The Quest for the Holy Grail

Trip Start Nov 01, 2011
Trip End May 23, 2012

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Where I stayed
pensione veneizia
What I did
Monte Bianco

Flag of Italy  , Valle d'Aosta,
Sunday, February 10, 2013

As I sit, sipping my coffee outside on a terrace in the cool sunshine, I wonder if I will ever experience again what I did yesterday. The Toula glacier descends down the Itlaian side of Mont Blanc, or Monte Bianca as the Italians call it.  Bianco is 4,810m high making it the second highest mountain in Europe next to something over 5,000m back in Russia, which is debatably part of Asia, so perhaps Bianco is the highest mountain in Europe. 

Anyways, here in the picturesque Italian ski village of Courmayeur, they built a gondola which goes up to 3,385m, in the shadow of Bianco.  Apparently the Italian military built it so they could sneak up and invade the French if they wanted to-I don't blame them, the French are strange.  I tried going to the pool there after my first day of riding (I was sore!) and I was halted as soon as I walked onto the pool deck. I was wearing soccer shorts-apparently rules dictated that only speedos were permitted for hygiene reasons!  The French lifeguard would not budge in his speedo insistence.

Then, the "hot-tub", which was really more like a warm tub, was only open for 12 minutes at a time.  Then, it closed for 12 minutes to allow the water to re-circulate!  I guess the French take their bathing seriously.  Needless to say, I wasn’t able to get up and see the big mountain from the French side in Chamonix because the gondola staff  were apparently busy patrolling the pool deck. So, I decided to venture up the Italian side instead.  What I saw there changed my perception of backcountry skiing. 

I arrived in Courmayeur from Chamonix via a tunnel which went under the mountain some 2o km. On my first day I went up the Gondola and watched the intrepid glacier riders with their fat skis and avalanche gear trekking around the back side of a peak to reach the access point to the glacier.  I walked with them admiring their progress and nearly freezing myself off in the process.  I descended that day in the Gondola looking at the glacier and remarking on how riding down it on a snowboard seemed “do-able.”

It was a tough descision to make.  I had planned on leaving that day after seeing Bianco.  It was around 5pm as I sat in the cafe still freezing my toes off when I got up and wearily made my way to the guide’s office.  As the Toula glacier is completely out of bounds and nowhere near a patrolled ski area one had to have a guide and all the proper avalanche gear. 

The guide’s office was poetically located right next to the town church, enabling one to get right with Jesus before embarking on one’s quest I suppose.  Speaking with the guide was quite funny.  I was obviously weary, not only from the day’s walking on the glacier but also emotionally somewhat after nearly 4 months of solo traveling.  The guide looked at me and really gave me the once over, asking me what my experience level was etc.  I told him I was an expert and I also wrestled goats in my spare time-this last part really impressed him.  They told me to come back at 630pm and see if they had space for the next day’s trip. 

So, I went and changed my socks and dried my feet and checked into my hotel and felt a whole lot better.  Then I made up my mind that I was going down this bloody glacier on a snowboard, bar none.  I went and bought some expensive HH thermals to keep me warm and set out to find a board.  It was quite a trek in itself just to find the rental shop but I eventually got there just in time to get a nice Burton 163cm wide and some good boots as well, thankfully.  I then huffed it back to the guide office-much happier and more confident this time- and they promptly informed me that I was booked for the trip the next day. 

I went home to my hotel room and thought about my decision.  I was nervous and excited at the same time.  The next morning I awoke and suited up. By the time I reached breakfast I was really feeling good, remarking at the natural beauty of the valley which sat outside the window.  The day was clear and calm at it was just before 8 in the morning.  When the guide came to pick me up, however, he looked at my gear, feeling my jacket and wondering if I had enough clothing. 

