Returning to form: Pisteurs Couloir

This post is about skiing Pisteurs Couloir in Val d’Isere, but before I explain all about the route, there’s some important context. I wrote my last blog post just before I headed out to Tignes for three weeks in the New Year of 2015. The skiing was great but I had really bad guts for the whole trip, a problem which had started a few months previously. I even had to cancel my New Year midnight tour up to the famous Aguille Percee, because I just didn’t think I’d be able to manage it.

This actually signalled the start of the craziest ordeal of my life, an ordeal that would consume 2015, and the reason that I wouldn’t write any blog posts about skiing for a while. Several trips to the doctors upon my return from France culminated in a diagnosis of Stage 3 colorectal cancer on Friday 13th February 2015. It sure was one hell of a way to end my ski season. I’ve written extensively about the experience on my work blog.

Getting back to any kind of form has been incredibly hard. My core muscles felt like they’d been ripped out after the operation and the chemotherapy that followed is just brutal. Ongoing fatigue hits me really hard and I’ve lost most of the sensation in the ends of my fingers, toes and soles of my feet (chemotherapy doesn’t like nerve cells). But I’ve learnt not to quit and so I immersed myself in three weeks of mountain time at the end of May and into June 2016. After a mandatory few days in La Grave to catch up with the crew there, I drove on to Tignes.

It was skiing Pisteurs Couloir with my mountain bestie Flossie Cockle that really made the trip though. Being back in the mountains was sensational and life reaffirming, if not really hard work on my seriously debilitated body. The couloir is a right of passage for off piste skiers in the Espace Killy and I needed to ski it to pshychologically mark some sort of return to form, though I still have an enormous way to go.

Pisteurs Couloir looms ominously in the distance from the top of the Olympique lift, its sweet line cutting its way vertically through the Rocher Du Charvet. For access, get to the top of the Grand Pre lift. The couloir is clearly visible on your journey up. As soon as you’re off the lift, get your skis on your pack and start the boot up from immediately to your left. I’ve heard people say it’s a 20 minute walk in but I’d allow a little longer than that. Go back on yourself a little from the direction of the lift and navigate your way up and along the ridge line until it opens up. Get your skis on and ski for about 100 metres (losing about 10 metres from the high point), the couloir opens up below you on your left.

Pisteurs Couloir is not an overly-committing line but it shouldn’t be under-estimated either. Last year we had to write off an attempt because of an obvious significant slab avalanche in the left hand fork of the couloir (and subsequent conversations the next day with the skier that had triggered it and managed to ski away). On this attempt, the entrance was well hacked out from edging by previous skiers and you’d need to be Anselm Baud to make jump turns into it. A previous party had left the remains of a ski-belay, so using a short rope to access the top section is definitely an option.

Without belay, we edged in. Exercise significant here as falling would not be a good idea. After about 20 metres the route opens up into some fine couloir skiing before it splits (at a small shoulder) into an obvious right and left branch. We skied it twice in two days (it was so much fun) and took the left branch both times as the snow looked much finer. With an entrance angle of about 45 degrees, the couloir opens out into easier 35 degree terrain on which you can really open it up. Make your own mountain decisions and enjoy!

4 thoughts on “Returning to form: Pisteurs Couloir

  1. Alba Adventures

    Alps and Beach posted this story I think in Elite Skiing – hence how we found it. Glad to see you on the mend from what was probably the scariest moment of your life. Live life to the fullest as you do. Never look back on the bad things if you can. Last year, this week I lost a childhood friend to colon cancer. It is amazing how cancer just waste you, even when you survive. Bravo and I do hope we can ski together with you though, I will be with family in tow. Heal up, get some mountain air and forever be in remission.

  2. Richard Hughes-Jones Post author

    I’ve done a few silly things on skis and up mountains before, but yes, a cancer diagnosis was definitely the scariest thing. The irony is that bowel cancer is one of the most identifiable and treatable of the cancers but awareness is very poor. Hopefully this blog helps. Thank you for your kind words and sorry to hear about your own loss.


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