Wild Oisan – Couloir Saint Antoine

Discovering the Saint Antoine couloir is like finding a nose in the middle of your face.

You can see the whole thing from the second stage of the La Grave gondola but very few people notice it. Once you find the starting point, you can follow it down as it narrows into the face. You then need several more ascents in the lift to really get to grips with its complex, unique form.

A little user guide for the Saint Antoine

The couloir has three parts.
The first I normally ski several times in winter, sometimes with clients. It’s a slender couloir that you can see from different angles. Pretty narrow (3-10 metres) and steep (40-45°), this first part is an initiation point for steep skiing. In the video you can see me disappearing into the couloir but I decided to take this part out of the edit because it didn’t have such good skiability.
The second is a kind of ramp that goes from left to right without any protection. The descent is made on 35-45° slopes where falls are not permitted or else you’re going for a big drop. This was just the second time in my life that I put my skis into this part of the couloir.
The third- and surely the most beautiful- is composed of a large suspended face followed by a couloir (in an upwards direction). The first time I skied it I traversed the suspended face because if you go down it you have to go back up, interrupting the skiing. This year I noticed that the sun was hitting it late and that there is an angle from which the slope lines up perfectly with the Grand Pic de la Meije.


After discovering this angle, I went to see my friend Guillaume Le Guillou (pro photographer www.glg-photo.com) who agreed to take pictures of my descent. We arranged to meet at the gondola the following morning.
As is often the case in La Grave, I bumped into people I know on the patios of the village bars. That day I happened to meet Jonathan Brothers (an English skibum who wanted to make the most of the season before the end of the Téléphériques des Glaciers de la Meije concession). Jonathan is also an excellent drone pilot, which encouraged him to follow me.
A bite to eat at the high-altitude restaurant and there I am in the forbidden zone heading towards the Enfetchores de Droite. The snow was horrible. It had been two weeks since it last snowed and it had been warm like in springtime…
Skis on the pack, I set off for the 2 hours 30 mins of ascent. The first couloir had been skied three weeks before by Joe Vallone and Glen Plake. Despite the time elapsed, the mountain had not regenerated and their tracks formed little icy relief marks in the first couloir. I continued, even though I knew it was going to be horrible to ski.
As I reached the second section, a smile appeared on my face: the soft, cold snow was excellent news.

By watching the path tracked by the sun, I deduced that I had to ski the suspended face at around 15:30 to make use of its rays. It was 14:45…I was really up against it! I went beyond the second part and started to spit out all my tabacolic excesses of the season. For motivation I was listening to Rock or Bust, the latest AC/DC album. Suddenly my phone rang. I stopped the music but the buzzing continued. I raised my head. Of course! The drone was above my head!
Top of the couloir! I quickly got myself ready, which explains the crappy position of my GoPro that I didn’t manage to get one good shot off…
One last call to Guigui and Jonathan. They were ready and so was I.
The slope I was about to launch into ends with a 200m cliff…I had to stop before I take off. Not too high because I want to get good shots but not late enough to try out BASE jumping without a parachute. I started skiing, the snow was nice and fast. I linked my turns and headed towards the sunny section. One huge turn in the sun. Shit, I can’t see anything with the sun full in my face! A change of direction took me back towards the shade. I was getting dangerously close to the big jump. Two more turns. One…There I am at the edge of the precipice that would swallow me whole if I threw myself into it…My heart was at around 180 BPM and I was almost dizzy from of the beauty of the last turns I had just made. The adrenaline kick was incredible!
I took my skis off (Orb 172). What a joy to be able to experience such feelings just a stone’s throw away from home! I started going back up to rejoin the second part of the couloir.
A pole escaped from me as I tried to go too fast. I ran down the slope to try to get it but I was too slow. Fortunately it stopped in my track. I got it back but I was almost back where I started…
The second ascent took its toll on my legs a bit more. I had to keep some legs in reserve because the second part of the Saint Antoine does not excuse any mistakes.
Here we go! A final breath was sucked into my lungs and I set off. The snow was a bit less nice and I was tired. Concentrated to the extreme, it was the first time that I had been filmed skiing. I had to be careful not to put too much pressure on getting good shots. Stay alive! Each turn sent snow flying into the void. I was just trying not to head the same way!

The sensations I experienced felt really similar to what you can get from solo climbing or alpinism (http://www.montagnes-magazine.com/actus-meije-premiere-solo-integral-face-sud-doigt-dieu). I finished the second section in the sun and headed to the shade of the first part…
To follow was a succession of skidding, jerky turns and big sketchy straights. All in all there was 2h30 of ascent for just 10 minutes’ skiing. I wouldn’t have thought about saying this 8 years ago when I started but it’s a fact: I LOVE skiing!
The way back to the valley was peaceful. I headed to the bar to share a large beer with the other guys from the day: Guillaume and Jonathan without whom only these words would exist. Thanks guys!

At the time of writing this I am starting to plan my spring. After an obligatory stop at ENSA for the final exam for the Guide de la Haute Montagne certificate, I’m going to be frothing for more steeps in my adopted land: Wild Oisans!
Catch you soon.

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Saint Antoine from the sky