Monviso North Face – Coolidge Couloir 05.05.2011 – 1st Snowboard Descent
Known as the “Re di Pietra” (the King of Stone) in the Southern Alps, with its 3841metres, Monviso is a spectacular isolated stone pyramid dominating the entire Alpine region of Southern Piedmont and the plains below.
Taking its name from the latin Mon Vesulus (the Visible Mountain) Monviso is, on a clear day, visible from the spires of the Cathedral of Milan.
Aside from its imposing height, it is famous for its shape, remoteness and the fact that the River Po, Italy’s longest river, has its origin and source from the glaciers of Monviso.
Spending my childhood up in the hills of Asti, my birthplace, fifty miles southeast of Turin, Viso always attracted my attention on clearer days.
Back then, adventure and exploration were not yet part of my everyday life and I would later learn that when I was 2 years old, a brave ski instructor from Limone Piemonte, a certain Nino Viale, climbed the North face by the Coolidge Couloir and made a ski descent wearing jeans (22/07/1975).
Growing up and increasingly turning my attention to the mountains, I was quickly galvanized by the stories surrounding the ‘King of Stone’ and its legends of folklore being told in the neighbouring valleys.
As a teenager and in my early 20’s I was passionate about skiing initially with snowboarding to follow but any huge descents on skis or board captivated me, and the Coolidge Couloir soon became part of my morbid dreams.
The vicissitudes of life led me along other paths but dreams remained, albeit buried in the back of my mind. Sometimes when we least expect, our dreams flood back into reality and suddenly materialize before our eyes. I believe it is the highest bliss that we can be given, the potential to experiment in achieving things that once were just dreams and seemed far out of reach.
Now I could see it was a possibility that I could live my dream.
The atypically dry winter locally meant that it felt like we’d had no winter at all, thus allowing me to travel and learn about new places. The beautiful Dolomites, the Dents du Midi, the Eiger in Switzerland and finally Monviso in the Cozie Alpes, all had enjoyed abundant winters, unlike Chamonix.
Looking for new lines that could make me dream, I started to turn my attention out of the Chamonix valley where now there is a daily rush to ski the Mallory with 3 or 4 rappels.
Thanks to the internet, exchanges of vital information bounce quickly to and from one valley to another and within a few weeks I had communicated my interest in the North face of Monviso, particularly the first snowboard descent of the Coolidge couloir to some of the locals and friends in the Cuneo-Turin area.
The responses were always the same; “there is ice below the Corda Molla” (the name of the saddle on the left of the middle part of the upper couloir ).
Considered the most difficult snow and ice route in the Southern Alps, is not even mentioned in the guidebooks or on internet sites due to the difficulty it has getting into condition.
This being the reason why apparently, up until this month, it had not been skied from above the Corda Molla for more than ten years and never in its history by a snowboarder.
The latest snowfall in recent days had finally changed something and when you live for certain runs, your sixth sense begins to tickle….
To be in the right place at the right time is a unique sensation in life.
Fundamental to the achievement of these “perfect moments” are the local friends that give the green light.
In a world where everything is moving faster and faster, exchanging information seems necessary and governs every moment of our lives…texts, phone calls, unexpected emails… it was time for me to disconnect from this reality and live the dream.
I will always be indebted to Enzo Cardonatti for giving me the best gift, his knowledge, “Go and see … I think it’s the right time. ”
I suggest a trip to the Monviso to my partners Ben and Cedric, Ben accepted straight away while Cedric was not so convinced, especially after I sent him a picture of the line!
Following a quick check over several contrasting weather reports on Tuesday night, we all agreed and decided it was worth a try.
When we reached the tunnel we were stopped by French border police asking us where we were going; we told them “We’re going skiing on Monte Viso” the policeman answers us “ah c’est une tres belle montagne le Viso!” (ah Monviso it’s a really nice mountain!).
This provoked laughing from our van where a still sceptical Cedric had earlier revealed his perplexity about this mountain of which even the name he was unfamiliar with!
They let us leave with a smile and pretended not to see the stash of beer stored in the front compartment of the van … we would be glad for them on our return.
After roughly three hours of driving we arrived in Crissolo Pian Regina where the road ends and where we met Mattia arriving from Milan
We walked along a path for about 250m of vertical difference and then put skins and snowshoes on.
This time I opted for a bit more sacrifice on the way up and a bit more safety and fun on the way down so I left the splitboard at home.
I came to regret this choice in the three and a half hours it took to reach the bivouac, sinking every two steps up to the knee and being swallowed in huge gulfs by the rocks
I arrived at the six-place bivy at sunset thinking we would be home alone but I discovered it was a full house with 2 other Italian skiers spending the night in this eagle’s nest perched at the foot of the couloir.
I knew one of the two, we’d spoken a couple of times on the phone and despite the lack of space we spent a good evening chatting and joking, finally in my native language
We awoke at five am, had breakfast and prepared to leave.
Cedric, who spent the night in the luxury “penthouse suite” part of the bivy, powered off ahead and by the time the rest of us left the bivy he had already opened nearly one hundred meters of track.
