Les Arcs Col Des Roches

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I went around to Loic and Inès appartment in Charvet on Thursday night. They'd skied from Tignes to la Plagne that day and were just settling down to a relaxing game of scrabble. We're planning on skiing the Glacier du Geay tomorrow, should be quite easy, you must come.

I looked at the map, around 600 meters of climbing but the descent from the Col des Roches didn't look entirely straight-forward. The I thought about Philippe the Guide comment about the risk of wind slabs forming. But they were going with Michel, their Guide, who would never let them get into any danger. Michel had worked in les Arcs for 25 years and had done this route a couple of dozen times.

So I met them at the Transarc telecabine as it opened at 9am. We bumped into Philippe and he exchanged some advice with Michel. At around 10am we left the last ski lift and began the climb up to the Grand Col. Years ago there was a teleski as far up as the col but know it was either fixing skins or climbing. As we looked behind we noticed half a dozen freeriders footing it up behind us. In the fresh snow it must have been quite difficult. The riders would be looking for their fix of fresh powder on the Col before returning to the pistes.

wind tunnel

Wind Tunnel on the Grand Col

Once we reached the Col we realised how strong the wind was as we turned south and battled up to the Col des Roches across the Glacier du Grand Col. Plumes of snow streamed off the pyramid shaped peak of the Aiguille du St-Esprit.

avalanche Glacier du Grand Col


The Glacier is quite small but still featured a number of seracs. One must have split in two quite recently and set off a small avalanche.

serac debris


Which after much zig-zagging we crossed with haste. They say the safest part of the mountain is where an avalanche has already occurred but the remains of a sérac loomed like a broken tooth above us.

Col Des Roches

Col Des Roches

The Col proved to be quite a steep, exposed climb on hard snow, after the serac fall we fixed our couteaux (crampons) which at least gave a feeling of security.

At the Col (3443 meters) we were rewarded with a fantastic view off the back of the Aiguille Rouge, at 3227 meters the highest point of les Arcs. Some of the off-piste couloirs were clearly visible and had been skied by some brave souls. The cable car station is visible in the middle of the picture and Mont Blanc is obscured, as usual, by its own weather system. The Mont Blanc massive had been holding back bad weather in Italy all week, this was the remains of a depression over the Mediterranean and had been giving exceptional snow on the other side of the Alpes.

Michel climbs down from the col des roches

Michel climbing the col des Roches

The descent from the Col des Roches is normally secured by a cable which you can clip onto with a climbing harness, but this had been buried under wind blasted snow. Michel set up a belay using his skis and I abseiled down to cut a ledge where the slope formed a more sensible angle. The snow was a fine powder with almost no adherence and below me the slope was a huge wind slab. Unclipping from the rope felt quite exposed. The start of the slope is around 35 degrees.

Inès and Loic ab'd down after me, Loic struggling with his and my skis. I'd decided to leave them half way as I was cutting steps with my axe. Michel then recovered his skis and climbed down the steps I'd cut, which proved to be quite an experience as below a rimaye threatened to swallow anyone who made a false move.

Loic and Inès

Loic and Inès

The wind slab proved to be more benign than I first thought, we were able to ski off to one side and then track down below it before crossing the rimaye on a snow bridge. All the while taking care to keep a good distance and not ski above each other.

Loic and Inès

Once of the Col the snow proved to be almost perfect. A light easy powder that was a dream to ski.

Glacier du Geay

From the bottom of the glacier we could trace our tracks right to the Col

Glacier du Geay

Glacier du Geay

While impressive seracs and ice falls glistened above us. Further down we surprised a small troupe of Chamois who quickly pranced up the slope and out of danger. The exit from the Glacier du Geay is particularly difficult and needs a careful study of the map. There is, in fact, only one point where skiers can gain the valley to Peisey without tumbling over cliffs. The skier has to stay high before pitching down the ruisseau du Pretre and then crossing to the opposite side of the valley to follow a small path to la Gurraz. At Les Lanches you can stop for a snack in the Chalet then pick up the free half-hourly bus to the telecabine at Peissey.

All told we descended over 2000 vertical meters and spent the best part of an hour on the Col des Roches where harnesses, ropes and an ice axe proved essential. Crampons might have made Michel's free descent more pleasant.

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