Stéphanie Maureau and Maxime Tirvaudey skiing down to the access of Vallée Blanche and all the routes it offers. It wasn’t easy to ski with all the equipment on their backs.
It was a pleasure to climb except the uncomfortable spin drifts, amusing little avalanches that have a perverse pleasure in filling clothes with snow.
Happy to have completed this route together, they started the long series of abseils that bring them back down for the last part of the day – the descent by ski.
Mont Blanc du Tacul, a dream shared
So, ice axes, crampons, pitons, quickdraws, some screwgate carabiners, descenders, helmets, ropes. OK! Some nuts for the first pitches? That’s it for the technical stuff.”
“Now for the bivouac, stove, mess can, sleeping bag, mattress, tent. Just the clothes left… Let’s go, this is going to be great.” After closing the backpack and a phone call to Max to check the final details of the route, it‘s time to get going.
Stéphanie and Max are heading for the Supercouloir on the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. This couloir is simply captivating. With the broad band of ice that outlines 600m of the east face of the mountain, there is no doubt that any climber will be attracted to it. A climb like the Supercouloir represented for them, who love the mountain in all its forms, a real playground where you have to master several alpine activities to accomplish it: the approach is made on skis, first a short descent into the Vallée Blanche, then a short ascent on skis to reach the bergschrund and finally the technical climb – two mixed pitches to reach the foot of the ice, which then continues for 500m. The route ends at the peak of Mont Blanc du Tacul with the last 400 m mixed and a descent on foot from the summit. If conditions are too poor to descend the normal du Tacul route, it’s possible to get off the mountain by abseiling down the technical pitches.
Sharing the mountain
Stéphanie, who has been a competitor in the Ice Climbing World Cup, is now a “Guide de Haute Montagne” (Mountain Guide). Based in Chamonix for the last five years, she recently joined the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix (Mountain Guide-Company of Chamonix) – the second woman in over 25 years. I feel good. I’m living a dream every day!
I love my work – taking a person up the mountain is just magical. It’s true that it can be tricky for a woman – you have to win clients’ confidence but after a little while on the rope they see that they have found their feet and can take it from there, it’s a success and they have confidence in us.
The mountain is sharing, for me. Sharing emotions, sharing feelings, sharing friendship. So why not share experience… ???
The bond of Team spirit
Her buddy for the Supercouloir is Maxime Tirvaudey, instructor at the Military Academy de Haute Montagne and an aspiring guide. Mountaineering is a great way to get to know each other and weave other links, stronger links, a secret which only the mountain knows… Beyond mere friendship, there is the bond of team spirit. An attachment to one another and a relationship of trust.
Here’s the story of their route, told by Stéphanie: It was 1 pm and I found Max at the base of Aiguille du Midi. We had a last coffee before getting into the gondola that would take us up to 3,800 m, the starting point of our route. With the mountaineering and camping equipment, the bags were heavy and bulky. It wasn’t going to be easy to ski with this load on our backs but… The idea of sleeping at the foot of the Supercouloir added an extra attraction to this adventure.
30 minutes later, we arrived at the summit of Aiguille du Midi and prepared to descend the ridge, which we had to do to access the Vallée Blanche and all the routes it offers. The ridge, impressive in summer, is equipped with winter ropes to help people descend. The landscape is magnificent and the weather was fine, although we could feel the cold of winter on our cheeks. Ow! Ow! Ow! … It was not going to be very warm over the next couple of days.
Cold night out
I’m not very used to camping in winter and I had thought that sharing a beer would be nice, but to my surprise, after a few sips, the beer began to freeze. Next time it will be mulled wine for sure!
After a few problems with our stove (also because of the cold), we managed to eat our freeze-dried food but it was not possible to melt the snow a second time, so no hot water before sleeping. The thermometer on my phone indicated -23ºC… I couldn’t guarantee a great night. We put everything possible inside the sleeping bag – shoes, slippers, the gas cylinder in the hopes of having a little hot tea in the morning… and presto, we drifted off in no time. The night seemed long and I looked forward to the early morning. A little more patience…
We set the alarm at 4.30 am to be at the bergschrund by daybreak. Between the bad night and the cold of early morning, it wasn’t easy to get out from under the duvets, but a glance at the rock face re-motivated us and gave us energy. The problem with the stove was repeated and it took an hour to melt some snow. So no freeze-dried food for breakfast. We opened a packet of biscuits instead (thanks, Max, for this great idea). Not hyper-energising but it would be good enough…
6 am and we tackled the rise on skis and an hour later reached the bergschrund. After a quick gulp of tea, we put on our mountain boots and got ready for the ascent. The first two pitches are mixed climbing. There was some ice and we progressed with ice axes on the rock by aiming for its flaws and all the little cracks available in the granite. It was early in the season and the ice and rock were in reasonably good condition.
Ice and rock together feels good
We were now at the foot of the ice pitches – eight ahead of us, about 400 m to climb. Being this early in the season, the ice was changeable, sometimes with good anchorages, other times needing several attempts before the ice axe would stick. It was icy cold, and the wind picked up, and we were suddenly trying to go as fast as possible to reach the top…
The last stretch of ice was very interesting. It is quite steep and the ice was of good quality. It was a pleasure to climb except the uncomfortable spin drifts, amusing little avalanches that have a perverse pleasure in filling our clothes with snow. We were sure, it will definitely be windy up there… Reaching the summit from the final technical pitches, Max and I decided to rappel back down the way we came. The spin drifts were becoming more numerous and abseiling was by far the easiest solution. There had been a lot of snow recently and the normal du Tacul route would be difficult. Happy to have completed this route together, we had no regrets as we set up our rope in the quick links and started the long series of abseils that would bring us back to our skis. We arrived back at the bivouac at 2 pm. We hurried to fold up the tent and pack our bags again for the last part of the day – the descent by ski.
I love this landscape
As a guide in Chamonix, the descent from the Vallée Blanche was not new to me, but skiing it is a great pleasure every time. The route is across open glacier, skiing between crevasses and seracs. The scenery is magnificent and changes from one moment to the next. All these surrounding mountains… the Grandes Jorasses, Blaitière and its north face, the Aiguille Verte, the Drus. All their fascinating, imposing majesty... In the distance you can see the mountains in other ranges, the Grand Combin, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa.
You feel like you are in the heart of the Alps. It‘s official: I love this landscape. We let ourselves gently slide towards the Mer de Glace. The backpacks were still heavy. So we decided not to ski down to Chamonix, but to go back down by train from Montenvers, a hundred-year-old rack and pinion railway. Suddenly we were among people… It feels strange to return to civilisation. We were only alone for two days and, hey, there was everyone and it wasn’t so easy to just sit still…
Sharing the warmth
And then we were back in Cham. The journey was over but there were still a few things to do. It’s out of the question to leave just like that after a great day on the mountain. It was now 4 pm and we had hardly eaten all day, so a good meal was essential while sharing our impressions, emotions and reliving the route we had just experienced, but this time a lot warmer…
Sad but true
Maxime died a few days after this climb during an accident at Mont Blanc. adidas is sorry to have lost a friend who was all passionate about mountaineering, skiing, climbing, being active with friends in the mountains. adidas joins with the sorrow of his relatives and friends, together with whom we have decided to publish the story of this expedition in his honour.
“Max, thank you for having crossed my path. I will keep your smile and your joie de vivre with me. Keep shining for us and among us. With all my love.”