Eensy Weensy Spider (Part I)

"The eensy-weensy spider climbed up the waterspout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out…….."   Remember that one? Of course you do, it's probably top ten when it comes to childhood rhymes. Meant only to be a simple life lesson on happenstance and determination. Unfortunately this life-lesson came to be real. I was the spider, the rain was snow and the spout was a 53% chute on the Argentiere Glacier in France.  No longer was it a simple life lesson on the miniature level, it was a complex nightmare involving an avalanche hurtling down the near vertical mountainside.


Skiing onto the Argentiere Glacier


The view to the head of the Argentiere Glacier


Col de Cristeaux

  This is how it went down. I spent the winter of 2010 high in the Chamonix Valley in the town of Argentiere. On the edge of town is the renowned Grande Montet ski mountain. Just next to that, and literally spilling into town, lay the spectacular Argentiere Glacier.  Over the course of the ski season I had become quite comfortable skiing the backcountry lines in and around the Argentiere Glacier. Emboldened by my many ski tours into this wonderland of ice and snow, I began eying a frequently skied steep line off the north-facing ridge, the Courtes Nord Est. It was accessible but  very steep and committing. Previously that winter I has skied the line next to it, the Col de Cristeaux. Spectacular and exhilarating, the Col de Cristeaux had wet my appetite for more steep turns. 


Looking down the Col de Cristeaux

     Spring  brought wonderful weather to the French Alps and the conditions were ripe for stable backcountry skiing. The first week of April promised to be sunny and warm with little wind. Perfect conditions for good glacier skiing, especially good for steep skiing. The plan was set. I was going to ski the Courtes Nord-Est.
         As I left the top tram terminal of the Grand Montet, I noticed quite a few folks heading out to the glacier. Not a bad thing I thought. Being solo, I welcomed the presence of others. I harnessed up and skied beyond the ski area boundary and down to the glacier floor. It was a relatively quick skin to the beginning of the ascent. Above me I could see four folks gradually switch-backing up a skin-track on the lower apron to the bergschrund. It was below this crack in the ice that mountaineers and skiers alike switched over from skis to cramp-ons. Above the bergschrund, the slope pitched steeply, the top out of view. Distances are deceiving, and the ascent of the apron took the greater part of an hour. As I methodically slid one ski in front of the other, the sun peaked over the eastern walls and the warming began. Before long, my winter hat was off and the baseball cap on.  At a not-so-flat staging area below the bergschrund, two young Swiss guide aspirants and two older Frenchmen were transitioning from skis and skins to cramp-ons and ice axes. The rest of the ascent would be made on foot with skis on our backs. There seemed to have been a few early birds on the route as I noticed faint impressions of a boot track. Barely noticeable, these tracks were from climbers who had spent the night on the glacier in the refuge not far away. Having got an "alpine"start, they were already well above us. They and the ridge were up there somewhere. I couldn't see it, the slope angle was too great. Pleasantries were exchanged and the Swiss were off. Interested in their approach to crossing the bergschrund, I watched. With confidence and agility they passed unharmed across the gap and moved up and onto the lower pitch of the steep shot. Next were the two older Frenchies. They decided to rope up. Never a bad idea in this type of terrain but not an option for me. They too passed easily across the bergshrund. More good news.
        Behind me, I noticed another skier fast approaching the staging spot. He was moving quickly, looking strong. As he neared, I acknowledged him with a nod and "good morning". He responded in perfect English. Another American I noted. As he started peeling off his skins, I started toward the bergschrund.  Both crews of two were now far enough uphill that I felt comfortable moving up behind them. Distance between climbers is important for a variety of reasons. No point in having their problem turn into my problem. Better to keep back a bit. Hate to see their misstep be my undoing.