A Backyard Odyssey - Traversing the Aiguilles Rouges with Pica Herry
Jones ambassador Julien ‘Pica’ Herry is always on the hunt for new backyard adventures in his hometown of Chamonix. In March 2021, Pica and fellow Cham local Gaspard Ravanel embarked on a wild splitboard traverse of the Aiguille Rouges, the range located just north of the Chamonix Valley. They traveled from Brevent to Vallorcine in a 30 hour push, climbing and riding 15,000 feet along the way.
The Aiguilles Rouges are a small mountain range located just North of Chamonix that offer an amazing playground for climbing and splitboarding. With a unique view of the Mont Blanc range and easily accessible terrain, it is the perfect place for training for bigger adventures.
I've ridden a lot of great lines in the Aiguille Rouge over the years so the idea of traversing the entire range recently came to mind. Unfortunately high rain and COVID stopped us from making an attempt at the traverse in 2020 so we were excited to give it a go in March 2021 once the lockdown ended and the snow stabilized.
Fellow Jones ambassador Gaspard Ravanel was stoked to accompany me on the trip and Yannick Boissenot and Arthur Ghilini would join us here and there to document the journey. We had tons of different options for the itinerary, but finally decided to go from West to East in one push, trying to climb and ride the most aesthetic summits on the way. The snow conditions would not be amazing, but the snowpack was stable which would allow us to move fast.
A dark-thirty departure
On March 3rd, we meet at the Brevent car park at 12:30 am. After 20 minutes of dry hiking above the city lights we strap into our split skis for the four hour tour to the top of Brevent. The first slope we plan to ride is the ‘Pente à Patrick’, a classic freeride line above the Pentes de l'hotel.
The snow on the line is not as bad as expected, but the headlamps are definitely useful because the moon is playing hide and seek behind high thick clouds. As dawn approaches a mystic pink light appears in the eastern sky which gives us hope for a spectacular sunrise. But when hiking toward our next objective, the aiguille de la Charlanon, the sky is more grey than pink.
After climbing and skiing the North East face of the Charlanon with Gaspard in flat light, the team is a bit disappointed by the weather conditions, but still motivated to keep moving to the aiguille de la Glière. We reach the summit of the Glière by midday, and the sun is trying it’s best to pierce through the clouds. Dropping in on the South East face the snow is firm and a bit sandy from recent Sirocco episodes, but the lower couloir finally offers soft powder snow!
After the powder turns we stop to pull out the stoves, melt some snow, and boil water to fill the thermos bottles. The water break leaves us too lazy to switch back to ski mode, so we switch to crampons and start hiking straight up toward the aiguille de la Floria.
Two hours of climbing up a steep snowy couloir, and then along a rocky ridge takes us to the summit. The view is amazing, but unfortunately the sun is still hiding. Dropping into the exposed top roller of the North East face is spicy as the snow is still firm. Luckily, Gaspard finds a clean route through a steep rocky section so we can avoid using the rope.
Into the unknown by headlamp
It’s now late in the afternoon, but still several hours until sunset so we put the crampons back on and start climbing toward the highest summit of the traverse, the aiguille du Belvédère. After a first steep couloir, and then a rocky step, more mellow terrain takes us to the summit. We arrive after nightfall and the view is amazing with sparkling city lights surrounding us in the valley below.
None of us have ever ridden the line we’re about to drop, so the onsight descent by headlamp into unknown terrain is pretty intimidating. Luckily the snow is good and the route down the North East face unfolds easily. We quickly reach the col du Belvédère and take a rest on flatter terrain before carrying on with the traverse.
Clouds continue to obscure the moon as we begin climbing a steep and icy gully making our way toward the Tête Plate. We gain a hanging slope that leads us to the summit ridge, which we decide looks too narrow and exposed to be traversed. Instead, we down climb our ascent tracks to reach an alternate entry to the couloir we’re going for. To our delight, the East couloir holds cold powder!
A cold cat nap
A skin across a mellow slope and then a quick bootpack bring us to a snow ledge at the bottom of the Perseverance couloirs. We decide to stop here and try to get a few hours rest before continuing on. But after two hours of rest, eating and melting snow, our bodies start to get cold. We would love to keep moving as planned, but all the snow around us is really icy.
Gaspard finally dozes off despite the cold, but I can’t sleep. I try to get warm by climbing an old bootpack in the couloir above us. I almost reach the top, but the snow is super icy so I decide to walk back down with my board still on my back. I did succeed in warming up though! Back on the ledge Gaspard is still snoring. I try to join him and manage to fall asleep for a few minutes here and there.
After a couple hours of fitful rest, Gaspard and I leave the ledge still in darkness to climb a steep and icy couloir leading to the brèche Encrenaz-Remuaz. We gain the col at dawn, but the sky is still grey and the wind picks up so we are freezing.
We quickly drop in the North face where we find the best snow of the traverse. Our sluff is fast and powerful. After a few dozen turns in the couloir, we have to do a short rappel to get back to the main couloir which brings us to just below the col d'Encrenaz.
Sunshine on the final summit
Our last objective, the aiguille de Mesure, is now in sight and the sun finally decides to come out, bathing us in the first sun rays we’ve felt along the entire traverse. The climb is nice and exposed as we zig-zag between colorful rock bands. Tired but happy, we reach our final summit around 10am. We’ve been on the move for over 30 hours at that point, having climbed more than 15,000 vertical feet. The descent off the top down to Vallorcine floats by like a dream and soon we are on the train heading back to Chamonix.
Looking back at the adventure, I feel super grateful to be able to enjoy such an intense and spectacular adventure in my own backyard. Completing the traverse in one push was also an amazing test of my strength and endurance. I had attempted a similar traverse in the Aiguille Rouge 15 years ago that took us nearly 5 days. This trip we accomplished the same and more in less than two days!
It also felt great to take on a challenge that wasn’t as risky as trying to always ride steeper and more gnarly lines. The reward of travelling all that way, and riding so many lines was something I'll cherish for a long time. Can’t wait to plan another epic traverse for next winter!