was turning into quite a serious situation, the guys were completely disorientated with terrifying crevasses everywhere around, weather was turning even worse. We had radio contact, but they could not hear or see me, the time was running out. Just by standing beside the glacier I was getting shivers, this constant cracking and thumping noises… I could not imagine how they felt hearing and filling all of this just beside them.
The night came; I left the emergency strobe on the small ledge and went back to the remains of the service lift where I was going to spend the night. When I get there it was already dark, I patched as many holes in the walls and the roof as I could and lay down. I covered my sleeping bag with a thermal blanket and try to rest. Obviously there was no sleep at all, every two hours I was calling the guys to check how they were doing. First was raining and the wind was uncovering me from the blanket, then rain turn into snow and got really cold. It reached -16C that night and apart having wet legs I was quite warm. I got fantastic Strata jacket from RAB with new Polartec Alfa insulation, it weighs nothing and is really warm. I also have to mention absolutely bombproof jacket I got from The North Face – Free Thinker from new freeride specific line – Steep Series. I climbed, crawled, ride in it and no scratch on it, really comfortable to move in it, so far best Jacket I ever had. Boys on the glacier had no shelter, they could not dig the snow cave, the wind was howling, snow was covering them completely every half an hour, what is more Wojtek pierced his mat with a crampon and had no insulation from the ice. They were getting hypothermic; from 4am they were constantly boiling water to keep themselves warm. Over the radio they did not sound well at all, they were cold and scared and the glacier did not stop growling for a moment.
When the night started fading away we realize that we were still in big trouble, the visibility was very poor, so the chances of helicopter rescue were slim, and the snow covered every sign of the path. We got ourselves into a trap. We decided that we would call mountain rescue around 7am when it would be bright, this way I could pack my gear and come back to the cliff for my split-boarding equipment.But obviously it did not happen this way. At some stage Eryk told me that the helicopter would be ready to start in about 15 minutes, I did not know if I would be picked up, I was not in danger, but anyway I ran down to the cliff, hoping that the fact that I had the radio contact with the guys and slight idea where they were would work for my advantage.
I saw helicopter passing by a couple of times in the distance, flying over the glacier and back, they could not spot any of us. Finally I heard the pilot talking to me over my radio, they had to tune in to our frequency, and he could see me and would pick me up! I was just getting to the cliff!
The heli touched down I jumped in and there were Eryk and Wojtek inside already, safe, really cold but generally OK! What a relief! We flew down in silence, got back home, rested a bit and I was not very surprised when they said that they had enough, that they were going home.
My flight was in 5 days and rebooking it was expensive, I decided to wait. The forecast was bad for a day or two but after that should be nice, so I had two days to find a climbing partner, I was not going on the glacier by myself. Few phone calls and a friend and a local climbing legend Laurent Roche form Odysee Montagne had some free time and was willing to help me with making some photos.
This time we decided to take different approach. We took the cable car all the way to the top of Aiguille du Midi this way we were already at the snow level, so anywhere we will go it will be good. Saturday morning, absolutely perfect weather with some fresh snow on the mountains, the first lift was packed with ecstatic people, all geared up, going climbing, paragliding or glacier walking; it was so uplifting to be with that kind of crowd. First we descended scary Arete de l’Aiguille, extremely exposed and very narrow ridge, then we passed through the Vallee Blanche when I put on my new split-board the first time on and walk to glacier du Tacul. I have to say that regardless of splits being bit heavier than touring skis they are absolutely great for walking. They are much wider so the support is really good. The walk was nice sun was shining; I was back home – in the mountains. The terrain was getting steeper and we started to climb Mont Blanc du Tacul, which we decided would be possible to reach and make all the photos/videos that I needed. The climb was hard, long and exhausting, the altitude of over 4000m was making it even harder, but steadily we were gaining the heights. The skins were gripping snow well bindings were working perfectly and finally we reach the saddle where I was going to start my ride. Short break, tea with cinnamon, energy bar and time came for a grand finale.
I have to say that even after riding for over 20 years now, I felt a bit of pressure. This was the very first time when I rode this new board in unknown terrain with no chance of a repeat or second take. About the board – I got a new model of JONES split called Mountain Twin, as I said before for approach it is great, stable, and easy, but for riding it is unbelievable, fast, responsive, very solid I could not feel any difference to riding a solid snowboard. This board has real freestyle feeling it transforms the whole mountain into your private snowpark. I started to set my board to ride mode and with Karakoram bindings it could not be easier. Before when I was riding other makes, there were pins and rails that you had to fiddle with, which is no fun in cold, deep snow. With Karakoram bindings whole set up is done with just one click. Split-boarding equipment matured and now does what it should without any hassle.
So I checked and rechecked all equipment, my GoPro, Laurent climbed down to the place where he was taking photos from, again, camera, rucksack, board, radio, everything OK, “G” I can’t fall, no repeats… no stress.. remember seracs on the left…crevasses on the bottom on right… breathe… 3, 2, 1, Dropping!! After first 10 meters when the board gained speed, when the wind rush get louder than my thoughts, all tension and pressure was gone, just riding left, mountain my board and I.
Board feels great, I didn’t even notice having it attached to my feet, again I was able to move without thinking, and then I reach the point when everything happens only because it can. Pure joy. I love snowboarding, but climbing the mountain on the split, investing so much effort to ride those untouched fields of powder, to leave the only board trails on snow puts this whole experience at a completely different level.
It took 3 months of training and preparation, failing and getting up, it took 6 hours of exhausting climbing up to ride for just one minute and it was utterly and absolutely worth it.
Photo: Maciej Buchcic / Eryk Gajewski
The author: Maciej Buchcic / Split-Board.PL
On the board for 20+ years, the author of the very first Polish snowboarding movie, organiser of many snowboarding events and competition. Owner of snowboarding academy in Zakopane and the first and only split-boarding store and testing center – JONES EPICenter, Zakopane, Poland