Snow and Avalanche Report: May 2005

We are now firmly into late spring skiing with all the French ski resorts now closed. Tignes and Les Deux Alpes will reopen early in June but all the other French glaciers will remain closed this summer. Val d’Isère are installing snow canons on their glacier. L’Alpe d’Huez are also doing work on the Sarenne although there has been a lack of snow over the winter. La Plagne is also closed for works.

short trousered ski tourer
Dent du Pra - 29 May

We intend to keep this report open with rolling updates on the conditions as we find them. Usually the snow is pretty stable at this time of year. The golden rules are to wait for a good refreeze, clear skies, temperatures of 10-12C in the valley over a couple of nights should ensure that slopes are frozen above 2000 meters. Starts should be early but be aware of icy slopes, especially those with exposure to rocks and cliffs. Descents are usually mid-to-late morning before slopes become warm with the risk of full depth slides. Usual kit apart from touring skis and skins are ski crampons (couteaux) and for any route with slopes above 35 degrees: ice axe and crampons. Helmets should be worn if climbing couloirs or other routes threatened by rockfall. Remember that at altitude, particularly above 3000 meters and on north-west facing slopes it is still winter with the accompanying risks of avalanches. Last season there were four avalanche deaths over the spring/summer period.

[Sunday 8 May]

On Saturday we tackled the 2928 meter Rocher Blanc, the highest peak in the Belledonne range that can be skied throughout the season. Continuous snow began at 1550 meters. There was a dusting of fresh snow at 1700 meters and this thickened to a blanket of powder some 5-10cm deep at the summit. The fresh snow was on a hard surface.

fresh snow on the rocher blanc
Fresh snow in the Belledonne mountains this weekend

In the Savoie a skier suffered knee injuries following a fall caused by a slab avalanche. The accident occured at around 3400 meters on the west slopes below the selle de l’Albaron (source: [url=][/url]) Reports from skiers in the Ecrins massif suggest that, despite recent snowfall, many glaciers have poor snow cover with the presence of icy and rocks rendering some routs impractical and glacier travel dangerous due to poor cover over snow bridged. Backcountry travellers should be familiar with glacier travel and crevasse rescue before attempting such routes or use the services of a guide.

[Thursday 12 May]
On Tuesday about 2mm of rain fell and overnight temperatures were around 10C. This gave us hope of a good freeze/thaw and perhaps 5cm of fresh snow. A long tour of the Comberousse in the northern Belledonne on Wednesday gave us a chance to explore three valleys. On the west faces snow can be found at around 1700 meters with 1-2cm of fresh at 1900 meters. This gets thicker as you climb with 10cm at 2750 meters on the Col de la Valloire. However the snow was settling rapidly under the sun. Little avalanche activity, some surface sluffs on east slopes and where some ski tourers had cut a slope with their skis.

[Saturday 14 May]
About 20mm of rain has fallen over the last 24 hours with the snow line at around 2000 meters in the Isère. There will have been around 20-40cm of snow above 2500 meters accompanied by a wind from the south-west. This will help reinforce snow-bridges on glaciated routes. The weather should improve on Sunday morning followed by a new weather system later in the day. With clearer weather later on Saturday temperatures will drop overnight. Possibility of new snow slabs on North to North-East slopes at altitude and full depth avalanches on steeper slopes where the snowpack is saturated by the heavy rain.

The Pyrénées has also been hit by wintery weather with around 40cm of fresh snow on the summits.

[Monday 16 May]
Temperatures at 10am are 13.5C with 3.6mm of rain over the last 24 hours. This has brought around 10-20cm of fresh snow above 2000m.

rime ice col du merlet
Rime Ice on the Col du Merlet - 19 May

[Friday 20 May]
The early part of the week brought some fresh snow, above 2200 meters in the Alpes and 1500 meters in the Pyrénées. The Pyrénées got the better condtions with people able to ski deep powder straight from the car on road passes such as the Tourmalet. We were out yesterday and encountered a layer of rime ice on the slopes we were on. Luckily the sun had already weakened this nasty coating but skiers on north facing slopes had some nasty frights and we shouldn’t forget that someone died last weekend on the north side of the Sambuis after slipping on icy snow.

After a few clear nights the refreeze on Friday will probably be more limited. A weather system is moving into the Alps from the west over the course of Saturday bring cloud at first then rain for the early part of next week. Temperatures will cool with the chance of some snow above 2200 meters. Better weather is expected towards next Friday.

[Saturday 21 May]
We climbed to the Grande Lance de Domene, a 2790 meter summit in the south of the Belledonne mountains. The overnight refreeze was limited below 2100 meters and the snow quite humid by mid morning despite cloud cover blocking sunlight. There was a strong wind from the south-west with some short and limited rain showers. Continuous snow begins at around 1900 meters on north facing slopes at this end of the range although better conditions were reported further north.

[Monday 23 May]
There was 16.5mm of rain during the night with snow falling from around 1700 meters giving the mountains a somewhat wintry look again. Should be good skiing tomorrow for anyone prepared to climb.

[Tuesday 24 May]
We climbed the north side of the Belle Etoile mountain today. Just 100 meters vertical from the car to reach snow then 1000 meters of vertical skiing. Good overnight refreeze although less fresh than we expected and what there was (about 5cm at 2400meters) had trouble sticking to the layer underneath making climbing hard and creating some large sluffs on the descent.

[Saturday 28 May]
France has experienced record temperatures over the last few days. It is currently 32C in the valley giving a theoretical zero isotherm of 5000m. There is no refreeze below 2800-3000 meters at the moment.

[Monday 30 May]
A quick tour to the Dent du Pra yesterday. Despite the lack of refreeze, at least below 2400 meters the snow was hard névé which was pleasant to climb. The last 100 meters of the Couloir Nord de la Dent du Pra was solid enough to boot up and even a bit icy on the surface on the way back down. Still possible to find snow on North faces from 1800 meters and south faces still have quite a bit of snow left - witness to the lack of south winds over the winter.

An experienced climber was killed on Saturday falling into a crevasse on the Pilatte glacier. A reminder that crevasses on many routes are not that well covered after a winter of poor snow at altitude.


This information is a summary of current conditions and is provided for information only. It is based on direct observations and information from the following sources.

During May Météo France issues twice weekly updates to its avalanche bulletins.

SkiTour conditions database, Camp2Camp , Volopress and Bivouak have trip reports with observations of the snow conditions.

Posted by davidof on Monday, 09 May, 2005 at 10:54 AM

The website of Alpe d’Huez does not state that the glacier will be closed this summer:
It seems that it will only be a very short summer season.


Posted by  on  Tuesday, 10 May, 2005  at 10:14 PM

Thanks for that correction Jon

Posted by davidof on  Thursday, 12 May, 2005  at 03:56 PM
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