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Slaying Dragons: 5 Top Tips For First Descents With Steep Ski Specialist Tom Grant

22 March 2018

Renowned mountaineers Tom Grant, Enrico Mosetti & Ben Briggs conquer a first descent of the infamous Caroline Face in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Back in October 2017 a team of three skiers Brits Tom Grant, Ben Briggs and Italian Enrico Mosetti made the first ever descent of one of the world's biggest and most storied unskied faces, the Caroline Face on Aoraki/Cook, New Zealand. This colossal face is one of the largest alpine faces in the southern hemisphere and measures 2,000m from schrund to summit. It wasn't climbed until 1970, and repeat ascents are rare. Here Tom Grant gives an insight into that first descent, and his 5 top tips for first descents that he's learnt along the way.

Many of the world's strongest ski mountaineers had their eyes on the face before, and a few had given it a try but without success. The last serious attempt to ski the face was made in 2013 by late steep skiing legend Andreas Fransson along with Magnus Kastengren who fell to his death while skiing towards the face from the summit. We caught up with Tom to get his thoughts on the team's achievement and get some inside knowledge on how to approach first ascents.

Camp: At the foot of Malte Brun shortly after making the first descent of its south face with Aoraki/Cook in the background.Photo: Tom Grant

The Caroline Face had been on my mind for years, mulling it over with a combination of temptation and great respect. To have been able to ski this face in good style and in good snow was undoubtedly the greatest ski adventure the three of us have had.

I would like to share some of my own ideas I've formed about what it takes to ski big new lines, in a 'top tips' format. Steep skiing has been a huge passion of mine for the last ten years and much of the knowledge and approaches I've gleaned have been learned the hard way, making many survivable mistakes along the way. The true artist will remain forever an apprentice of a craft they can never master and this is my philosophy with skiing.

Taking a moment to admire the stunning views halfway up the East Ridge as the sun cast light on the mountains peaks.Photo:Enrico Mosetti


5 Top Tips for Skiing Steep First Descents

1. Skiing should be the easy bit

When skiing a committing steep line where falling simply isn't an option, making a technical mistake while skiing should be the least of your worries. There are already major objective hazards on big mountains without taking into account the risk of blowing a turn. Seracs, avalanches, unforeseen windslab and ice; these are all hazards which must be evaluated and mitigated against. Steep skiing can often require making tricky and critical judgements and a good level of mountaineering skill. By the time a skier finds themselves on a 50 degree plus no fall zone, they must have a sufficiently high level of technical competence that the risk of falling is miniscule. Steep skiing is dangerous enough. We must try to master what we can control.

On the Caroline Face, the skiing was well within our comfort zone. The three of us still found it intimidating being on such a huge and committing line, but we were able to focus our attention on the route finding rather than being stressed about the skiing.

Taking it in turns the team make their way down the large open slopes of the upper face.Photo: Enrico Mosetti

2. Become an alpinist

To ski first descents on big mountains, it's equally (if not more) important to be an alpine climber as well as a skier. Technical descents can often require a technical ascent. And on the way down it may be necessary to build anchors and abseil, to down climb, to ski while being belayed and to otherwise use skills and techniques more commonly associated with alpine climbing. Being an alpinist isn't just about skills however. It is also about tactics and psychology; having the confidence to know you can get yourself out of trouble or endure an unplanned bivy. This is built up through climbing year round in the mountains.

To climb Aoraki/Cook wasn't a trivial endeavour in itself. We had to deal with very delicate snow arêtes and ice pitches. On the descent we made three v-thread anchors to abseil over serac walls.

Enrico down climbing near Middle Peak of Aoraki/Cook towards the start of the line.Photo: Tom Grant

3. Do your homework

Be meticulous in your research and planning. I've learnt this the hard way and the times I've not done my homework on an objective, it's come back to bite me in the ass. This is especially important if you are skiing a line 'onsight', meaning dropping in from the top without having climbed it first.

Before going to ski the Caroline Face we were able to fly close by to it in a heli and take some great photos. We then made two more trips to the bottom of the mountain to observe the face from across the way. This reconnaissance proved crucial to successfully navigating our way over steep blind rolls and down serac walls.

The carefully planned descent down the Caroline Face. Glacial and snow conditions are essential to make this challenge viable.Photo: Ben Briggs

4. Have the right team

A shared approach to the mountains and a compatible risk tolerance are crucial to success and safety. When you are pushing yourself mentally and physically on a big line it can only be done with the right partners. Trust in each other's skills must be strong and each team member must at times lend the others psychological strength. Climbing and skiing Aoraki/Cook was a 14 hour day and the three of us took turns breaking trail, skiing first and setting up abseil anchors.

Climbing a pitch of ice on Malte Brun. It's essential to know when to stop simul soloing and get the rope out.Photo: Enrico Mosetti

5. Be honest with yourself

As the saying goes 'you need to want it'. Be honest with yourself about the reasons for wanting to expose yourself to risk. If you are doing it just to please or impress others, I think it cheapens your life and also lessens the enjoyment. Approaching a big objective, it's normal to be apprehensive. To overcome this fear and do it anyway it's essential to unpack what you are feeling and why. Is the strange gut feeling due to dangerous conditions or just healthy nerves? It's important to be able to articulate why or why not an objective is a good idea. Starting the climb up the East Ridge of Aoraki Cook at 2:30am on route to the biggest descent of my life I was pretty nervous, yet conditions were not dangerous and I knew it was right to carry on. When you are scared, cold and tired, it can be all too easy to bail and our minds play tricks on us trying to rationalise reasons for turning around. However, experience teaches us to push through when the time is right and that we will be handsomely rewarded for it.

These fundamental points lay the groundwork for being able to develop yourself as a freeskier capable of taking on big, steep descents. There are many more specific techniques that we need in our quiver for steep skiing but it would take an entire book to cover them all!

Straightlining a steep section on Malte Brun.Photo: Tom Grant

Based out of Chamonix Tom skis as much as possible in addition to working year round as an IFMGA guide. He's always looking for new challenges and adventures whether it's with friends or coaching clients. Follow him on Instagram @tom_grant_ and drop him a line if you are looking for a guide in the Alps.

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