Luca Pandolfi and the Grand Couloir de la Sentinelle Rouge on Mont Blanc
Luca Pandolfi talks about his descent of Grand Couloir de la Sentinelle Rouge, carried out with Ben Briggs and Tom Grant on 5 July 2013.
"Riding a line like the Sentinelle Rouge is not a ski journey; it is a trip into another dimension." Luca Pandolfi hits the nail on the head in describing what he did, and above all what he experienced, on 5 July when he snowboarded down the Gran couloir de la Brenva on Mont Blanc together with Ben Briggs and Tom Grant. What is interesting about this descent, apart from the fact that it is the first since Tone Valeruz in 1978, is Luca's description of the ambient, grandiose and dangerous on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. Beautiful and captive and yet both terrible and dangerous, like an icy medusa that only the Brenva glacier represents. Things turned for the best for Pandolfi, he was lucky, and it's almost superfluous to repeat - but we'll say so anyway - how dangerous and difficult descents of this sort are.
GRAN COULOIR DE LA SENTINELLE ROUGE by Luca Pandolfi
In April 1978 I was three and a half years old, Tone Valeruz was dropped off at the top of Mont Blanc by helicopter, skied this line and then picked up again at the base. The very next year a Japanese team climbed up the couloir and since that day no-one has dared challenge their luck on this route on this nasty side of Mont Blanc.
From the first time I laid my eyes on the south side of Mont Blanc I was naturally drawn to the long and big couloir of the Brenva. My imagination drew a dream line on the nasty wall, passing exactly along the big couloir, but still never actually thinking that in my lifetime I would be capable of skiing a massive line of this nature.
For all mountains lovers, the magic Brenva basin and face has always aroused the attraction for ultimate adventures. These places have become legendary, thanks to the early pioneers and stories about their first climbing adventures (such as Walter Bonatti in “My mountains”). As a teenager the legendary big Mountain routes such as the “La Major”, “La Poir” and “La Sentinelle Rouge” made me dream and were my inspiration into the possible adventures that the mountain life could offer. Personally the Red Sentinel (Sentinelle Rouge in french) was always “the king” of the lines, starting from the highest European summit and dropping straight down into its heart.
Riding a line like the Sentinelle Rouge is not a ski journey; it is a trip into another dimension. First you have to climb to the top of Mont Blanc where you ride on sight over 1000 m of terrain which is technical, steep and exposed to serac falls. A line which drops into what can only be described as the “unknown”. Finally and most importantly you then have to return from one of the nastiest, scariest and remote places on Earth entirely on your own.
For several years this project had been in the corner of my mind and I had constantly been looking at the state of the massive serac overlooking the whole line and which had not been active for quite some time. “The perfect moment” is made by different components that come together for a short time allowing the door to open. Our job is to observe, feel and be ready to enter that door, create the magic a unique experience like this has to offer and then come out again before the door closes.
I, along with my 2 ski partners Tom Grant & Ben Briggs (the best partners I could have wished to accompany me on an adventure like this) spent a couple of days checking the conditions by going to the Italian side by car and up by the “panoramic lift”. Thursday morning Tom and Ben went to the top of the Tour Ronde to check the line for one last time. The perfect moment had arrived, the magic moment when you stop waiting, guessing, dreaming, experimenting fear and you start acting. We were all mentally ready so we decided to give it a try and make the “First ethic descent” of this line…it deserves it and we deserved it too.
After spending the night at the top of the Aiguille du Midi we started one of the biggest adventures of our lives. Climbing with a split board along with a lot of hardware, wide skins and other excess weight slowed me down and made me suffer more than my friends who were lucky with their carbon light skis. “Light and fast” is not exactly my slogan, I wish it was, but I have other qualities, I am stubborn and motivated so I played my cards.
Ben did not want to wait for too long at the top, plus the wind was pretty cold. I saw Tom and Ben skiing down towards the entry of the line whilst I was still on my way up and about one hundred meters from the summit. I knew it was too early; I carried on my way up and joined them at the entry of the couloir half an hour later.
The snow was still too hard. Ben had already made a couple of attempts and climbed back. It was cold up there but at 08.30 Ben decided to go. He disappeared behind the first snowy ridge and on his traverse that leads to the couloir he did not leave a single scratch or sign in the snow. Tom and I decided to wait a little longer. After another half hour Tom went to have a look; it took him 20 minutes with the assistance of an ice axe to cross 20 meters of face on bullet proof snow, he also then disappeared behind the rocks and I remained alone.
