Up there

The crow Tom Grant, like a beast too long cloistered in an uncertain space-time, shares his sincere experience about the effects of a sudden confinement and its outcome on a mountain guide used to wander freely in altitude.

Near the top of Les Courtes, last run before lockdown / Près du sommet des Courtes, dernière descente avant le confinement. Tom Grant

This last winter/spring season will always be remembered for the its inconvenient interruption brought on by the worst global pandemic of the last 100 years. The sheer intensity with which people in Chamonix live their lives meant that the disconcertingly fast transition from being in the full flow of skiing big lines every day during what were the best conditions of the season, to being in full lockdown, resulted in a particularly strong contrast of existence.

My Atris on top of the Rond, opening day one / Mes Atris au sommet du Glacier Rond, premier jour après le déconfinement. Tom Grant

I certainly struggled to initially wrap my head around it. When the confinement was announced, I was nearing the end of a particularly exhilarating and exhausting phase of my season. A perfect cycle of storms allowed me to deliver mind blowing ski conditions to both old and new clients alike and skiing hard for myself every day I wasn’t guiding. That is what I live for, it’s what gets me up in the morning when I’m still tired from the day before. Finding a state of flow, being closely in tune with the mountains, sharing my knowledge and skills with my clients and developing a strong bond with them along the way. This forms part of my livelihood I depend on, but the experience itself is intrinsically rewarding. The new normal post March 14th therefore came as a shock to my system.

Descending towards the tunnel / En descendant vers le tunnel. Ally Watson

It’s March 14th, and as I put my skis on at 3,700 meters, near the top of the Courtes, I make my final checks and briefly contemplate my first few turn. To savor the anticipation of opening such a beautiful line is always a priceless moment. The boot pack had been deep, and two weeks of skiing non-stop had me looking forward to a rest day. Yet, my body and mind were feeling strong and the excellent snow we were enjoying kept giving me a fresh kick of motivation each day.

Entering the Contamine Negri of the Tacul Triangle with Johanna and Ross / L’entrée de la Contamine Negri au Triangle du Tacul avec Johanna et Ross.

I made a few careful turns at the top to see how much sluff would accumulate and waited for Leo to join me. Over the last couple seasons, I’ve been guiding Leo on some of Chamonix’s best descents, building his confidence and skills on big mountain terrain. Watching him ski down to me, I knew this descent was going to be one of the ski highlights of his life. This thought made me very happy. Conditions were both safe and forgiving. I still had no real inkling this run would be the last in a while for the both of us.

Johanna on the Contamine Negri / Johanna dans la Contamine Negri. Tom Grant

Fast forward two months, and confinement in France has finally come to an end. I had just returned from the States after spending much of the lockdown there first in quarantine and then with my 7 year-old son who lives in Denver. Like many in Chamonix, I was itching to once again get into the high mountains. Life had been stressful and complicated at times for me during the confinement and skiing serious lines in the high mountains offers a simplicity and freedom that is rarely afforded in the valleys.

Ross looking for the exit on the Contamine Negri / Ross inspecte l’entrée de la Contamine Negri. Tom Grant

To the delight of Chamonix skiers, it was surprisingly announced just after the end of confinement that the Midi would be opening on some weekends. This offered a joyful reunion of a collection of the most devoted skiers in the valley. During these early post-confinement days, I eagerly arrived to be first in line most mornings the Midi was open. The excitement and buzz generated by the skiers there was intoxicating and a much-needed change.

Ross setting up the rappel on the Contamine Negri / Ross installe le rappel à la sortie de la Contamine Negri. Johanna Stalnacke

Since the lockdown was announced, it had been one of the warmest and driest springs on record. Looking around at the state of the mountains, I felt pangs of nostalgia for some of those past epic springs. This year certainly wasn’t going to be one of them. Yet, there were a handful of days when conditions perfectly aligned in the mountains.

Ross rappelling through the exit of the Contamine Negri / Ross ouvre le rappel à la Contamine Negri. Tom Grant

Standing at the top of the Tacul Triangle, I was once again going through the familiar ritual of getting ready to drop into a serious line. Johanna Stalnacke and Ross Hewitt were next to me making similar preparations. Below me, the convex roll dropped off into the void, terminating with a huge serac cliff. I was happy to have two of my most trusted ski partners watching my back as I made the first turns on the face. The snow was absolutely perfect, and I started to ski faster, relaxing into bigger turns. Suddenly, I was back in the zone, the worries and stresses of life melted away.

Tom dropping into the top of the Couloir Gervasutti / Tom commence sa descente du couloir Gervasutti. James Clapham

As the weather became warmer and the mountains drier, the options for good ski lines became more and more limited. Ross and I headed up for what we thought might be our last run of the season, a long and full day of ski mountaineering, traversing from the Midi over Mont Maudit and then dropping into the Col de la Brenva face. The Brenva Face and the south side of Mont Blanc has a special place in my heart and mind. The place is utterly wild, committing, potentially deadly and savagely beautiful. This unforgiving arena is somewhere I’ve tested myself as an alpinist and steep skier over the last decade. From multiday alpine routes to skiing big lines, some of the more intense experiences of my life have taken place on the south side of Mont Blanc.

Ross in the middle of the Couloir Gervasutti / Ross au milieu du couloir Gervasutti. Tom Grant

I didn’t go to the Col de la Brenva with Ross to test myself to the limit but to share an adventurous and tiring day with one of my best ski partners from the last 9 years. Moving across the upper slopes of Mont Maudit, we knew we were under some time pressure to ski the line before the warmest part of the day and to make the last lift back down. Pushing my body at altitude felt incredibly good and skiing into the top of the face provided an exhilarating moment of commitment. On a line like this, once you start skiing the safest thing to do is to make sure you can safely ski down and off it as efficiently as possible. On this occasion, our intuition served us well and we skied good spring snow from top to bottom. Being back on the Brenva Face five years after last having skied a line there with Ross and Enrico Mossetti in 2015, was a special experience.

Ross climbing up towards Mont Maudit, on route to the Col de la Brenva / Ross vers le sommet du mont Maudit, en route vers le col de la Brenva. Tom Grant

Skinning back up to the Midi in the heat of the afternoon sun was tiring, but I thought about how I’d missed the emotions that such a day brings. Being tired from a good adventure is deeply satisfying and good for the soul. If this was to be my final day of skiing for a while, I felt contented with that.

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