On days like this…the early morning Heli routine…

You’ve got to love this shot, it says it all…Blue skies, perfect snow, high peaks, loads of space and a good group of riders having fun factor maximum volume.

I wake up early and stretch my body to get it loose and everything working, stick the coffee on and then I check the weather, looking up into the peaks from the back door as I let the dogs out into the snow covered garden. It’s still dark out but the dawn is coming and the Aiguille du Midi is silhouetted against the lightening skies. I check for sign of wind up high, look for ominous clouds hanging on the peaks above and also for signs of change in the weather and I check the temperature.

I’ll check all these things numerous times every morning as part of my routine as I prep for the day ahead.

I’ll have a plan in my mind of what we are going to do, most of the time I have a vague plan that I made the day before but everything is weather and condition dependent and I’ll change things depending on what I see as the morning progress’s.

Stretch, dogs, cats, kids, breakfast, coffee, kit, snacks, fluid, backpack done, transceiver on, board, boots, gloves, goggles, liftpass…routine, routine, routine…

Weather check, pack the van, make the plan, text the gang!

Weather check, School run, clients pick ups, weather check, change or confirm the plan for the day, and we’re off…

All looks good, weather check, kit check, call the Heli service, confirm and check pick up times…

I always try to get to the LZ early as there’s always faffing to be done. We’re going up high so everyone needs glacier kit, harness’s are put on and checked, Avi kit is packed and checked, the first aid and spares kit is packed and checked, splitting kit is stashed and boards are prepped. I check my glacier kit, ice screws, 2 slings, rope man, prussik cord, Micro traction pulley, abol hook, knife, spare carabiners and the rope…

We run through the heli pick up and landing scenario and we are prepped and ready to go.

The heli arcs across the sky, hovers and descends to park neatly infront of us. We wait for the signal from the pilot that we can approach and always staying with in sight of the pilot we crouch and move in under the spinning rotors. I load the team and the boards, check the doors and we’re off…

It’s the first moment were I can relax since waking up and I sit, chat to the pilot about the conditions and enjoy the ride. Soon we’re approaching the mountains and I ask the pilot if we can swing in closer to check the route, the conditions and so I can get a look at the exit…everything changes day by day and I want check out the best lines, get an idea of what we’re in for, where to go, how to get in there and just as importantly, how to get out of there.

We cross a couple of sharp rock ridges were the ground closes in fast and then drops away miles below…you’ve got to love Heli flight, even if it’s not environmentally sound there’s something really amazing about an early morning Heli flight through the high peaks, I’ll try to offset my carbon footprint later but now we’re up high amongst the peaks and the glaciers spread out before us as far as you can see. Deep dark gaping crevasses rush passed beneath us as we drop closer in towards the ground approaching the DZ.

I start to prepare for landing, stick on my gloves, goggles and get my kit ready so that I don’t knock anything as I get out. The Heli banks in steeply, levels off and we’re down.

I open the door and climb out…close my door, open the rear sliding door, carefully with 2 hands so as not to pull it off, they’re pretty fragile!

The team are out quickly and huddled by the heli skid and my feet as I check we’ve not left anything and close the door. The team stay put as I circle around the front of the heli (never around the back because of the tail rotor) and unload the boards from the outside basket. All done I check nothing is going to get blown away, give the pilot the thumbs up and he’s out of there!

Ahhhhh….and relax!

Silence surrounds us…the anxious rushing and planning, of the morning is gone…we are alone in the mountains.

We leave the DZ incase another heli come in, chuck more clothing on if its cold, (layers on before we get cold, layers off before we get hot) and enjoy the view.

We’re going to ride a little first, then hike and then we have the days big descent to the valley…

The suns rays are hitting the peaks above us but here on the Glacier we’re still in the shade. The snow here is cold, sticky under your base because of the sharpness of the frozen undisturbed crystals…The air is still, perfect, not a cloud in the sky…we get ready to ride, a quick group check and chat and we’re off…

We’re leaving a gap between each rider of about 50m, more to avoid bunching up than for avalanche risk, so that I can check the line through the crevasses and call a halt if I need to with out us all having to back track if my line comes to a big un-passable hole…

I need to concentrate using what I see, what I feel and what I know as I negotiate our way down the glacier towards where we’ll start the hike. I had a good look from the Heli on the way up, but things can look very different once you get on the ground…I do know there’s a way through so it’s just a matter of following the features I recognise and keeping to the high ground were possible and keeping an eye on everyone behind me.

