Following the Storm - Everything Done Right!
Text by Anne Wrangler
Photography by Max Draeger
It's mid-January and the season in and around Innsbruck has been rather lackluster so far. We had all hoped for better snow conditions, which has only made our impatience grow day by day. Proper skiing, that's what we're craving! For weeks, we've been wondering where we could enjoy some fresh snow, but this year, winter in the Alps has left much to be desired. A trip across the pond would be the ultimate solution, the Southwestern Mountain ranges of the USA have been pounded by heavy storms since the beginning of the season and are currently buried under the deepest snowpack they’ve seen in two decades (At least that’s what Instagram has been rubbing in our faces). However, there's simply no gap in our schedules to make it happen and flying halfway around the world to show up to “You should have been here last week” is not that appealing. So we wait and hope.
For a while now, I've made a commitment to say "yes" more often – to ponder less and do what feels good and simply right. My phone rings. It's Max, one of my best friends, ski partners, and an extremely talented photographer. "Anne, have you checked the weather? It looks like Chamonix could get hit hard. I'm soooo up for it! Are you in? Hoji too? We should leave tomorrow." Uhm...yes! Yes, of course! I wanted to say "yes" more often, and hey, we're not missing out on anything here - so why not?!
Hoji´s response to our invitation: “You want to go to Cham? Let me see what Stian is up to.” With an almost instant text response from Stian, Hoji has secured us not only a place to crash but some “local” guides with his longtime friends Stian Hagen's and Andrea Binning.
This power couple has been friends with Hoji for almost 20 years but Hoji’s last visit to ski with them in Cham was 9 years ago.
That's why they didn't hesitate for a second and invited us to spend the next few days with them and their two kids.
Within 24 hours, the three of us are in Max's van heading toward Chamonix. Max, Hoji, and I have spent a lot of time together on the snow in recent months, so the spontaneous decision for the trip is an absolute no-brainer. The weather forecast looks promising and hitting the road with your best friends for such adventures is a definite plus. Our insatiable thirst for deep powder drives us through the night.
At midnight, after a 9-hour drive, we stand in front of Stian Hagen's and Andrea Binning's house in Argentiére.
Stain had sent Hoji a photo of their house during our drive so we could recognize it knowing we would arrive in the darkness, in the photo bare green grass and a clear driveway. In the darkness we can barely recognize the house and as we step out of Max’s van into 30 cm of fresh, cold snow, we realize that our timing is perfect.
Unloading our stuff as quietly as possible, we sneak into the house and move into our accommodation for the next week- A bouldering gym / guest room in the basement, perfect. We're somewhere between totally exhausted and full of anticipation because it's still dumping outside.
We wake up early the next morning, slightly crushed from the long drive.
It's still snowing. Giant flakes!
It's a fricking pow-day! For Hoji it´s a joyful reunion with Stian, Andrea and the kids, for Max and I, a fantastic first meeting and very warm welcome.
We don't waste any time, pack our things and head towards Grand Montets. We're early.
For Stian, being the first in line for the gondola is a rule. It's law - at least on a powder day. If you want a seat in the first cabin, you must be willing to stand for an hour in the snowstorm in front of the closed lift station building. Then, as soon as the giant roll door opens, it is an all-out 50-meter sprint in ski boots to wait for another hour in front of the turnstile in the cold belly of the base station building.
Fanatical diehard skiers rush to pack in like sardines.
As the over enthusiastic mob assembles, the crowd slowly leaning and pushing forward, until every available cm of space is occupied.
At the front of the line, you have to endure the constant pressure of the swarm while remaining laser focused ready to scan your ticket as the gate can become active at any moment with no warning. Its total chaos.
Don’t pay attention, fumble or hesitate, you will blow your opportunity to get the first cabin (“The Bin”) the frantic mob will pass you by. The long wait and enduring the crowd will have been for nothing.
It's simply exhausting. I look at Hoji, rammed into the turnstile beside me "F*** man, this is f***ing insane. Whyyy?!"
We endure it; Suddenly gates open, elbows out ,we run for all we're worth.
Made it, first gondola!
During the next section of lift, strategy comes into play. Now you should position yourself in the second gondola, as the crew in front of you must break trail to the third and final lift, allowing you to overtake them. Not fair, but it seems to be part of the game. Yes, Skiers in Chamonix take their first tracks very, very seriously.
So, after this Chamonix game (lift line warfare), when we finally reach the top, there's no time to catch our breath. We jump into our bindings as quickly as possible, everyone is here, and the real race begins!
Stian out front
Always following Stian's red helmet. None of the three of us really knows Chamonix (Grand Montets) well, so Stian's offer to guide us was worth its weight in gold. The Norwegian native has lived in Chamonix with his family for over 20 years, works as a mountain guide and professional athlete. He´s is a great human and am happy that I can now call him a friend of mine. Without him, we would have been completely lost, lacking local knowledge in an absolute whiteout.
First run. The field has leveled out a bit. I'm alone with Max in the chairlift, I look at him, shake my head, and say, "Let's go back home. That was really not cool." For us, this kind of powder stress was uncharted territory, and both Max and I, as well as Hoji, don't feel 100% comfortable.