After being in silence and on my frontside edge for a while I decided that this was not the way I wanted to die and I went back up. A decision which afterwards I was quite relieved to have chosen. Preparing myself to go down the route we took on our ascent, something happened in my head. The wind was chilling, I was feeling the warmth on my face and something clicked in my mind…I felt the moment that I had been waiting for all these years had finally arrived and I was ready. I was prepared, I had everything with me, rope, wires, pegs…I did not need anything or anyone else…I was in my bubble and I dropped in…
This time I gripped an edge into the snow. The traverse was super exposed, slightly icy with some technical passages between the rocks. I arrived under the massive serac, I said “hello” to it, excited by its scary presence and it was at this point where I experienced my last emotions in front of this majestic beauty. Suddenly my feelings changed, I went into a robotic state with no emotion and was absorbed in deep concentration, from this point the only way was down. If anything happened it would be too dangerous to climb backup underneath the huge serac that hung directly above me. The feeling of putting my head into a lion’s mouth sprung to mind.
After the icy traverse in, I made a few turns just before approaching the crux. Luckily it was covered well in snow and I was able to side slip fast over the short and steep 55 deg section. The conditions then started to improve and I was riding perfect corn snow. I entered the right bank of the couloir, and at its widest point I made 6 great turns on compressed powder. I stopped once to fully enjoy the experience of being alone on the Brenva face…what a moment!
From what we had seen from the Helbronner and also on pictures, our plan was to try and cut back to the Col Moore about 100 m above the Bergshrund. On the way down I saw that a snow slide had taken off the snow to traverse left and I could see tracks down climbing towards the Bergshrund made by Ben and Tom. This Bergshrund was massive and the only possible place to pass was via the middle of the couloir. Unfortunately for me this route was not an option, it was too late as there was already snow coming down from above. I had to think fast, so I put my crampons on and climbed back up 100 m towards a thin ridge hoping to be able to traverse on the other side.
It was getting warm and I knew that time was against me. I tried to move as quickly as possible, but despite my best efforts, within an instant a couple of rocks the size of tables started to fly by me. I protected myself under big rocks built into the face and realized it was too late, I was trapped and had to wait until the late afternoon if I wanted to leave this place alive. Within the same moment I saw Ben at the Col Moore. From his point he had a vision of my situation and was screaming at me, prompting directions and possible routes to exit whilst also suggesting that it was maybe time to call in the heli. I was exhausted and stressed and I waited quite a long time before making my choice and move. I felt like I was in Vietnam with a Cambodian field in front of me to cross. I slid like a worm over a 65° 10 m slope, super exposed and separated myself from the traverse and within one hour the face was carved by big deep runnels. I traversed fast on the snowboard to the gully point, put on my crampons, down climbed into the runnel, traversed it, climbed back up over the other side, put on the snowboard, traversed and put on my crampons again…I repeated this at least 5 times, in pure exhaustion whilst the face was literally crumbling around me.
Tom had a plane to catch in the evening so left the Col Moore straight after he had reached it, whilst Ben waited for me, on looking whilst I played Russian roulette with the mountain. I finally arrived at the Col Moore in the early afternoon completely exhausted and where I was greeted by an equally relieved, Ben. I was drained by the physical and mental effort and knowing that we still had a long way back to Helbronner to catch the last bin back to the Aiguille du Midi and then down to Chamonix, I told Ben that I would rather take it easier and spend the night at the Fourche hut. I gave him the option to go on without me but he decided to stay with me which I really appreciated, that was until he decided to open a new dry tooling way to reach the hut! “Thanks mate, I really needed that last pitch”! ;-)
The next morning and early, we skied down the Fourche couloir on perfect corn and went back to Helbronner, where after hours of waiting we managed to squeeze between Japanese tourists and come back by “the panoramic” lift to the Aiguille du Midi.
The key to skiing successfully long lines like this is the timing; you need to ski hard snow at the top so it is not too dangerous lower down. Everyone makes their own choice; even if we ski “together” we are skiing “alone”.
On this line everyone took their own choice about the best moment to ski. I am totally happy with my choice, I knew I had to take bigger risks lower down as there was absolutely no way I could have ridden the line any earlier on bullet proof snow. Despite the life threatening moments that I faced, this adventure has been and will probably remain one of the most intense and self-satisfying mountain experiences of my life.
I would kindly like to thank my ski partners and very good friends Ben Briggs and Tom Grant. Along with their incredible skiing and climbing talents they are genuine, humble and the best people to share these moments with