The Frigor Couloir: a tale of low snow and high adventure in Chamonix

When drought struck Chamonix in ‘Drycember’ it also brought the adventure skiers out to play, British transplants among them. Pete Houghton tells the tale of the third known descent of the elusive Frigor Couloir

“It’s a bit firm up here!” I call down to Joel, just out of sight, nestled in the rocks a few metres below me, before I wrench my axe from the bulletproof snow and poke it down behind my rucksack, between my shoulder blades. I scrape my way tentatively, noisily, with a wince and gritted teeth, out into the middle of the narrow couloir, telling myself over and over that I just tuned my edges last night. I only hope I did a good enough job. “Crikey, it’s a bit firm everywhere…” I cry, my voice breaking ever so slightly.

Nearly a month after the last storm, which also happened to be the first and only one of the season so far, we had an inkling of an idea that there might be some soft snow hidden deep in the guts of this sheltered and seldom-skied couloir, tucked away beneath the stark and terrifying Nant Blanc face of the Aiguille Verte. Maybe we were being naive, maybe overly optimistic. Maybe we just wanted an adventure.

In what would turn out to be one of the driest Decembers of all time in the Chamonix valley, if you wanted to ski the good stuff, you had to be both a little creative in your route choice and enthusiastic enough to go and find it. But the very drought that we were all wishing so desperately to see the end of had created the perfect conditions in which to do so, because although we hadn’t seen any fresh snow since the great storm which brought us over a metre in that one weekend back in the middle of November, a short-and-sudden heatwave followed by persistent low temperatures had cemented what snow we had been given firmly into place. There were no complicated layers in the snowpack, just a solid, stable base. So despite the seemingly-poor conditions, there were people out there pushing the boundaries.

Chamonix saw a rare descent of the north face of the Aiguille de Triolet, an impossibly-steep wall bordered by black granite and towering seracs at the back of the Argentiere Glacier; and nearby, new steep-and-technical lines were put up near the Col des Courtes and, on the same day, the Point de la Fouly. A few days later, Tom Grant and Jesper Petersson made the first descent of the West Couloir on the Tour Noir.

Tom Grant dry skiing on the Tour Noir. Photo: Jesper Petersson

“This December was like nothing else I’ve experienced in eight years of living in the French Alps,” Tom, a British IFMGA mountain guide, said of their descent.”But desert-like dryness, fine weather and a highly-stable snowpack can present opportunities. With huge exposure and lots of loose rock, our line required cold and stable conditions!”

It was with this spirit of exploration amidst favourable conditions that Joel Evans, Jesper Petersson, and I set out to try for the third known descent of the Frigor Couloir. The thing about this lonely little gully is that you can’t really see it from anywhere except high on the Nant Blanc face of the Verte, or from the north couloir of Les Drus – so not many people get a good enough look at it to gauge the conditions inside, and even fewer people get the idea of skiing it. It’s so well-hidden that the first known descent on skis and snowboard was only made quite recently, in February 2013, by Vivian Bruchez and Douds Charlet. But, by chance, I managed to grab some footage of it from a helicopter flight a few weeks earlier, and then we just happened to stumble on a photo taken during a parapente descent from the Aiguille Verte by Ueli Steck and David Göettler just a few days prior. We could see a narrow but unbroken white ribbon, all the way from the summit breche to the bergschrund.

Pete Houghton prepares the anchor for a rappel in the Drus approach couloir. Photo: Joel Evans

The logical way to approach the Frigor Couloir is from the other side, as Vivian and Douds had done when they made the first descent, by skiing down the Argentiere Glacier side of the Grands Montets and climbing up the Gigord Couloir, with a section of difficult-to-protect M4 mixed climbing to reach the breche joining the two sides of the ridgeline. But although we were fairly confident that our couloir had enough snow in it, we weren’t entirely sure what flavour it would be, so instead of dropping in blind, we decided to take the long way around. We traversed across the lower slopes of the Petite Verte, rappelled through some rocks, skied a steep-and-narrow gravel-filled ditch down to the alarmingly-crevassed Nant Blanc Glacier (after making another rappel for good measure), skinned up to and over an almost catastrophically-open bergschrund, until finally with the worst of the holes behind us (at least until we had to meet them again on the way back down) we swapped skins for crampons and booted up the couloir.

