This tour has been some 10 years in the making
It follows on from the Grand Alpine Traverse of 10 years ago when Swedish Mountain Guide Per As set out on a traverse from Vienna to Nice with numerous clients tagging along over two seasons
I joined him way back then for two of the stages, having first met Per some 20 years ago in La Grave.
Per was never able to complete the final parts of the tour due to weather and logistical problems.
The plan was sort of put on hold. Fast forward to last year (if that makes sense) and a group was ski touring in Greenland with Per when the conversation came up about the Grand Traverse and how it was never completed. Hence a plan was hatched. As this year would be the 10th anniversary of the first Grand Traverse what better reason to get a group together to finish the tour?
Four of us had been on two stages of the previous traverse and back then out of the four, three of us were on snowboards. Now it was only one as over the years we switched back to skiing.
So from 10 years ago there were the original four Brits, joined by a Norwegian couple and one American together with Swedish guide, Per and one American guide, Kris Erickson.
It must be said that there is no way one could contemplate an expedition like this on one's own initiative. Apart from the pure logistics of finding accommodation (mountain refuges) and arranging transport, there then is the very real issue of navigating in mountainous and unfamiliar terrain.
This whole trip really demonstrated why mountain guides are in another league to us mere mortals; the tour highlighted the skills that mountain guides have in their arsenal when it comes to taking a group on an adventure such as this.
As the trip grew ever closer so the 'clients' started to question logistics. Where would we actually be staying and, not least, how would we get there and then back?
Part of the team would be flying in from the UK, others would be in Chamonix, La Grave and Serre Chevalier. At first, Per mentioned that for a couple of nights we would probably be staying in unguarded huts. Now that would mean packing accordingly, food, sleeping bags, stove etc. Fortunately a week or so before we departed, Per announced that he'd been in touch with the refuge guardians and that, as there we were a fair sized group and we'd be staying a couple of nights in each, they would come up and man the refuge. So no need to carry all that extra equipment. That was the first tick in the box for the mountain guide(s).
Joining Per was mountain guide, professional mountaineer and photographer, Kris Erickson who I had been with for a couple of days in Chamonix a week or so earlier, and he knew the other members of the team well from various trips to the Antartica, the Arctic and Morocco and climbing weeks in the summer as well as ice climbing early in the season.
So now I should mention the rest of the team. Flying in from Redondo Beach California via La Grave was Harbor Master / Boat Captain Beach, Norman Matte, along with Norwegians, Inga Bettina Waldmann and Atle Sekkingstad whose Viking heritage would come to the fore later on in the trip. From the UK flying into Nice were good friends, Andy Sloan who I first met in La Grave 20 years ago and I've skied with most years since, and from my local beach back on the UK South Coast, Jes Wootton who I went with to La Grave snowboarding all those years ago when we were first assigned Per to guide us.
And finally Brit (Geordie) Tim Wheeler who I originally met on the very first traverse (he, too, was snowboarding back then) 10 years ago and who probably now spends more time in the company of guides dangling off ropes in various locations around the globe than he does in the office.
As the start of the trip drew closer so everyone's attention was focused on the forecast, and it did look like fresh snow (too much) could well be a problem for the first few days. But lady luck was with us almost from the very start of the trip.
Team La Grave would be driving over to pick me up from Serre then we'd drive down to Nice (six hours) to collect Andy and Jes from the airport, drop the van / car off at the long term car park before finally getting taxis up to where we would spend the first night.
And so it begins
Per left La Grave at 07:45 with snow and strong winds over the Col du Lautaret arriving at mine at 08:30, and 45 minutes later the Col was closed for the rest of the day!
En route it transpired that we'd be getting to Nice a few hours earlier than was necessary to collect Andy and Jes from the airport, so we found ourselves in Cannes waltzing into a rather swish restaurant on the main drag dressed for the mountain rather than for lunch on the Riviera.
