Fit for a king: skiing the Hochkönig area

View from a ridge: hot air balloons floating over Dienten
View from a ridge: hot air balloons floating over Dienten

Maria Alm, Feb. 2015 – The western face of the Hochkönig is a steep expanse of snow and rock. “The refuge is up there on the right,” says the waiter pointing to the ridge of the peak that gives its name to the ski area south of Salzburg. We frown and squint through the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling window but all we can see is a vertiginous cliff face.

With a slightly disappointed smile, he goes on to explain that the refuge can only be accessed in the summer months, either hiking from the back or climbing up from this side. He is clad in prim traditional costume but his hands look like they have spent more time clambering in rocks than handling espresso cups. The toughest ascent, he says, takes ten hours; he’s only done the easier three-hour one. We’re impressed, of course, but right now, our mind is turning to the coffee and waffles he’s just brought.
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Round the Mont Roup

Walking across towards the Sana
Walking past the Sana towards Mont Roup

Just further on from the Val d’Isere classic Tour du Charvet, the Tour du Mont Roup has been on my list of short treks since the beginning of the season – for several seasons, in fact. I got close a few times but weather conditions and other circumstances kept getting in the way, until yesterday, when guide Chris said the words: “Right, today we’re going to the Mont Roup”.

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Returning from Cugnai: ferme de l'Arcelle

From couloir du Mont Blanc to Cugnai

Returning from Cugnai: ferme de l'Arcelle
Returning from Cugnai: ferme de l’Arsellaz

Yesterday’s miles of skinning are already a distant memory. Today, we’re skiing; just skiing. After a less than auspicious start –  from the top of Bellevarde down the Super-Santons on yet-untransformed snow and amid brown grassy patches – we headed back up the hill, then through the jardins de Borsat, across to the Charvet and down a depleted but good couloir du Mont Blanc. Once again, with snow being in limited supply, guide Chris ushered us about the mountain in an attempt to avoid crowds, and mostly, as usual, he succeeded .

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Skinning up to the glacier Pers

Skinning up to the Glacier Pers
Skinning up to the Glacier Pers

The north-west wind was still blowing in big gusts over the hill. Overnight it had pushed snow around and further sculpted the upper layers into crinkled sheets. Banks of clouds were sweeping across the surrounding peaks. As the morning began to unfold, the main question was to figure out which parts of the mountain would be most sheltered. In the end, we opted for Glacier Pers. The upper lifts had remained shut because of the wind, so from the Signal drag, we began the long traverse behind the Rochers Pers and above the Lechoir.

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Powder alert over the Iseran

Above the sea of clouds at Pays Desert
Above the sea of clouds at Pays Desert

We were knee-deep in powder, sometimes almost up to the waist, and the tips of our skis occasionally blasted big chunks of snow over our heads. We knew there would be fresh stuff up in the Iseran area after yesterday’s near-uninterrupted snow falls, but that much snow, well, this was an unexpected treat.

Of course we weren’t the only ones eager to taste the powder, so the drill this morning was to keep moving. This meant fewer photo opportunities, as Chris ushered us around to make first tracks down the Combe du Signal, followed by three runs down Pays Désert and finally across to the Col Pers. It was already busy around Pers by that point but Chris miraculously produced some untracked expanses down the Grand Torsai area, just above the gorges de Malpasset.

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Chamois at the Chardonnet bowl

Small herd of chamois above the Chardonnet bowl
Small herd of chamois above the Chardonnet bowl

The promised snow only started falling earlier this morning, with clouds coming down low in resort and closing visibility for most of the day. Stuff on the hill had hardened overnight in a lot of places and the lack of sunshine meant it wasn’t transforming into soft spring snow. It was ‘survival skiing’: you couldn’t see where you were going and the legs took a prolonged battering on icy slopes. But we saw a small herd of chamois just above us in the Chardonnet bowl, standing quite close and not as shy as they usually are. It made up for everything else.

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