When we arrived at the base of the Gondola all the other hardcore types were there.  They each had gortex gear and top drawer everything, including the new ABS anti-avalanche airbag which you can pull like a ripcord and turn yourself into a Micheline Man, hopefully floating down on top of the snow rather than underneath it.  I sat there in my track pants, two old sweaters, one of which my companions told me made me look like Bill Cosby.  Nevertheless, I was very pleased with myself, especially when the guide came and put me in a climbing harness and strapped my avalanche beacon onto to me.  I was like Stallone in Cliffhanger.

As we headed up the gondola I of course began nervously messing around with my bindings trying to change their angle.  It was quite funny because half way up my binding just came off and I couldn’t get it back on with the swinging, packed car.  Everyone sort of looked at me, silently.  I just sort stood there laughing to myself.  Once we got to the top I managed to get the thing back on, and I decided that 30 deg. forward angle and 0 deg. back angle would suffice.  My bindings were middle stanced, perhaps not ideal for deep powder riding, but I was on a new board and wanted to just feel it out. 

The trek from the top of the Gondola station to the glacier was arduous and took about 45 mins-1 hour.  We first had to ascend some 40 vertical metres worth of stairs which really burned my legs.  It reminded me of the final scene of Ghostbusters where the team ascends the 40 stories or whatever to battle the big monster slimer.  I of course made the mistake of going first and tiring myself a bit-never go first unless you’ve done it before.  It didn’t matter though because there was a funny guy from Brooklyn who was really out of shape and was huffing it the whole way behind us.  He was a champion-and an avid herbalist he later confessed.  It sucks being last.

We then walked around the back of two peaks.  This was a gruelling walk in, somewhere around -15 degrees and a stiff wind.  My goggles, hot from the inside stair climb quickly began to fog up and then ice over.  My crappy gloves were not warm enough and my fingers began to freeze.  I felt like one of those ill-fated climbers doomed to death and failure simply from having shitty gear.   I adapted though, pulling my fingers into my palms and warming them up, like a turtle. I had also convinced a goat to let me ride him around the bend in exchange for some nutty chocolate and vodka from my flask.  He was a good goat. 

As we rounded the last peak we had ascended to roughly 3500m.  Keeping my breath was an interesting challenge. I eventually found that breathing through my nose helped control my breathing, as I Iearned in Yoga class, and also helped warmed up the air before it entered my lungs, maybe giving me more oxygen, or so I thought.  It is also interesting: from my reading I learned that the limit of breathable atmosphere is somewhere around 5000m altitude.  Everest is about 8800m high.  Imagine that.

As we approached the glacier entrance we saw Mount Blanc to our right, intermittently revealing itself through the clouds.  It was big and ominous and rocky.  As we reached the entrance drop to the glacier we had to strap in to ride down a little skied out couloir or chute.  It wasn’t hard except that my goggles were iced over so I had to be careful.  Nevertheless, we reached the bottom and then were presented with a large metal staircase which descended into the glacier bowl.  In order to enter the staircase there was a small decrepit looking old man dressed in rags.

“In order to pass the glacier free, you must answer me these questions three!” he sneered at me.

“What?” I said.

“What is your name?” he said.

“Sir Taccolot.”

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“To seek the Holy Grail”

“What is the average galloping velocity of a mountain goat on open terrain?”  Luckily I knew my goat species somewhat.

“Do you mean a Chamonix goat or a big horn mountain goat?” I asked the smelly man.

“What?!  I don’t know that!” he stammered, staggering backwards.

With that, a mysterious force flung the man up and over Mount Blanc back into France.

And I was allowed to continue my quest.

As we descended the staircase of doom, I looked down into the glacier and was really awestruck.  I had never ridden a bowl near this big before.  It spanned from right side from the cliffs descending some 1500m from Bianco, to the left side where the Refugio Torino peak (the top of the Gondola ride) now sat above us.  The bowl opened into beautiful undulating hills of powder. While there were tracks, they were few and far between. 