Arriving at the long-term car-park was mildly amusing as Jes and Andy found themselves having to quickly unpack their baggage and then re pack the gear needed for the week to come in the middle of the car park as the rest of the team donned their ski boots.
Fortunately the taxis took us to the bottom of the driveway of where we would be staying the first couple of nights, Gîte d’étape du Boréon, rather than face a long climb up a valley to a refuge (again brilliant logistical planning from the guides), so we were able to relax over a few beers, and attempt to have a good night's sleep, which is never easy when there are five guys crammed together in a room. A couple of hours in we were disturbed by numerous Germans who had arrived very late looking for their room(s) and seemed disgruntled that we had already grabbed the sun beds :)
Next day was an early start as we'd been warned it was going to be a big day. It had been snowing but only lightly and we'd had around 10cm of fresh. Good news was that we'd be coming back to the same Gîte so we could carry a slightly lighter pack.
Our objective was la Cime Guilié at 2,999m. We climbed through the forest for the first hour or so with skis on the pack till around 1,800m
We were climbing under a cloudless sky and what was encouraging was the cold snow
As we progressed so the views started to become more spectacular as the Mediterranean came into view and we could look down to Antibes and Cannes. Ironic in that the day before we were having lunch down there.
Once at the summit so cloud slowly rolled in, but not before Kris went for a little ridge walk.
Ski back down was great and light was not too flat, but not good enough to warrant taking any photos.
Totals for the day: 14.2km - 1,557m vertical - 8hr 21min - AVHR 127 peak 163
Second day and we left the Gîte and civilisation (cars/roads/hotels of Boréon) and headed into the Mercantour with a long climb up to the Pas de Ladres with the last 100m a tough boot pack in a strong wind.
Once at the top we were able to shelter from the wind and set about getting into descent mode.
Snow was superb, as these pictures pretty well sums up the conditions.
We had numerous lines to ski on the way down and as we neared the Refuge de la Madone de Fenestre there must have been 30 or so chamois.
Once at the refuge we were relieved to find that they had indeed adequate stocks of wine and beer as we had been under the false illusion (thanks to our guides) that there would not be any!
The guardian of this refuge had opened up especially for us, and had made the long walk (10km) up with provisions. Even though we had no running water as pipes were frozen, the wood burner was doing its thing and we soon settled down; well that is not quite all of us.
Going beyond the call of duty
While the skiers were ripping the powder with numerous turns, Jes on his snowboard was having to straight-line it.
The reason being that the skins from his split-board had left more of the glue on the board than the skins hence there was an inordinate amount of friction between board and snow. Back at the refuge, the guardian provided some paraffin / petrol to clean the residue glue off. However, the skins could not be used again on this trip so how would Jes be able to carry on?
Snowshoes were the solution but there were none in the refuge and the guardian said that he had a pair in his car, but that was 10km down the valley.
So step forward Per, who then said that he would ski back down and get said snowshoes and then climb back up, a total of 20km, and as it happened with more provisions for the guardian as he had 23 students staying the next evening.
By the time Per arrived back he looked like he had beasted himself, as he said when you're on your own you go at a much quicker pace, and he certainly looked like he'd done that. Huge chapeau!
Totals for the second day: 9.2km - 1,120m vertical - 6hr 07min - AVHR 122 peak 154
Third day and it was back to a lighter pack (we liked this strategy) as we'd be returning to the same refuge. Objective was Mont Ponset.
Trouble was that Jes was finding the going tough as the snowshoes were quite small and in the deep snow he was sinking down, so at the first break we literally split his board amongst us, including the bindings, to carry for him.
Two guides working as one
What was great to see was how both Kris and Per worked together constantly evaluating the terrain, and trying to guess the micro terrain features that were not that clear on the map to make sure that the route up was not only client friendly but safe.
Talking to both of them they each mentioned how they really enjoyed the complexities of navigating in unfamiliar terrain, never too sure what to expect or find over the next col as it were.
