“Man, I wish my legs weren’t so smoked,” my ski partner Arne Backstrom smiled as he articulated the thought blaring in my head. I might not have known it then, but this was about to be the run of my life; the day we finally got to leave our tracks on the Aiguille Verte’s Couturier Couloir, and nothing – not even tired legs – would stop us.
It had been a long time coming. Until this day, the Couturier had never looked quite ready. Arne and I had skied up to the base multiple times and each time we retreated, feeling the conditions were not exactly right; too much ice, too much avalanche risk, wind-affected snow, the list went on. Then the Grands Montets ski area closed for the season and lift access to the Couturier was cut off.
We were disappointed. We took full advantage of the continuing spring snowfall and skied many classic lines in the Chamonix range, all accessed via the Aiguille du Midi lift. But nothing is so coveted as that which is just out of reach, and we could not shift the Couturier from our minds. The steep pitch of the northeast-facing couloir makes it so compelling; few lines offer such a long sustained slope plummeting directly from a summit, and we suspected the turns would be among the best the Alps have to offer – if conditions were just right. Arne and I plotted how to reach the Couturier without the lift and decided to give it one more shot.
The Pierre à Ric piste drops over 700 meters from the mid station of the Grands Montets and provides a casual run down to the village of Argentière after a day on the hill. But as we stood at the bottom looking up at the snowless Pierre à Ric, the gentle slope took on a completely different character.
Straining under the weight of our packs, and grateful that the Pierre à Ric was only a red piste, Arne and I slowly ascended to the Grands Montets mid station under a light rain. Here we stashed our shoes, donned ski boots and skinned another 600 meters to the Argentière Glacier where the temperature was just below freezing. Sleet began to fall more heavily, driving us toward the exposed glacier ice as our only bivy option.
Luckily, we found a large boulder with a mostly level top and declared it home for the night. Had there been anyone around, it would have been quite a scene: two guys standing on a solitary rock in the middle of a glacier, talking, singing, dancing, anything to outlast the precipitation. Near hypothermic and all danced out, we gave up on the weather, pitched the tent and crawled in for the night.
Waking up to clear skies, we left camp the next morning before sunrise to begin our final ascent to the Couturier. It was still too dark to assess if the conditions were right, so, fingers crossed, we made our hopeful pilgrimage once again. As the sun rose, the couloir became brighter until we could finally see the snow-plastered face. Arne and I grinned. We were just 800 meters of boot packing from the top.
With two pairs of smoked legs, we stood on the corniced summit of the Aiguille Verte peering 1500 meters below the tips of our skis to the tiny yellow speck that was our bivy the previous night. As we looked down the couloir other thoughts raced in my head: Is this really it? Am I finally going to ski this line? This is going to be sick! And it was. The skiing was everything we could have wished for. Stable, boot-deep powder on a smooth, steep, sustained face with just enough intricacies to keep it interesting, but not so much to disrupt our downward flow.
Watching Arne arc GS-style turns, racing in front of his slough, is still one of the most impressive feats I have ever witnessed – and it happened on the best day I’ve ever had in the mountains, on the run of my life. That’s a combination I won’t soon forget.