On the 24th and 25th of April 2010 Lee Townend (Snoworks), Polly Baldwin (Dynamic ski pictures) and two other friends set out on a gruelling two-day ski tour from Val Thorens in the 3 Valleys to Val d’Isère in the Espace Killy, led by mountain guide Zoe Hart.
The tour was a fundraiser for Polly’s upcoming 3-month expedition to India with Raleigh to help with their incredible charity projects, such as tiger and elephant conservation, building schools and putting much needed sanitary units into rural homes. We need to raise a total of £1900. Raleigh’s fundraising philosophy is to do something to push your boundaries while helping others and this is certainly pushed ours. Once you have read our story, we would be very grateful if you could give what you can. To make a donation please go to www.justgiving.com/polly-a-baldwin
Day One – Val Thorens to Refuge de Col de la Vanoise
Saturday arrived all too quickly, I was so nervous and excited that I’d hardly slept. We departed for Val Thorens in the team bus, generously supplied by Family Friendly Skiing and kindly driven by Matt Foy. It was a strange feeling driving in the opposite direction of our final destination.
The weather was good, a clear cold morning perfect for the start of the day. The first climb of the day was amazing, an ascent across the Glacier de Chaviere, through the Col de Gébroulaz to the highest point of 3434 meters – about 320 vertical meters of ascent. The first section was a steady incline, it was only the last 100 meters that were steep, but our training paid off and we made the top without incident. It felt so good to get on the way after all the planning and training. The view from the top of the col was incredible, we could see all of the 3 valleys and mountains we all know so well. Suzz and I had to laugh as the mountain that stands proudly over us as we look out of our lounge windows, the Dent Du Villard, looked so tiny in comparison to all the mountains surrounding it. It was breathtaking everywhere we looked.
With no time to hang around we had an amazing ski across the glacier, fresh tracks in boot deep powder, wide open plateaus with incredible views, it really was heavenly. As soon as we came off the glacier at about 2737 meters above sea level everything changed. The change in the snow was dramatic, obviously it hadn’t refrozen over night and much of it had become isothermal, making it very unstable and avalanche-prone. We had to ski each face separately to ensure we were safe and the snow so rotten we could barely make turns. We were sinking into the sludge and it was hard work to get out.
With the help of Zoe guiding and Lee Townend giving technique tips we adjusted to the conditions quite well, but I think we will all admit how scared we were. As we approached the frozen Lac Blanc Zoe shouted “just straight line it to the middle of the lake… now!”. As we did the mountain dropped away around us, avalanche slide after slide. Wewere perfectly safe of the danger zone but it was a stark reminder of how insignificant we were compared to the nature around us. We were a week too late as a friend of mine had skied this section a week earlier and had fantastic snow all the way.
It was approaching midday and was super hot, we couldn’t hang around as we were going much lower and the heat would worsen the snow conditions. We continued our descent, but it soon became evident we would need to turn back and go a longer way around, as the snow was far too dangerous to continue on the aspect and steep terrain we were on. Nearly a kilometer of extra ascent in the heat of the midday sun really took it’s toll on my feet and energy reserves. Zoe did a brilliant navigation job and although the distance we travelled was far greater than the original itinerary we were grateful she was keeping us out of danger. The ski down to Pralognon de la Vanoise was much safer but very tricky and involved navigating some mud banks and old avalanche debris.
We reached the bottom of the second section at 5.30pm, 4 hours behind schedule. With the weather closing in, Zoe was concerned we wouldn’t make the refuge before dark. I thought she was going to call it off there and then, but with a lot of team work and encouragement and coaching from Lee we made the grueling 887 meters of vertical ascent and reached the refuge in the dark at 9.30pm. For me this was the hardest section, I was completely exhausted and didn’t have the energy to continue. With Lee’s encouragement and the thought of the generous support we had received from sponsorship I made it through. I honestly cannot put into words how hard it was.
Day Two – Refuge de Col de la Vanoise to Val d’ Isère.
After a good meal and some sleep we departed the refuge at 6.30am. The next 5 hours were going to be the highlight of the trip. I knew that 580 meters of vertical ascent was all that stood between us and the view of our final destination from the top of the Col de la Grande Casse. We had to tackle some steep technically-difficult sections on this part of the tour – kick turns on very steep solid ice. Without the added assistance of Lee & ski crampons we wouldn’t have made it up the first section. I was struggling to keep up with the pace but the girls slowed down a little for me and the scenery was just stunning. Behind us we could see the entire 3 Valleys from Courchevel to Val Thorens and even our starting point, it felt so good to see what we had already achieved.
The incline on the Col de la Grande Casse couloir was 32 degrees, so it was skis off and boot crampons on. I loved the boot up, again hard work but very satisfying as we reached the top of the col and peered over the top. In the distance across the glacier I could see Tignes and the Grande Motte cable car in the Espace Killy, it was so exciting. The descent across and down the glacier was epic, the most amazing spring snow. It’s enormous and really highlighted how insignificant we are in comparison to the most dramatic scenery and we were part of it. Mind blowing.
We then had to change routes again due to the snow and the aspects in regards to safety, which again severely extended the distance we originally planned to travel. However this had given us a longer ski down in fantastic spring powder. We all knew we were skiing away from our final goal and the further down and away we went the further we had to go back up. Frustrating! By now it was midday and very hot. We reached the bottom of glacier and had a short rest and feed at 2000 meters before we embarked on the long undulating climb to the Col du Palet at 2652 meters – a 4.5km skin that was to take us 5 hours of constant plodding uphill.
Again difficult snow conditions to begin, crossing avalanche debris and traveling further in the wrong direction in order to keep out of danger. The last 2 hours were the most painful of my life, digging deeper into my reserves and finding guts I didn’t know I had. All of us struggled in the heat, even Zoe and Lee who are much more accustomed to this kind of endurance found it hard. The undulating terrain meant that each time we reached a horizon there was more to go. The top seemed to move away from us, it felt like we would never make it.
We did however make Val Claret in Tignes by 5.30pm. This, disappointingly, meant that we had missed the lift to Val d’Isère, our final destination. However we had completed the toughest endurance sections of the tour and all we missed out on was paying 99 euros for lift passes and a ski down a pisted run, so we put the lift pass money into the charity pot and called it a victory. We hope everyone that supported us will agree that a total 24 kilometers of skiing and skinning, including over 2570 vertical meters of ascent and 22.5 hours on the move was to be enough of an achievement and that Val Claret was to be a suitable finishing point.
This was the most difficult but rewarding expedition I have ever taken part in. I want to thank all of those that took part for their financial and more importantly emotional support. I really would not of made it without you.
Thank you to our main sponsors: -
Thank you also to all those that sponsored us, every little helped me achieve our goal, You can still donate to the 3 fantastic charities Polly and Lee are raising money for Raleigh international trust – www.justgiving.com/polly-a-baldwin
Suzanne Claxton, Resort manager for Family Friendly Skiing in La Tania, her chosen charity Barnardo’s – www.justgiving.com/suzanne-claxton
Jenna Shail, Owner and manager of luxury chalet holiday company come-ski.com. Jenna is fundraising for Cancer Research – www.justgiving.com/jenna-shail