As we descended behind our guide, Stefano, we each found our own track. I was overwhelmed by the scale of our descent and began to hoot and yell at the top of my lungs in excitement.  We carved downwards rapidly.  I was still getting used to riding the glacier and my new board so I took it a bit slowly adjusting from perfect snow to crusted over stuff which required more prudence.  The descent to mid station was somewhere around 1000m vertical.  By the time we reached it some 20 mins later my feet were aching and my lungs pumping.  But my grin was wide! 

The second run was even better.  I had gained confidence in my board and the terrain and I carved wide and hard throwing up huge plumes of powder, following the guide through the hills and chutes and valleys.  There was always some new route or nuance in every turn-it was truly spectacular.   I do think that riding powder is best on a board: the sensation you get surfing through the drifts of snow simply feels like riding on endless waves which never break!

By the third time up the staircase our energy levels were flagging.  The poor New Yorker guy was coughing and generally out of shape, trailing behind us on the walk around.  Our final descent was to be right to the bottom of the valley to the tunnel station which went under Mont Blanc to the French side.  The vertical drop was somewhere around 1800m.  The top three quarters of the run were outstanding, simply vale after vale of powdery slopes.  But then it got interesting.  We crested one ridge and descended into crunchy rough snow.  Ice blocks protruded silently and threw us all for a stagger.  The poor New Yorker’s legs were failing him and he lost control and flew into the chute nearly hitting several rocks and crashing at the guide’s feet.  The guide screamed at him without mercy, rightfully so as the New Yorker has just put his life at risk by skiing out of control.  I really believed after that that safety in the alpine resided in knowing your limits and staying reasonably within them (like the signs say-always read the signs).  Fatigue and lack of mental clarity and experience can blur these boundaries somewhat. 

We had in fact descended into avalanche debris, big chucks of snow and ice littering the valley.  From here on the snow quality diminished as we wound our way slowly around avalanche debris.  At the bottom of the valley a massive avalanche had cleared one slope of snow and left boulder sized ice balls littering the valley floor.  A massive glacier simultaneously pushed its ice in from another valley forming a nasty mess which we steered aside from-geology was at work.  The final descent was not particularly enjoyable as it was tracked out, icy and full of trees.  We swatted our way through though and eventually reached the bottom, next to big highway.  The day was over and we were all delirious from altitude drop and fatigue. Nevertheless, after the cars were retrieved I insisted on an après ski beer, which we all enjoyed.  Unfortunately we were not able to all link up that night so I sortied alone from my hotel, but eventually just came home out of exhaustion. 

I looked up on the mountain this morning and saw where we descended from-it was pretty much the top.  When I first arrived in Chamonix I remember a haunting feeling coming from the mountains, as if they were leaning in on me forebodingly.  Even though I ascended on Chamonix side and found some great bowls and untracked areas, I still felt as though I had not found satisfaction.  I no longer felt this as I looked up at Toula.  I had conquered the mountain, learning to ride one of nature’s most incredible treasures.  While not that many people make it up to Toula, it made it that much more special and savoury a challenge.  I have certainly come to enjoy the alpine and mountaineering experience in my travels and will certainly seek it out when I return home to beautiful BC.  I don’t think that skiing on groomed runs will ever really feel the same J

I now sit and debate where to go next.  I may be done with the alpine now as I move back towards Eastern Europe, but I do hear that Slovenia has some epic terrain as well (thanks Meiz!) and I am now decently equipped for the cold with my Bill Cosby sweater and Helly Hansen Thermals (Helly was also a comedian).  So, it’s an open road from here, still waiting to hear from the universities and such, keeping myself miserable by reading about climate change also-don’t worry I will bore you all with it soon enough.  I am looking forward to getting back to Eastern Europe.  France was interesting to visit but not exactly buckets of fun due to lack of hostels and people in them!  Eastern Europe will be different though.  Come and visit,


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Cris Rowan on

You are hilarious! Love the Holy Grail dialogue! I miss you!!!

Love, Mom

PS - was going to take Christmas tree down today, but still is alive!!

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