Grand Bornand Off Piste

Ski-Areas > Northern Alps > Haute-Savoie (74) > Aravis > Le Grand Bornand > Off Piste

Ski Mountaineering in the Aravis

It was a simple enough idea. Leave Paris early on Saturday morning to avoid the crowds and spend a weekend ski touring in the Aravis mountains. First problem, would the weather let us down? After consulting numerous sources including the US army weather service we decided that the front that was forecast for the weekend would pass Sunday afternoon. Time to snatch a quick summit in the morning before an excellent day of skiing on Monday.

The journey was fine until we hit traffic just outside of Lyon on the Chamonix highway. 30km of stop go until we reached our exit, then only to be blocked by a strike of staff at the tollbooth. Well this is France, after all. A long detour, made longer by the fact that the area was on a fold in the atlas and we finally arrived at Le Grand Bornand at 3pm. The ski resort is almost Swiss in appearance but its pleasant exterior hides dark secrets. It was here that real estate agent Xavier Flactif and his family were brutally murdered by a jealous neighbour.

We didn’t dwell long in the station but continued up the road to the pretty hamlet of Les Troncs. This is the starting point for the 1000-meter climb to the refuge de Gramusset. The neighbouring cross-country piste was still busy when we arrived but with the sun racing towards the horizon we were aware that time pressed. For the first 500 meters of climbing we followed a wooded track. There were some tricky corners and steep sections and a tiny footbridge had everyone, except a sheepdog that had adopted us, struggling.

Indianna Jones

Indianna Jones

We pushed on out of the forest, Stephane taking up the lead for a bit. Above us we could make out a cable transport system, used to carry wood and other provisions to the refuge. This also served as a good orientation point. We arrived after 2 hours of hard climbing to find the refuge full of skiers and boarders. A group of Parisians, accompanied by two local CAFistes (Club Alpin Français) were in residence. It seemed that they’d taken the easy route. A traverse from the top of the Grand Bornand lift system saving them much of the climbing. We managed to find a spot for our gear and settled down to the job of melting snow and making dinner.

We’d been expecting Cyril, a mate from Bourg d’Oisans to join us for the weekend. At 9pm, just before settling down we checked outside. A thick fog had settled on the mountain, it was bitterly cold with a stinging northerly wind and it had started to snow lightly. No sign of a head torch so we figured Cyril had thought better of it. Half an hour later and everyone was woken by a crash at the door. A cold looking Cyril crashed into the refuge. He’d arrived at 8pm and followed our ski tracks using his torch. Not an easy task as the snow and wind were rapidly making them invisible.

Grand Bo

Grand Bo!

Pointe de Chombas

The big group promised they would be up with the crack and out of the door by 8am. We should have known better. In the end I was first out of bed and the group didn’t make it up for another hour. A lot of disorganised kerfuffle later and they finally got underway at 10pm. We made it out the door half an hour later. The weather was good but evidence of the wind was all around. Clouds loomed on the horizon. We skied down a mixture of windblown snow and powder. There was evidence of a few small avalanches and the sand left by a recent African storm.

We traversed then skied directly under the Prés aux Chèvres (Goat’s field) cliffs, the idea was to ski around this obstacle to 1750 meters then climb the Combe de Chombas and at around 2150 meters to take a short, steep slope onto the ridge up to the 2468 Pointe de Chombas. Stephane headed off into some deep powder away from our tracks. He then started complaining that he was on a large slab and that we should come to his assistance. Renaud told him not to be so silly and keep closer to us in future.

Combe de Chombas

Combe de Chombas

The Aravis bowls were laden with fresh powder, on the climb up the Prés aux Chèvres we found where this bounty had come from. The wind-exposed slopes had been scoured almost clear of snow, leaving rock outcrops and ice. At one point on the narrow ridge we thought it better to go on foot. It was here that Renaud let a pole drop, it skittered back down the slope, adding about 30 meters to his climb as he went to retrieve it. Further up we fixed ski crampons (harscheisen) to help grip on the hard surface then finally we were there. A bleak, exposed point of rock surrounding by the summits of the Aravis looming out of the cloud. A cup of sugary tea and a chocolate bar and we removed our skins to begin the descent.

This was more pleasant than we’d imagined on the climb, and when we finally rejoined the Combe de Chombas we had 400 meters skiing knee high powder. Time to whoop it up, take a few photographs and generally relax.

