French September

Early-season skiing in Chamonix, France

Chamonix-based skier Tom Grant starts his season right.   PHOTO: Davide de Masi

Chamonix-based skier Tom Grant starts his season right, taking his first turns down a perfectly pitched pyramid. PHOTO: Davide De Masi

WORDS: Davide De Masi

When the air smells of changing leaves and alder wood stoves and most Chamoniards are busy swinging ice tools and climbing big alpine mixed routes, I’m one of the rare few to wax my skis. The summer was warm but short, and the forecast is calling for a rogue wave of artic fury to strike. It’s go time.

Not all Autumn skiing destinations are created equal. For many, early-season skiing means stuffing your feet into stiff liners and taking a few awkward turns down a lightly seasoned grass slope. But in Chamonix, France, winter can come any day of the year. Rime-encrusted granite needles reach 10,000 feet above the green pastureland dotting the French paysage, or landscape. Unbeknownst to the casual golfer on the valley floor, when a northerly wind brings a current of cool air, massive quantities of snow can accumulate in the upper elevations. And with the Aiguille du Midi ascending to over 12,000 feet, access is as easy as two cable car rides.

The first week of September this year in Chamonix saw torrential rain and heavy thunderstorms in the lower elevations of the valley, with temperatures dropping sharply in a matter of hours to the 40s. I joined the other Chamonix powderhounds at Moo Bar and Elevation, the renowned local watering holes, for a few beers to calm the excitement about the next day brewing in my stomach. For skiing partners, I found Tom Grant, a Chamonix-based mountaineer who had been climbing granite all summer. After a winter full of impressive descents with fellow Englishman Ben Briggs, including the Sentinelle Rouge Couloir off Mont Blanc, Grant was eager for some summer skiing. And Briggs, well he just loves to ski so he gladly joined us to kickstart the 2014 season. We didn’t know exactly what the next day would bring, but whatever the day held, we knew it would be good.

Ben Briggs, far away from the grass slope where most take their first turns of the season. PHOTO: Davide de Masi

Ben Briggs, far away from the grass slope where most take their first turns of the season. PHOTO: Davide De Masi

The following morning, off the top of the knife-edge arête of the Aiguille du Midi, Grant, Briggs, and I edged down the North Face and roped up to test the snow for any potential instability. Briggs took a few hesitant turns on perfect powder that rested on a suspended 50-degree face with thousands of feet of exposure in the form of tumbling seracs and massive cliffs below us. The North Face of the Midi is the crème de la crème for steep skiing.

After a few glory turns, we headed down the ridge to the classic left-hand side of the Grand Envers. In the winter, this line descends nearly 9,000 feet over heavily crevassed terrain. Typically it doesn’t go in the early season because exposed grey glacial ice prevents entry to the hidden stashes of powdery snow. Not this year. On Friday the 13th of September, the top of the Grand Envers was smooth, white, and beautiful. The conditions were fatter than I had seen it in a long time—even in the height of winter, with several meters of residual snowpack from last season setting up a velvety base. We gingerly skied down the ridge to the bowl’s entrance, where we found a pyramid of perfectly pitched terrain lying below our ski tips. We hit several variations with a few fall-training bergschrund hucks at the bottom of each mini-golf line.

At the end of the day and thousands of feet below our start, we hiked a brief but freezing bootpack up to the lift and we were soon back in the warm temperatures and green climate of the valley floor. We headed back to the same bar where the dream was born the night before to recount the day’s adventure. I slept that night fully satisfied, but I knew it would be a while before I skied snow that good again.

Davide De Masi, 28, is originally from Park City, Utah. He moved to France in 2008 to find big mountains and go back to school in Lausanne, Switzerland. For the last five years, he’s split his time between continents, spending winters in Chamonix and summers in the U.S.

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