Glaciers are big slow motion rivers of ice running down the mountain and like with a river, undulations in the ground below cause rapids in the flow. In the slow moving ice these rapids become broken up with crevasses and seracs. By looking at the shape of the glacier and working out its flow we can tell were the crevasses might lie and how they will run under the surface.

The big ones that we can see are not the problem, its the ones under the snowpack that we can’t see that I am trying to visualise as I ride. Riding through crevasses whilst finding the route can be tricky, it’s easier on skis than on a board…after 20 years riding up here amongst these high peaks I’m quite practiced at it, but it never get any easier and my eyes and instincts are working over time as we pass through to easier riding the other side of the rapids.

At the end of this first short ride we come to a stop. Here we’ll change over to split mode for the hike. We’re still on a glacier, so we can’t just get off our boards and walk around. You’re a lot more likely to puncture through a weak snow bridge over a crevasse on foot than you are on your board due to the decreased surface area of your feet meaning you’ll sink deeper with greater localised pressure. If I’m worried, I’ll get out a probe and check the area but here I’m pretty sure its ok and so as long as no one runs off and I give the word to get ready for the climb.

It takes about an hour and a half of easy paced skinning to climb to the top of the peak above from where we’ll start the next descent. We’ve been riding North facing cold slopes but now we’re hiking up the South face of the next mountain and as we climb the sun comes up over the high peaks and starts to offer a little warmth. It’s turned into a prefect day, the air is cold and still but the suns warmth will be nice for the lunch stop at the top.

The route up is easy, not too steep and we can all go at our own pace, spread out and fall into our own thoughts. I love the peace of splitting up a mountain, alone with your thoughts, concentrating on your body movements and your breathing, trying not to get to hot or to work near your limit for to long…Sometimes I have to keep a constant watch on the surrounding conditions, the difficulty of the terrain or surrounding dangers, but not today, the terrain is mellow, the snow bridges over the crevasses are solid and obvious and I cut an easy zig zagging track up to were we’ll stop for lunch.

multi task, multi task, multi task…thats my rule up here for when ever we stop. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone else’s faff stop, your own take a layer off stop, what ever reason if we’re stopping get something done that will help your day, hydrate, eat, sun cream, layers, photo’s…do it now so you don’t have to stop again!

I like to have plenty of time in hand, time is always ticking on by. When you’ve loads of time things run smoothly but when you’re rushing to get things done things go wrong!

In the mountains we tend to set of early and finish early, this gives us time to get things done without having to rush. Also things that are frozen in place tend to start to become unstable with the warming temps of the afternoon. It’s amazing how quickly you can loose time…once its gone you’re not getting it back…multi tasking is my answer, multi tasking and forward planning…it becomes routine and its amazing how much smoother things run when you have a well trained team getting the job done without a faff.

So whilst we stop and eat, we’re also getting our boards ready, we’re checking our layers, changing from hiking mode to riding mode, goggle out glasses away, we’re enjoying the view, hydrating, changing high backs with forward lean, stashing poles and skins, eating lunch, hydrating, relaxing and recovering, eating and hydrating…I always try to get prepped quickly so that I can assist if there’s any problems with kit etc…and soon we’re done and just enjoying the view whilst finishing our lunch…

Thought start to drift forwards towards the descent…It’s time to start getting excited!!!

We can’t see the descent from here on the South side of the peak but I checked it from the flight up and it looked amazing. We stayed this side of the peak for the warmth of the sun whilst we changed over and so now we have to make a quick traverse around onto the North face and as we do the top of the descent comes into view…below us lies a huge wide open field of deep, cold untracked powder snow and the grins start to spread…

It’s all glacial, we’ll be riding on a glacier until almost the valley, but here it’s slow moving and un challenged by the terrain underneath and although there are obvious crevasses over to the left and most likely some under the snowpack below us, they are well covered and our line is clear…We have 2500m of vertical descent ahead of us, open powder fields to start, then steeps, then amazing couloirs, more open powder as we come of the glacier and then pillow drop lines into the valley from where we’ll follow a summer trail out to the road and I’ll hitch back to the van whilst the team enjoy a beer in the village below…

We go through the safety chat, where to ride, where not to ride, distance between etc…the “blah, blah, blah, follow me” chat as my experienced regulars put it…

I make sure everyone is ready and we’re good to go and then with a subtle shift of pressure I release myself to the pull of gravity and accelerate into the powder field below…

The snow is amazing, the ride is effortless and the terrain is fantastic, this is definitely one of my favourite areas to ride with so many variants and when its in condition like this it makes my job seem like one of the best jobs in the World…