Telemark Power

Telemark Power

There was a brief clearing in the weather that revealed our tracks to the summit. We had a short picnic then fixed skins for the climb to the refuge. The fresh snow made the ascent hard work. The weather soon closed in again and apart from the cliffs to our right it was soon a whiteout. We kept going, climbing as hard as we could against the contour in a long traverse. This brought us to around 100 meters below the refuge; with the fresh snow we’d missed yesterday’s tracks and were faced with a very stiff climb.

The refuge was welcomed by one and all. Stephane, who really feels the cold, flopped into bed with about a hundred blankets over him. Cyril busied himself brewing tea and making tabbouleh and Renaud and I climbed to the top of the roof to take advantage of some residual heat and read some magazines. We even tried to coax the stove into life, but it coughed and spluttered fumes into our refuge, which we only cleared by opening the door and windows.

Coursier delivers the goods

Le Coursier Delivers the Goods

That night the temperature flirted with the zero degree mark. I’d taken my drinking water and inner boots inside my thick sleeping bag. Nothing worse than frozen boots in the morning. Just before dawn Renaud poked his nose outside and witnessed a brilliant red moon setting on the horizon. The day would be a good one.

frosty reception

Frosty Reception

The Gramusset refuge consists of two parts. A 'luxury' summer refuge and the winter annex. The day before the guardian had climbed up to dig out the toilets. This is a 'thunderbox' style hut and a septic tank. The only problem was that the overnight snow and wind had now reburied the building. Nothing else for it but to get out there with a spade and dig. It was -15C but the work soon warmed me up.

col des verts

Col des Verts

Col des Verts

We melted snow and made breakfast. Chocolate muesli, coffee, bread and cheese plus a bit of red wine. Then out into glorious but ice cold sunshine. The thermometer read -11C and it was already being warmed by the sun. We climbed up the Combe des Verts. Cyril leading and me following close behind. Steph and Renaud were taking it easier, enjoying the view. On a long traverse I realised that I need my ski crampons. In theory you can fit these on the Dynafit bindings without taking skis off. This proved possible for the uphill ski but I just didn't have the flexibility to get the downhill ski sorted. I gave in, made a nice horizontal platform and took my ski off. This is one of the disadvantages of shaped skis. It is hard to get pressure across the ski. On a steep icy slope this can result in loss of grip, climbing it means that the ski will slide away from underneath you much sooner than with a straight ski. As a consequence it is always better to fit ski crampons when climbing sooner rather than later.



The slope now steepened and we made shorter and shorter traverses until I reached a point about 50 meters below the col. Here I was standing on a 38 degree slope. Beneath the fresh snow was a hard layer of ice. I decided to put my crampons on and front point up the slope with my ice axe. It was only going to get steeper further up. Renaud asked if this was necessary? I wasn't sure but as I'd carried my crampons this far why not use them? It turned out to be a wise move as halfway up the slope Renaud started moaning that it was much too icy to climb safely. The Col was guarded by a large cornice. It is possible to ski down the other side but this would take ropes and climbing harnesses. We kept a good distance from the edge. Cornice falls are nasty but avoidable accidents. We tried to pick out the picks, Mont Blanc lay behind us, in front the classic Tournette that overshadows Annecy. To the east the Grand Paradis and to the south la Meije.

cyril sauteed

Cyril Sautéed

Time to remove climbing skins and ski down. The slope was over 40 degrees with little fresh snow. I decided to side slip the first few meters before making a turn. Tracking over to the right we found fresh powder but also hidden ice debris that had fallen from the Pointe Percée. In the ice cold air the snow was light and a joy to ski. We began to relax and enjoy ourselves. Further down the snow was sculpted into bowls and lips by the wind. A natural snowpark and ideal for some photos. Finally back at the refuge we were greeted by a number of skiers relaxing in the sun. We made a brew and set about cleaning the building leaving it spick and span for the next visitors. At midday, with rubbish packed, we joined up with some extreme telemarkers to give Renaud some company for the 1000 meter descent back to the car.

Rather than skiing through the forest we cut high and skied down through a clearing. The telemarkers did some nice jumps and also some spectacular face plants. With heavy rucksacks stuffed with 3 days equipment everyone was finding the skiing more challenging. A last section through the woods and we crossed the stream to rejoin the road to les Troncs. A fantastic weekend in great company.

trail map

Aravis Trail Map

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