If the snow was too hard then they'd both take their axes out and cut out a skinning track even though we might have already been wearing ski crampons, with one of them bashing down the snow into a more stable platform when it came to kick turns on steeper terrain.
Then when it was too steep they'd make the call on when to put boot crampons on and boot pack up with one of them in front making the steps.
Likewise on the descent it was a continual evaluation of the snow pack, for where might be the best cold snow as opposed to hard pack, and of course where it would be safe and the best line.
It was indeed a boot pack to the summit and was good to see that Jes's endeavours of cleaning his board had worked, and at the top yet more stunning views, this time with the snow capped mountains of Corsica on the horizon.
And more of the team enjoying the conditions.
The Med in the background.
Climb back up to the refuge.
Totals for the third day: 7.52km - 1,000m vertical - 6hr 20min - AVHR 122 peak 153
Later than evening over dinner, Atle was looking distinctly peaky and excused himself from the table, and throughout the night and early hours was not a well boy. In the morning he was weak and exhausted and it was obvious he would not be joining us and his wife Bettina, accepting her marriage vows, decided that her place was by his side rather than by us. So as we left the refuge in the morning heading off towards our next venue, the Refuge de Nice, we were not too sure when we would next see them again, and matters were made worse by a distinct lack of telecomms, as telephone signals were so erratic with no internet connectivity in the refuge and only the occasional connection half up the mountain.
Objective day four was the Balcon du Gélas 3080m en route to the Refuge de Nice.
This was a truly stunning climb and summit with more spectacular views (again).
The boys did well.
Atop Mont Gelas
And another couple of mountain goats down near the refuge :)
Stunning location of the Refuge de Nice.
Again we had the refuge to ourselves and Christoph, the hut guardian, had made the trip up to open just for us.
He did have internet via satellite and emails were sent to Atle and Bettina that we would be leaving at 09:00 but we heard nothing back.
Totals for the fourth day: 8.7km - 1,295m vertical - 7hr 15min - AVHR 119 peak 157
Objective day five was Mont Clapier at 3045, the most Southern 3,000m peak in the Alps.
As we set off we'd not heard from either of the Norwegians, and we worked out that if they were to join us they would have had to leave very early in the morning.
We were around 45mins into the climb when we saw a figure way down below the refuge crossing the ice on the lake at one hell of a pace. It was Bettina!
Christoph, the hut guardian, was still at the refuge and his plan was to climb up after us, so within the next hour we were joined by Bettina (who had already been climbing for two and a half hours, carrying Atle's hardware such as crampons) and Christoph.
These Vikings are made of tough stuff.
Christoph modelling next season's Arcteryx touring kit :)
Totals for the fifth day: 5.2km - 1,295m vertical - 4hr 56min - AVHR 116 peak 149
Once back at the refuge, Bettina explained that Atle was planning to arrive in time for dinner, even though this would mean making the long trek up the valley on his own and in the dark so we all sat and waited looking for the tell tale headlamp torch, which eventually showed.
We left Bettina to go back down and meet him and do the final climb back up with him (just some more vertical for her). I went out and put Black Sabbath Vol4 on the tablet on the terrace (Atle likes his heavy metal) playing.
They then came in the refuge together explaining how they had been dancing on the terrace under the stars to Ozzy Osbourne. Damn tough these Vikings.
Again there was the issue of frozen pipes at the refuge so it was fill your bottles up before you climbed back up.
Christoph the guardian had such a great day with his new found International friends that he felt compelled to add a couple of bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape to our existing bottles warming by the stove.
The final run in...
I awoke in the early hours to a painful infection on my ankle bone where the boot had been rubbing, so I climbed and skied in a lot of pain and was so glad when we finally made the road and without having a long walkout which everyone feared.
It was then taxis down from Casterino to the train station and on to Nice.
Totals for the final day: 11km - 700m vertical - 4hr 43min - AVHR 123 peak 162
Outside the Gare de Nice still in ski gear where we again were getting some funny looks.
So thanks Per and Kris for a memorable adventure and to the team for such great company.