Avalanche course and ski tour

Last weekend I went on an avalanche safety course organised by the EPFL Mountain Club. The course was in La Fouly in Val Ferret, where there was a strong foehn wind blowing up from Italy (side note: in Swiss french, the verb foehner means to blow-dry one’s hair, because the foehn wind is the warm, dry wind). On the first day of the course we did activities in a field: we practiced finding avalanche beacons, looked at layers in the snow, and dug. Even with a team digging in an efficient configuration, digging through snow is really hard work. We also talked a lot about how to reduce avalanche risk.

Pointes des Six Niers (2939 m).
Conditions in the Combe des Fonds.

That evening we went through trip planning and planned a ski course for the next day. Our group set out to ski to the top of Crêta de Vella (2519 m). We approached from Drance, which is in Val d’Entrement and was therefore more sheltered from the wind. Nevertheless, when we got out of the forest the wind was strong enough to be impressive.

Exiting the forest on the way to Crêta de Vella (behind).

I have twice before skied this route, but each time the conditions meant that we could not go to the summit and we turned around at the top of the forest. This time the conditions were better and we were able to continue, so we cut across the Plan Devant and around to the east side of the mountain, where we could get to the summit without being on any steep slopes.

The eastern side of the mountain had been heavily blasted by the foehn, and the snow cover is quite light this year in any case. This meant we were skiing on hard snow with various almost-bare patches. We pushed on and were rewarded with amazing views from the top.

Almost there.
Cornices on the ridge, with blowing snow forming trails over the top.
The summit of Crêta de Vella (2519 m).
Le Catogne (nicknamed the “Swiss volcano” for its conical form).
Looking south towards Italy.
Floor on the summit.
It’s hard to see here, but the black smear down this mountain is an enormous avalanche trace on its north face.
Looking across the Combe de l’A and Val Ferret.
Petit (left) and Grand (right, in cloud) Combins.
So much wind!

We didn’t linger on the summit, but instead we took photos, took the skins off our skis, and headed down. The snow at the top was crusty but had nice stashes of wind-blown powder that you could follow for a few easier turns. Down lower in the forest the snow was good but the turns were tight. A great day in the backcountry!

February 18, 2017

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