“Where am I, have I fallen asleep in a freezer?”
I ask myself when I open the hood of my winter sleeping bag and see Mont Blanc bathing in the early morning sunshine.
“Am I dreaming, or is this real?” I try to get up and bang my head against the icy roof. I realize that I am fully awake now. If this is not a dream, I am definitely in the middle of a dream trip.
Another day of splitboarding is waiting for us in this magical snowy landscape outside, surrounding our basecamp.
It’s early Friday morning, when we arrive at Serge’s ski shop in Flaine. Serge was a big name in French freeride history and is now a ski and snowboard teacher, specialising in freeriding. His family runs a mountain hut in the Andes, far away from civilisation. He has spent many European summers there, following the endless winter and riding his snowboard all year round. This man has loads of experience with winter expeditions and his freeriding and guiding skills are impressive.
After grabbing some last minute gear and repacking bags, we are stoked to get the adventure started. Thirty minutes later we are sitting on the ski lift in Flaine. Team Basecamp is counting 3 skiers and 6 splitboarders.
From the top of the Grandes Platieres we look down into the backcountry with the mighty Mont Blanc as our backdrop. After taking the usual pictures, we are ready to strap the bags. The daypack with lunch, water and safety gear goes on the chest and the bigger one on the back. The snow feels pretty good, but riding is challenging with the 20 kilograms we are carrying. Serge has the same weight, but is sliding down a pulka behind him as well. We will find out soon what is hidden under the cover of his sledge; I’m pretty curious! After 400 meters descent, followed by a little (but heavy) skin up we arrive at the spot where we will set up basecamp.
Two days earlier I came to this area and built a huge quinzee, together with a team of snowshoers. A quinzee is a pile of snow that you build up and then dig your way into it. Although we are pretty high, the sun has melted the south side of the quinzee, so a bit of maintenance work is needed. Three pairs of hands make the snow cave ready for the night and being storage during this first day. Now it´s time to skin-up and scope out our first lines.
Serge suggests starting with an easy warm-up run to check the level of the group. We hike up for an hour to reach our first summit. We remove the skins, put the bindings in a forward position and send our planks down by gravity. Wow, what a relief it is to ride just with a daypack!
We enjoy a great run down, especially those sections that had not been directly sun-facing. At the bottom of the valley we get our thermos out to heat up our dry-lunches. The weather is amazing, there is no one around and the stoke is already as high as Mont Blanc.
Everyone is keen for another run, so we decide to explore the north-facing side of the valley. When we skin up we see how well the snow has been conserved here. We reach today’s summit at 2500m and after enjoying the stunning views of the Arve valley and Mont Blanc, it´s time for the ride down. Serge asks us to imagine riding the Freeride World Tour and pick our best line to impress the judges at the bottom.
Our judge rides his line first, sending huge sprays into the air and launches himself off a cliff at the end of his run. We all choose an awesome line (with less airtime though) down through the fresh powder.
The tone for the coming days has been set.
When we come back to Basecamp we have got one hour left before sunset. We finish basecamp and finally find out what Serge has stashed in his sledge: A huge tipi tent, some fire wood and … a metal wood burner!
When the sun sets, the smoke is already coming out of the tipi. Wet skins and smelly socks are hanging above the heating and on top of it there is a big pan with melting cheese. A fondue is so tasty in a setting like this and gets even better with a nice glass of wine. After a great night around the fireplace, we head to our quinzee or tent for a good nights sleep under the stars.
Our three person snow cave felt a bit, how can I say, cosy? But no one was cold, only Steve feels even weaker than the day before. Poor man; he seems to be ill. The sun is casting a pink shade over Mont Blanc and a bit later basecamp is welcoming the morning. It’s great to feel the heat of the sun after a chilly bivoauc night. We take the time to eat breakfast, drink coffee and tea and to prepare the bags. Powderstress does not exist here as we are in the powder already! I make the most of the time to finish the one man snow cave Serge has started.
I am looking forward having my private single room tonight! But first another day of riding is ahead of us. We are all biting a the bit and while sipping a coffee, we talk through today’s options.
Serge prefers to start with the North face again, as the forecasted heat will ruin the fresh snow quickly. after a 30 minutes approach it’s time to lift up the heel support. We aim for a line slightly to the left; steeper and deeper than yesterday’s.
Some of us push their limits already in the climb, as this is steeper than they have ridden before. The transition zone is small and makes things even more exciting. This time, we all go first and Serge is closing the gate. Maybe it’s from a safety perspective, but it might be a show-off perspective as well.
The snow feels even better than yesterday, but you know;
things do feel good when you work hard for it!
The north facing wall is officially tracked out now, which means we have to move on. We are all keen to aim for the highest peak; la Pointe d’Anterne with it’s 2733m. The sun is burning and at this height you start to feel the lack of oxygen. Halfway through the climb we wait for each other to have a lunch with a view. Steve feels so bad, that he decides to wait for us here. One hour later we bootpack the last meters to the summit, where a huge lammergeier (aka bearded vulture) is circling around to find some fresh bones. We strap our bindings up and slide down.
Luckily Steve has not served as lunch for the lammergeier and joins us on the second part. The snow has transformed into spring snow and our timing is just perfect. The terrain is really playful, with loads of hits, lips and small gullies. This is definitely one of the best descents I have ever ridden and we all arrive down smiling from ear to ear!
While half of the group goes back to basecamp, the other half goes for a water expedition. We hope to dig out the source in the hamlet of Sales, but as soon as we arrive we realize that everything is (of course) covered in 2,5m of snow!
Serge has another idea. We skin up further and just after the Chapel, he finds what he is looking for. Between two rocks there is fresh running mountain water! We thought we were alone here, but we are wrong. Foxy the local fox shows up, hoping to find some human food. Sorry mate, we wish we had, but we finished it all already. We fill up all water bottles and camelbags and get back to basecamp when it’s nearly dark. We enjoy another awesome meal and decide to finish the wine that is left.
The night in my snow cave is good, but the moment of waking up even better: The sun is just lightning up Mont Blanc and the sunrise is just magical!
Today is the last day. We break up camp, pack the bags and two hours later we start skinning back up. Although we finished all the food and drinks, the bags are still very heavy. Serge and Lammert struggle even harder to get the pulka back up the mountain. We leave the gear at the summit of the ski area to finish with a last (backcountry) ride down carrying only the daypacks. The sun is strong and the temperature high, so the snow gets more and more sticky. Back at the summit we order an amazing meal at the restaurant and reflect on 3 wonderful days in the backcountry.
It feels weird the be surrounded by all these wintersporters using skilifts, manmade slopes and restaurant meals. We were close, but really felt away from civilisation during these 2,5 days. It feels a bit like a cold shower getting back into this reality. At the same time I wonder myself what reality really is. Isn’t it all just perception?