Clémentine Junique is a Ski Instructor, 25 years old, 100% passionated by high mountains and always happy to follow the tracks of her boyfriend Pierre Hourticq. She gives here some advice to start steep skiing.
She’s also the President of the association Girls to the Top to promote and develop women access to mountain sports!
When you first arrive in Chamonix, you raise your gaze to take in the skyline and discover a whole new universe. I often remind my friends that Chamonix is not a ski resort! It is big mountains with a few lifts situated here and there.
As a skier and the daughter of a mountain guide, I had already skied in the mountains of Oisans, and in Alpe d’Huez, a beautiful, sunny resort with some excellent off-piste descents. But I have to admit that Chamonix’s mountains and couloirs made quite an impression on me right from the start, and some of them still do, even today!
Here in Chamonix you can easily find yourself skiing on a glacier, and even a simple descent of the Vallée Blanche can quickly go very wrong. It is important to understand the risks right from the start.
You find yourself drawn in and intrigued, but also a bit anxious as you first encounter this new playground in the heart of the mountains.
So what follows is a little advice to help you discover and explore ski mountaineering when your name isn’t Pierre Hourticq (and when you don’t have an innate gift for extreme skiing- see team Blue Ice). In other words, what follows is my experience from the point of view of a relatively ordinary skier.
Before heading into ski mountaineering terrain, you can practice skiing couloirs that are steep but close to the ski areas, and thus a tad bit safer.
You can also practice the famous jump turn technique, a type of turn that typically (if you don’t ski in the backseat like me) allows you to turn without gaining speed, making it possible to turn on very steep terrain.
That really is the hardest part: making turns! As our friend Helias Millérioux (mountain guide and member of team Blue Ice) says, “A poor skier can always sideslip down a steep slope.”
Beyond your ski technique, as soon as you get your start in ski mountaineering, you’ll need to acquire some basic mountaineering skills, like knowing how to build an anchor in case the start of a descent is not in condition. You’ll want to carry gear like ice screws and an ice axe, etc. As you evolve, your skills as a mountaineer become essential to managing risks in the mountains, like rock fall, avalanches, ice under the snow, crevasses, and serac fall.
It is also very important to have good skiing partners. Having good partners not only means having a good time in the mountains; your partner also might save your life.
For good skiers getting started at ski mountaineering in Chamonix, the ENSA couloir at the Brevent area is a good place to train and get a feel for things.
Entry of ENSA couloir ©Pierre Hourticq
I don’t consider this descent to be ski mountaineering or extreme skiing, but it’s a nice couloir that you can try to ski without stopping to give your thighs a good workout!
If you feel ready to head to the high mountains, you should check out the guidebooks for steep skiing in the various mountain ranges (Ecrins massif, Mont Blanc massif, etc.). These are essential, and like all guidebooks they include difficulty ratings.
I recommend that you start with a couloir that is easy to access, and not too exposed on the descent, in the event of a fall.
In other words, you won’t necessarily die if you fall and you don’t need too much alpine climbing technique for the ascent.
Two of Chamonix’s couloirs meet these criteria: the famous and relatively accessible Couloir des Cosmiques and the Glacier Rond.
Rappel to start Cosmiques couloir ©Pierre Hourticq
From here you can move on to steeper descents with slightly more technical approaches, but which also have just a moderate level of exposure.
One of my favorites is the beautiful, very straight Couloir Gervasutti on the Tour Ronde.
Start of Y couloir, Aiguille d’Argentière ©Pierre Hourticq
For a more technical approach and high alpine feel, the Couloir en Y on the Aiguille d’Argentière is also quite beautiful.
Finally, there are more committing couloirs that require a good deal of experience (which I don’t yet have): The north-northeast of the Courtes, the Spencer on the Aiguille de Blaitière, and if you have the experience, the west face of Mont Blanc!
As you get your start and become passionate about these steep, wild places, you need to be constantly asking questions about the conditions. Often you’ll want to scope out the conditions with binoculars or have a look at recent photos. In less than a week a couloir can go from skiable to completely unskiable and dangerous. Lots of couloirs are often skied in the spring, and some may be out of condition for the entire winter.
I have friends who had quite a scare on the Couloir des Cosmiques, for example
In any case, you’re sure to experience great adventures in the mountains, and some magical moments full of adrenaline! Always keep in mind your ability and level of experience and you’ll be sure to enjoy yourself; this isn’t just about getting to tell your story at the bar.
Whatever your skiing ability and objectives, I wish all of you a fantastic winter!