We caught up fast, passing the two sections of mixed ground and reached the “Ghiacciaio Pensile”, the hanging glacier
The snow was cold and deep and as I hit the track towards the superior Coolidge, I heard Beo, one of the other two guys telling me “There are too many of us, you guys came from afar, I know that you took care to make sure you got the first line, we will go to Perotti (from the hanging glacier begins two other shorter couloirs that do not exit onto the summit, the Central and the Perotti).
I felt sorry for them although at the same time very grateful for this gesture, I am glad we can still meet such kind hearted people in the mountains. Beo, I owe you one!
After the second mixed ground section, we get into the heart of the upper Coolidge, approaching the part of the line that we were unsure about, approx 50m of blue ice on which we had hoped (after the last snowfall) a thin strip of snow would be attached that would allow us to pass without taking off our skis and board. We had heard of two who had skied from above “La Corda Molla” the previous weekend but had no news about this passage.
I was leading when, close to the sea of blue ice, I saw a white strip on the right and break the silence … “yeah we can go through!”
The morale shot back up, Cedric, ’bootpacker of the day’ in supershape, took turns with Mattia and Ben in opening tracks in the snow slopes above the corda molla with two more mixed ground passages.
We quickly arrive at the rocks below the summit, behind us the clouds are coming up fast forcing us to make a painful choice.
Summit ?…(with 70-80m vertical difference of easy mixed ground separating us) or Super ski with great visibility and make beautiful images?
It does not take long to decide, in the end we are junkies of steep big turns rather than alpinists and summit collectors so we start to dig a footing in the sugar snow allowing us a bit of balance to be able to put board and skis on
Here we go! … Not even time to do the first three turns required for a proper psychological adjustment and one of our worst nightmares began unfolding in front our eyes.
Traversing left to the sunny exposed slope, Cedric is pulled down by a rotten snow slide. … I see him trying to make his skis grip to no avail.
Everything runs fast before our eyes but the moments passing become an eternity.
Bumping up against a stone, he stopped for a moment, trying to resist but the mass of snow is too heavy and it forces him to jump about a metre off the rock….we are on a slope at 55°superexposed!!!
The idea of a tragedy hits us like a dart of lightning hurled from nowhere … then, thankfully but incredibly, he stops a few meters away from the abyss separating him from the void.
Silence reined for a few moments; perhaps as a sort of prayer and recognition that something or a number of things coincided at that moment to avert almost certain death.
He traversed to the right where the snow is colder and indulged in his moment of inner reflection. Now it was our turn to negotiate the passage where the snow slid leaving uncovered rocks
The descent of my dreams did not start in the best way … or perhaps, yes it did… all depends from which perspective we look at things
After the first steps of mixed we are on the slopes above “la corda molla” (we used the rope on two meters of rock step, because after what we had just witnessed we do not want to risk more on this exposed passage).
Here I lived one of the best experiences of my life. We skied an airy ridge that leads to the lower slope with a feeling of being in the void, as if to be skiing in the sky.
Below us is a sea of clouds covering the Pianura Padana (the big flat that runs to the far northeast Italian corner) and a constant spindrift, saturated air filled with billions of tiny crystals of cold snow, our sluffs slipping fast on that sea of blue ice to our right, thus creating unique visual effects.
We look at each other awhile to share this magic moment, intoxicated and in awe of the experience that we are living together
Next crux is waiting for us, the narrow passage between ice and rocks, a strip of snow 20-25cm deep and 4-5m wide.
I go first trying to be light and not cut the thin layer of snow; the first two turns slide fast then the front edge touches the ice, slightly bouncing.
Fear pushes me to stop but I know that this is just question of a few meters, I leave the board to slide and I stop just a few meters below on the left, away from the sluff of the others
The section that follows is one of the reasons why life is worth living.
We link fast turns on perfect snow heading a bit right and a bit left to avoid the sluff and soon we are at the narrow exit.
We place a rappel to pass the few meters of mixed ground separating us from five or six turns at mc12 on the Pensile…what conditions!!!
We rappel another twenty meters to pass the rocky step and enter into the lower Coolidge after which we side step, traverse and jump little rocky steps for about thirty meters before using the rope again to pass the last un-skiable twenty meters (someone down-climbed all this pitch…we prefer starting and finishing with skis and boards on our feet).
Still a small rocky step jump and we are finally out of trouble
We ski, with that usual warm pleasure that comes from the release of tension, the last part of the couloir and in the fog we reach the bivy to collect our belongings
Soon after (and this always seems to be in a thick fog) we try to find the quickest way to the valley where beers fit for giants are awaiting us.
I wish to warmly thank my team mates Cedric Bernardini, Ben Briggs and Mattia Varchetti for sharing one of the most beautiful and satisfying experiences of my life.
To Enzo Cardonatti a huge thank you for your information and invaluable advice ensuring that this dream became a reality.
This line has everything you could look for in a big mountain line: a beautiful mountain, great length of line, constant steepness, exposure, technical mountaineering passages … and on top of that we were lucky enough to find a variant increasingly rare in recent winters, the cherry on the cake on this kind of line … the high mountain compressed powder!
VIDEO FOOTAGE COMING SOON !!!