Caroline George knows steep, burly lines. But for the UIAGM guide and Chamonix resident, the majority of that steepness is experienced on ice, rock, or mixed climbs. And it was a bit of a surprise to us that the prolific backcountry skier maintains a more complex relationship with steepness on the ski side, complicated by a near-death fall over a 1,000-foot cliff on a ski descent of Mont Dolent in 1997. But seventeen years later, George returned to the steeps with ski descents of the Poubelle couloir, the Rectiligne couloir, the Marbrées couloir, the Trappier couloir, the Cosmiques, and a trip to Arolla with Drew Tabke and Christian Pondella—all in one winter. This is her seasonal recap and seasonal reflection on the return. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Caroline George
We left from Chamonix the previous day to circumnavigate Mont Dolent, a 3,749-meter-high summit that borders France, Italy and Switzerland. On the first day, we did close to 9,000 feet of elevation gain. I wasn’t in shape for this long of a tour, but I was keen. We spent the night in the little Italian Fiori bivouac on the normal route to Mont Dolent. Tired from the previous day, we slept in late and left even later for the summit. We stopped at the bergschrund to leave extra clothes there and, by 2 pm, we stood on the top of this magical Ama Dablam-like summit.
We snapped a few pictures, stepped into our bindings, and started skiing down the steep south face. The snow had transformed to perfection. I made a few turns with my 2-meter-long, ultra-skinny Rossignol skis and oversized leather boots. A few more turns and I would have had to hang a left to head back to where we had stashed our gear. But all of a sudden I was flipped upside down, and headed toward the over-1000-foot-high cliff below. I picked up speed and before I could do anything, I was flying over the cliff, impacting twice along the way, shattering parts of my body in the process, and eventually landing in very soft snow on the glacier down below. I was alive and conscious. But back in 1997, we didn’t have cell phones. My partner skied out to seek help on the Swiss side of the mountain, but since I had fallen on the Italian side, the administrative aspect of the rescue proved to be complicated. Four hours later, I saw the helicopter fly over me and leave again. It hadn’t seen me. I wanted to move but the pain was too intense. I was hypothermic since we had left all our extra clothes at the bergschrund, and shivering made me ache around my broken bones. The helicopter finally came back and flew me to the safety of the hospital. Diagnosis: fractured and unleveled pelvis, multiple fractures to my left ankle, several broken ribs, and two months flat on my back in the hospital.
I am sitting at the “Atelier Café,” a nice little coffee shop in the heart of Chamonix, when Drew Tabke, Freeride World Tour legend and Eddie Bauer athlete, walks in through the wood and glass door. We had decided to meet here to get to know each other and hopefully plan a trip together to Arolla, in Switzerland, later in the season. Being a freerider, I know he’ll want to ski some steep lines and I am both excited and fearful at that perspective.
Since my accident, I have consciously avoided skiing anything too steep or run-out. Yet I am excited to push my limits and get back on the horse. I mean, it has been nearly 17 years since the accident and I do live in one of the steep-skiing meccas, so no more excuses allowed. There had been so many names that I kept hearing about and had yet to ski: the Poubelle couloir, the Rectiligne couloir, the Marbrées couloir, the Trappier couloir, the Cosmiques, and the Glacier Rond. By the end of the winter season, I had skied most of these lines but had also backed off one of them: the Glacier Rond. This run was in really hard to icy conditions and the top part is a no-fall zone. Though I could have made it down, it would have taken me a lot of time and it wouldn’t have been much fun for me or Adam, whom I was with that day.
Skiing steep lines is like soloing a face—but going downhill with speed involved—so the consequences can be dramatic. It is important to be honest with yourself as to where you’re at and whether or not it is worth it to you. The other lines were all amazing and I couldn’t believe I had let my head get in the way of skiing them until this year. My favorite was the Trappier couloir, a beautiful run that I can see from my house and that requires a 3,300-foot approach up avalanche-prone terrain to below the Aiguille du Goûter, one of the peaks on the way to Mont Blanc. I skied this line with Colin Haley, who was in town for a few weeks. And we hit perfect powder conditions on this 7,000-foot run, with a 45-degree start and then 35-degree for over 3,300 feet.
A few days later, I met up with Drew Tabke and Christian Pondella in Arolla. Drew was here to ski and eventually write an article about our time in Arolla for Powder Magazine. And I was the lucky one who got to ski with him. Though the weather was perfect, we found less than ideal snow conditions but were determined to make the best of it, hitting areas such as the Couloir de la Tsa on the Aiguille de la Tsa, a summit I love to guide on in the summertime, and the north face of Tsena Refien, a steep northeast-facing line on which we found great untracked snow!
Then, local super-skier Gilles Sierro met up with us to show us some hidden goods in the area. We were brought up to a stunning couloir with beautiful views of the glacier below, and though the snow was a mix of rock-hard to cardboard snow, we did find a few turns of powder. But sometimes the line is beautiful enough to make you forget about the snow quality. We then spent the night at the Vignettes Hut. I hadn’t been to this hut in exactly ten years, and I was blown away by how much it had changed for the better. The hut keeper greeted us with bottles of pinot noir and tasty dried meat that he had prepared himself. I woke up sick the following day. The team had decided to try to ski the north face of Petit Mont Collon, a steep and very rocky-looking face. Though I might have climbed part of it, I knew it wasn’t in the cards for me to ski it, so I opted to head on home to be with my little girl and rest in preparation for the ski-mountaineering race I was doing a few days later.
As I drove home, I reflected on this amazing winter pushing my own limits on skis in the Alps. Skiing steeper lines is what drew me to the mountains in the first place, until my accident happened. And for the first time in years, I reconnected with this lost love of mine. Sometimes you just need a little nudge to reopen a door that you had closed a long time ago, only to find the sparkles that had drawn you were still shining as bright as they once were. I am already excited for next winter!
Scroll below for the impressive galleries from each of Caroline’s steep lines this past winter.
Steeps Training in the Alps
Trappier Couloir in Chamonix
Poubelle Couloir in Chamonix
Arolla/Aigille de Tsa
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