We climb up through a mixed bag of snow, with everything from pockets of facets to old sluff-carved runnels through squeaky neve, but just under fifty metres from the top, the sun – which was by now licking the tops of the granite spires either side of the summit breche – had freeze-thawed the snow underneath our picks and crampons into cold, hard, bulletproof ice. If we waited another two hours for the sun to come around, maybe it would soften enough to ski, but we’d also miss the final cable car down from the Grands Montets, and given the atrocious snow cover on the lower slopes we’d have a hell of a long walk back down to town. It was an easy decision to make: time to turn around, and ski what we’ve worked for.

Jesper Petersson and Joel Evans switching to crampons underneath the Frigor Couloir. Photo: Pete Houghton

The unholy racket of steel edges on firm snow echoes around the sheer granite walls as Jesper sets off down the couloir, scouting first one side, throwing in a neat hop turn, then traversing back again, looking for the best snow. But no joy: it’s all terrible. He picks his way down through a section of around 50 degrees higher up in the couloir before tucking in on the left bank above a slight bottleneck, safely out of the way of anything – or anyone – that might bounce down after him. Now it’s my turn.

I’ve climbed another ten metres past Jesper and Joel, just to double-check the snow really is worse further up, but now I’ve got to get back down. The walls are closer together here, barely five or six metres apart, but the couloir feels even more confined thanks to the unreasonably-hard snow underfoot; I’m struck by a horrific vision of losing control at the end of a turn, running into one of the walls, and crashing violently down to the Nant Blanc Glacier hundreds of metres below. Don’t risk it, I think, stepping back down to Joel’s level, where the couloir widens slightly again and where I throw in my first turn. My edges bite easily into the firm snow, my skis run happily, and I suddenly find myself linking turns, the snow improving noticeably with every metre of descent. A furrowed brow of stern concentration eases softly into a toothy grin as the walls grow taller around me and the Aiguille Verte and the Drus take up more space in the sky above me, and as the angle eases to a mere 45 degrees and the snow stops singing quite so loudly, I’m all-too-briefly lost in a perfect moment. I pull in on the left bank of the couloir a short distance below Jesper, where we wait for Joel to join us.

Jesper Petersson and Joel Evans skiing the lower section of the Frigor Couloir. Photo: Pete Houghton

We hop turn our way down through a second narrow, and again, slightly-steeper section where weeks-old sluff has carved deep runnels down the centre of the couloir and frozen solid; we are reduced to picking our way carefully over the trench step-by-step, then down through a series of rocky choke points, before the couloir widens again and we can throw a few turns in back to where we stashed the spare kit above the bergschrund. We gather our belongings, make our way back down through the maze of crevasses and seracs on the Nant Blanc Glacier, then knuckle down for the long and sweaty climb back up to the Grands Montets lift station under the persistent glare of the afternoon sun.

We didn’t get to the top, and we didn’t get to ski the final fifty metres of boilerplate. So I suppose, technically, we don’t get to claim the third ever known descent of the Frigor Couloir. Does it matter? Not really. We left the lift with six legs; we came back with six. We got to ski just a little bit of good snow, a little bit of bad, and plenty of mediocre, but most importantly we still got to go skiing. So, despite the best efforts of the driest December in living memory here in Chamonix, the day was a total success.

Pete Houghton is a chef, skier, climber and reluctant runner based in Chamonix, France. When he isn’t slaving away in a hot kitchen, he likes to write short stories about his time in the mountains, which can be found at his blog or on Instagram.