After the 3rd or 4th run, we all calm down a bit. Visibility improves, the snowpack feels surprisingly stable considering the amount of new snow, and the snow quality...so fluffy, so light, so deep. We can hardly believe our luck and are incredibly stoked to be skiing again. It's the best snow of the season, perfect tree runs and the best crew.
The next two days are similar, except that with each run, we get to know the area better AND we gradually get used to the Chamonix vibe. In high spirits, we glide through the open larch forests, letting the cold powder fly around our ears. Euphoria literally radiates from our faces; our eyes are shining, our hearts are laughing and screams of joy fill the air -
All day long, and the snow just keeps falling.
And then, the weather clears up.
Blue sky, sunshine, a good one and a half meters of the driest, fresh snow and -28 degrees Celsius. Yes, it's incredibly chilly, very, very chilly.
Today's destination: Col de Passion. The name couldn't be more fitting.
We start early, as usual, and prepare for our first alpine ski tour. Stian packs his ultralight 165 cm skis in the car, along with a mini backpack containing the essential glacier equipment, first aid kit, rope, ice axe, and crampons. Everything is as light and minimalistic as possible.
I'm nervous. So nervous, in fact, that I don't want to go. The combination of being by far the weakest of the four of us and the ambitious route ahead gives me a headache.
I try to explain myself, standing in front of Hoji with tears in my eyes, "This is gonna be an absolute nightmare. I'll be slowing you down. You'll get cold and I'll be struggling out there. I'll reach out to some friends and go shred with them instead. It's okay."
No chance. Anyone who knows him knows he would never allow that to happen. We're a team and we all stick together. Furthermore, he's the best support you could wish for - always there with the right words and actions at the right moment.
I pull myself together, wipe away the tears, take a deep breath, pack my backpack and (after some discussion) finally load my skis into Max´van. My complete setup is rather on the heavy side (Stian said after inspecting all my gear inside out, I could and should easily save 3.5 kg), as I simply had a different focus when skiing so far. However, after that day, I started to rethink my entire gear setup. After all, you never stop learning; it's never too late to broaden your horizons, change your perspective, push your limits, and focus on new, different things.
“You can have to best downhill specific set up in the world but if you don’t make it to the top of the mountain first it does you no good!” says Stian, the minimalist gear master.
We're back at Grand Montets and take the first gondola. Upon arrival, we realize that due to the heavy snowfall, the remaining lifts will not open, which means our already long tour will be extended even more. Some in the group are not so thrilled about the additional altitude gain... I breathe deeply again, wrestle with my thoughts and fears and pull myself together once more. Stian sprints with his short legs and rapid pace up to Col des Rachasses, Max follows with heavy photography equipment, I try to find a good rhythm and not let Stian's brisk pace distract me. Hoji is with me. We all hike with thick down jackets and hoods pulled tight; our heated socks and gloves are set to the highest level and neck warmers are pulled up to just under our eyes as we ascend step by step.
After the initial climb, we're rewarded with our first view of the Argentiére basin. We're breathless, not only because of the cold but also because of the sheer beauty. Above us looms the imposing Aiguilles Verte glacier, while opposite, the still low sun glistens over the peaks of Aiguilles d'Argentiére and Aiguilles de Chardonnet. We descend to the glacier tongue, make two turns and there it is – the first exuberant whoop, screams of happiness- The snow couldn't be any better. We ski past enormous, ice-blue glacier crevasses. I didn't know where to look first; it was a total sensory overload.
It's bitterly cold. We cross the glacier and reach the bottom of the next ascent. Finally in the sun, we climb again, with Stian leading the way. In front of us, a beautiful 400m-long flank opens up. Stian accelerates, standing on this untracked slope that practically begs to be skied. He radios down to Max, "Do you wanna shoot it?" Max doesn't hesitate, "Sure thing, let's go." While Max looks for the right angle and gets into position, Hoji acts without hesitation. I just smile, move out of the way; he quickly passes me towards Stian and radios up as he races to catch up "Okay, guys, this is the end of Hoji, haha!"
A deep breath on my part. Relief. The guys are all quite a bit behind me now, allowing me to set my own pace without pressure. Step by step. Slow and steady. From that point on, all the pressure (which I had, of course, put on myself) lifts. I got up first and wait in front of the last, very steep section in the sun, take a sip and attach my skis and poles to my backpack. The last 300 meters of altitude are covered with a bootpack, a bit exposed, the rock under the thin snow cover is rather loose, providing the last adrenaline rush.
Finally, on the ridge, the long descent to Le Tour ahead of us. Despite the beauty the wind is so strong it´s not a comfortable place to hang out.With frozen fingers we transition. Clumsyly. The expanse is vast, the mountains majestic, the cold biting, and the feeling of finally standing at the top is indescribable.
A good 2000m of the finest powder follows. What a day! Every step was worth it. The burning in our lungs and heavy legs, the initial doubts and fears, are almost forgotten.
Strangers become friends. Friends become companions and partners. Time on the mountain connects. Passion connects. Skiing connects. Merci Chamonix. Thank you, skiing!