With the winter coming I thought I would describe one of my favourite excursions which can be achieved on ski mountaineering skis.
In the game of off-piste skiing, timing is everything. None more so than when searching for the best from one of Mont Blanc’s most sought-after descents: The Glacier du Toule. Get it right and it gives some of the best spring snow descents in the western Alps.
There are many different ways to approach a descent of the Glacier du Toule, yet my favourite is to combine the Glacier du Toule with a descent of the Vallee Blanche. This way you not only gain an iconic ski descent, but also a very satisfying circular journey. Yet to do this safely you need to leave early from the Aiguille du Midi - I would plan to be on the earliest possible cable car from Chamonix.
Descend the infamous ridge from the cable car station, ski down the first part of the Vallee Blanche to about 3,150 metres then stick your skins on and thread your way through some of the spectacular crevasse scenery, and then on up to the col du Toule in about an hour and 20 minutes.
At the col you will be treated to a spectacular view over to the Grand Paradiso. There is normally a steep 10-metre snow scoop which, depending on the season, you can either side-slip down or abseil. After which the interest continues because next you have to negotiate a rickety stairway while making sure you don’t drop your skis.
Probably because of dramatic glacier shrinkage, the stairway tends to run out before it should. Consequently there are some thought-provoking movements needed to get from the stairs onto the glacier, which last season was a further unwanted five metres of ‘alpinism’. Once on the glacier there is the small matter of clipping boots into bindings without actually skidding off down the slope below.
Now you can look forward to a fantastic ski descent of the Glacier du Toule. It faces south and is steep, so it receives a blasting from the sun which can result in a lot of melting and re-freezing - if you get there too early you will be faced with snow akin to a corrugated tin roof. Worse still, get there too late and you will find mush plus a high avalanche risk from wet slides. Keep tight grip on your timings.
The route either trends skiers left or far right towards Tour d’Entreves avoiding the crevasses in the middle of the glacier. I tend to go right because it is less skied. Lower down the slopes really open out and can give sublime spring snow. It is important not to get seduced into just going on and on, otherwise you will miss the traverse back to the middle station of Le Pavillion (2,174m) where an excellent cappuccino or even lunch can be had (often enforced by the fact that the cable car closes for lunch).
So in the afternoon you can take the cable car back up to just below the Torino hut, where you will exit into a building site (a new lift is being built). Turn right out of the building, put your skis over your shoulder and walk up a narrow path onto the glacier in about ten minutes. Now you get to ski the Comb de la Vierge, a perfectly formed kilometre-long slope built for skiing. What’s more, if you are lucky it will be full of knee-deep north facing powder. Once at the bottom of the comb, schuss across the flat to rejoin the normal route of the Valley Blanche and ski to Chamonix.
Cover photo: The rickety ‘stairway’ to access the Glacier du Toule