In March 2000, I went on the Extreme Backcountry Camp run by Neil McNab in Chamonix. Here is my diary...
Up at 6:00am. Over to the Hart's. As usual, Chris & Charlotte are running late. I drive a faster than usual to make up the time, and we make the plane OK. Flight etc was the normal boring crap. Meet Neil McNab straight away in the airport, uneventful transfer. Chalet is really good - big, relaxing, warm. In the afternoon and evening, I get to meet the others; we are :
There are 12 of us on the Camp, plus a few other friends & partners along for 'normal' snowboarding. I went to Red Mountain with Iain in 1999 (see my report), and met Dave, Karen and Mark C there. I've been boarding with Chris almost since I started. By weird coincidence, I met Anthony in Avoriaz in 1998. So, I knew half the people already, and soon got to know everyone else. That evening, dinner was good and rowdy.
The reported conditions seem excellent, lots of recent snow, but blue skies forecast for the next few days. On arrival, broken cloud and light snow.
Didn't sleep too well, but rose to beautiful blue skies. Today was warm up day, but following Neil Mcnab around the Grand Montets was fairly intensive, belting around at high speed. Most of the fresh snow was tracked out, but we still found some pockets of sweet stuff. By the end of the day I was completely knackered, but it was a great day. The last run took us down to Lavanchet, through some really tight trees, in places feeling like a BoarderCross course, and then we had to walk out (10 minutes) to the main road, and get the bus back to Argentiere. A great run to end the first day.
Before dinner we meet the guides for tomorrow - Dave Cummins & Sean Hutson. Like most mountain guides I've met, they are relaxed, funny, and have an air of quiet confidence.
First day out with the guides. We are split into two groups of six, with a guide to each group. I am in Sean's group. Sean is on skis - he doesn't board, a fact which he soon tires telling us. We spend a fair bit of time at each stop talking about terrain, avalanches, transceiver use, etc, so the day is not too much hard work. In the afternoon we go to the top of the Grand Montets and head towards the Pas de Chevre, via the Rectiline couloir. The entrance to this is so steep and rocky that we abseil into it. After the rope runs out, we jump turn down the 40 degree slope until it opened out into a big powder field. This is definitely the gnarliest slope I've ever been down! The powder fields at the bottom are huge though, and superb. At the end we feed into the bottom of the Vallee Blanche. This is a serious off-piste run, and just what I hoped for.
Early start today - 8:30am lift up to the top of the Grande Montets. Then we ride down to the flat part of the Argentiere glacier, don snow shoes and start trekking. We start at 9:45am and 2350m, and finished at 12:45pm and 3100m, at the top of the Col de Passon. I found the climb very hard - much harder than I expected. I was wearing my heart rate monitor, and spent the whole time at 145~155 bpm. The last 200m were up a very steep couloir, more climbing than walking. I was very glad to get to the top. After 20 mins break for lunch, we were off, with 1600m of descent in open powder fields. While there were a few tracks, there was plenty left for us. This is probably the longest powder run I've done - superb. When we got to the bottom, we were all very tired, and decided against doing another run, and did some transceiver work, taking it in turns to bury a transceiver, and then try and find it. Dinner this evening is a little quiet - everyone is exhausted
After yesterdays exertions, Sean & Dave take pity on us, and give us an easier day. It's still an early start though, to get up to the top of the Aiguille de Midi, the jump off point for the Vallee Blanche. At 3832m, this is one of the highest lift stations in Europe. Sean leads us off the beaten track via the Envers du Plan, where we find some great powder stashes. About lunch time, we stop by a crevasse and have an introduction to crevasse rescue techniques for a couple of hours. Most of us have never done any rope work before, so this is very interesting, and great fun. Abseilling into a crevasse, and then waiting for your friends to learn how to rescue you is, er, different. However, by the end of it I feel moderately confident that I could get someone out of a crevasse.
Another big day - the Col do Beau Geant. Today we catch almost the first lift from Flegere and then at the top start hiking. After a small traverse where we can ride, it's on with the snowshoes, and slog it out. This is an even bigger hike than Tuesday, and very steep and hard towards the end. And when we'd finish hiking - it gets worse. The access to the Col involves climbing across a rock face. Even though we were roped up, and attached to belay points, I found this rather unnerving. The experienced climbers amongst us just danced across it without ropes, though, so I guess it wasn't anything to boast about. At the top (2930 m), we have lunch on a ledge with hardly enough room for us and our gear, and then we start a great run down through open untouched powder fields. Eventually the run brings us out in the Valorcine Valley.
This evening is the chalet staff's night off - we go out for dinner, but are so tired that it's a fairly quiet night
Last day with the guides. We go straight to the top of the Grand Montets, and Sean shows us how to dig a snow pit. The pit was quite interesting, because it revealed a unstable layer about 8 inches deep, made up of grouple snow (spelling?). This layer slid when pressure was put on it. The day wasn't all learning, and we found some good snow which was still fun to ride. We also take it in turns to lead the group, which is an interesting experience; it's one thing to follow a guide and listen to his assessment of the slope, it's another to make that assessment yourself as you ride.
As the backcountry week officially finished yesterday, many of the Campers were flying out straightaway; however, some of us who had arranged our flights well got a spare day. We went up to Le Tour and just hooned around on red and blue runs. After the gnarly stuff we'd been doing all week, it was fun to charge about in easy conditions, jumping off whatever we could find.
This week took me to places I couldn't have imagined riding, where I laid some of my best tracks ever. However, what it's really done is given me a grounding in backcountry techniques. I don't imagine that I'm now fully qualified to head off piste anywhere, but I do feel that I know much more about snow conditions, avalanche risk, avalanche rescue, glacier risk, crevasse rescue, rope work, and much more. Now, where shall I go next season....
Ex-British Snowboard Champion Neil McNab has been running his chalets in the Chamonix valley for a couple of seasons now. The chalets are very comfortable, and you are looked after very well. The food we were served (special mention to Lee and Martin) was always excellent, and there was always plenty of it. Neil knows the valley very well, and is a font of useful knowledge. Everybody on the camp agreed that this was about the best snowboard trip that they had done. McNab run several other camps - full details are on their web site at www.mcnab.co.uk I cannot recommend them highly enough.