News from La Plagne of a serious accident on the North Face of Bellecote is a reminder that as the weather changes, so does the primary danger faced by off-piste skiers. In bad weather – or, as most skiers would term it, good weather, which is to say snowy weather – the primary risk is avalanche, and we saw a lot of that last month. During fine weather the snow cover hardens, the avalanche risk diminishes and skiers on steep slopes risk not being able to stop sliding if they fall. The French call it dévissage; Americans refer to ‘slide for life’ or simply ‘no fall’ skiing. This is a reasonable definition of that elastic word, extreme. In the right conditions, 30 degrees can be extreme. Try the Schindlerkar bumps on a sunny morning in March.
Before entering a zone where any mistake might have serious consequences, the guide must decide whether to issue the familiar and hopeless instruction – ‘don’t fall’ – at the risk of paralysing the terrified client; or trusting him to ski with due care and attention, saying nothing and risk being accused – ‘you never warned us’ – if something goes wrong. Tough call.
The North Face of Bellecote is an Alpine off-piste classic, a huge descent of 2000 vertical metres, with more than one entrance and a dozen ways down, of varying pitch and exposure. It starts from the top of La Plagne’s highest chair lift, with a traverse to the ridge that separates the pisted and patrolled glacier ski area from the North Face wilderness zone. Cross the ridge, make a few turns on the dark side, and you are committed, all the way to the forest and the old village of Nancroix in the valley of Les Lanches which separates the ski areas of La Plagne and Les Arcs.
From Nancroix, an antique bucket lift connects with the Vanoise Express cable car at Plan Peisey for the return to La Plagne. By completing an easy loop, the cable car has transformed the North Face of Bellecote, and arguably not for the better.
The higher you make your entrance into the North Face, the more extreme the descent. For the full horror – glory, I mean – you hike up to the summit and do the whole thing: La Grande Face Nord. The ‘classic’ or ‘touristique’ approach – depending on your point of view – is to ski down the bumpy piste a bit before traversing for a Petite Face Nord, which is wide and nowhere terribly steep. But like all the other routes it is extremely long and may be hostile, depending on snow condition. If this is good at the top, it will probably be bad at the bottom (avalanche debris). Between Grande and Petite are various couloirs and rock-hopping options including the Couloir des Canadiens, site of the recent accident. The Bellecote avalanche is well known in the region. I was staying near by in February 1995, when the entire mountainside came down during the night, top to bottom, burying some chalets on the valley floor.
It goes without saying that the North Face of Bellecote comes with all the usual off-piste dangers and warnings, to which I would add: never on Monday. I skied down it with a group of fellow writers on a recent Monday, and the result was, if not a disaster, less enjoyable than it might have been on Sunday or Tuesday.
Our guide for the expedition was a locally based Englishman, Chris Harrop, the very model of a modern Alpine entrepreneur: property developer, chalet holiday operator, ski instructor and mountain guide. His businesses cross-fertilise nicely. Chalet guests provide an income pending sale of property and are fodder for ski school and guiding. If they like the holiday they may become property buyers and regular clients of the guide. Or they may go home saying: never again.
‘Up you get!’ barked Harrop, as we sat enjoying breakfast in one of his chalets in the hamlet of Le Miroir, near Ste Foy. “No slacking! You’re here to ski, not watch television.” The Australian Open was on, so that situates us in mid-January.
Harrop bounced us down the mountain in his van, past his office in Landry and up the other side to one of the villages at the lower reaches of La Plagne. Montchavin perhaps, or Les Coches.
A long and tedious series of chilly lift rides followed, hoisting us to the top of the Bellecote glacier, punctuated by a warm-up run down the Couloir Rosset, a short sharp run between the rock bands below Roche de Mio, avoiding the need to ride downhill by gondola. It also enables the guide to inspect the goods and take a view as to what may be possible.
We must have passed the test because Harrop skied and clambered his way across an awkward traverse to a higher entrance than I remembered from previous visits, and got us into a gaggle on the ridge. It was his ‘now listen up’ moment. “This is the Couloir du Cairn,” he said. “Looks good. Does everyone feel comfortable about doing it?”
The truthful answer from the man at the back of the group would have been No. Couloir and comfort are not closely related in my book. But having come all this way, I was hardly going to back out. It was a rhetorical question really. When you follow a guide, you let him decide where to ski.
One by one my friends disappeared from view, like fledgling parachutists dropping through the floor of the plane, until eventually there was only one skier left, shuffling along and trying not to look down. A heart in mouth moment at the top, a nervous slide into the body of the slope, a jerky jump turn, and anxiety fell away. The snow was receptive, and the slope seemed less steep now that I was in it. Turn, turn, turn. Keeping the speed in check was hard work, but I did not have the slide for life feeling, and there was a period of at least twenty turns between anxiety and lung-busting thigh burn when I relaxed.
Cairn is not the sort of skiing where you scramble down a steep chute, regroup where it flattens out and breathe a quiet sigh of relief that you got through it. This couloir was actually fun, and it kept coming at us. The great thing about the North Face is not just its pitch and the quality of its north facing snow, but the length of the run. The Cairn is said be more than 1km long, and I can believe it.
After some blissful open snowfields of gentler gradient, our run got steeper and narrower again, hemmed in by rock walls. I saw Harrop stop below me, peer down, then turn and hold up his hand in a signal that unmistakably meant Stop. I did stop, turned round and gave my friends the same signal. “The snow has fallen away,” Harrop called up to me. “Must have happened in the night. We’ll have to walk back up. Normally I carry a rope, but today I’m not. Never mind. The walk will do us good.”
The group Harrop was guiding is not in its first flush of youthful vigour. We are not lean and hardened ski mountaineering adventurers, but a pampered press group of pleasure seeking recreationals with an assortment of dodgy knees, faint hearts and overtaxed livers. Decent skiers, we like to think, but there are limits, and walking up a couloir was pushing it.
I am not sure how long we spent walking back up, kicking steps up the steep bits and pausing frequently to catch breath and curse, until we were too tired to complain any more.
Eventually Harrop found a place where he could see a gap in the rocks and a possible exit. He hacked a path through thick scrub and brought us to skiable terrain which took us without further incident down to the place where all the North Face runs converge in a natural funnel and a bridge over the stream. Even now, after all we had been through, our guide did not have the measure of us. “Over here!” I can still hear him calling. “There’s a nice jump here! Walk up here!”
At this point, mutiny. We could see the line of least resistance, and most of us took it, much to our guide’s dismay. When we came upon a restaurant beside the cross country trail in the forest – Les Chabottes, I think it’s called – a great cheer went up. It was late but, knowing our guide as we were beginning to do, there was a risk he might have more skiing in mind, and we definitely wanted to knock that on the head. The chalet sauna was much more inviting.
And then we saw a notice pinned to the door. Fermé le lundi.