Fueled by Mars Bars: How the ‘Gemini Brothers’ conquered a classic line in Chamonix

Fueled by Mars Bars: How the ‘Gemini Brothers’ conquered a classic line in Chamonix

The alarm went off at six o’clock in the morning, and I’ve never jumped out of bed faster. Following a week of unnavigable winter conditions and numerous canceled plans, the weather finally split, and I had my first chance—on the last day of the trip—to take advantage of the accessibility, big lines and steep skiing that Chamonix is best known for.

The night prior, on the patio of the Grand Hotel Des Alpes, I linked up with Cedric Aubert, a Community Ambassador for The North Face who calls Chamonix home, to enjoy some charcuterie, a frosty brew and discuss logistics for a line he’d been looking at for a while.

Cedric, a humble dude with infectious positivity and stoke, is from a town called Perpignan located in the south of France, where pristine beaches and the smaller summits of the Pyrenees are the main tourism draw. As a wee little grom, the French Alps and the Mont Blanc Massif, in particular, had a tractor-beam-like way of shaping his early life choices. Later, Cedric studied in Toulouse and Barcelona before taking a job at a traditional Marketing Agency in Paris, which left him longing for more time in the mountains that surrounded him as a child. A few years later, he ventured out, started his own marketing agency and spending winters in Chamonix. Some, including myself, would call this “living the dream.”

The author looks back at the line after a successful descent. PHOTO: Cedric Aubert

Back on the patio of the hotel, the line we discussed was the North Face of the Noire: A beautiful, exposed face that is rarely in good condition, and during an average snow year requires a rappel down an unskiable rock section in the dead center of the face.

It’s quite the aesthetic line, too. The descent takes you almost 3,300-feet down, starting from a hanging glacier as you weave your way around cliff bands and through constrictions. The line empties you out at the base of the ultra-classic Vallée Blanche glacier just as it connects to the largest glacier in France, the Mer de Glace. We planned to make our descent on a beautiful Saturday in one of the most popular valleys in the world and we knew our every move would be on display to the thousands recreating on the glaciers below. If we took a tumble, we could not only die, but worse, end up embarassed on Jerry of the Day.

After looking over the maps, discussing what gear to bring and finalizing logistics for the morning, Cedric took the last swig of his refreshment and bid me adieu. The forecast was beautiful for that next morning—Saturday, April 7, 2018— and it happened to be day four of the Black Crows Chamonix Unlimited Festival, which meant the base of the Midi would be an absolute madhouse, full of mountain-loving partygoers. Since I was staying just a few blocks from the tram and Cedric was staying further away with his Girlfriend in Courmayer, Italy, it was my job to get there early enough and wait in line for a first come, first serve reservation. Unlike the weather, I had control over this situation. After a week of uncooperative weather and perfecting the art of the bail, no one was going to be ahead of me in that line.

The vibe in the Aiguille du Midi cable car is always exciting. The crowd ranges from tourists from all over the world—many of whom have never seen glaciers let alone been that high off the ground—to professional skiers, alpinists, and world-class professional guides. It’s electric. The palpable energy affects every passenger differently, terrifying some while motivating or focusing others. You can watch as people stare off to different corners of the mountains trying to get eyes on the day’s objective or to asses conditions for a future mission.

As our cable car docked at the summit, the doors open and the herds dispersed in different directions: the tourists to the cafés and sheltered observation decks, and the recreationalists—us skiers, strapped up with all the accoutrements of a mountaineer—to the access tunnel that lead to the glaciers below.

Quickly, I went to appease the hunger bunnies rioting inside my stomach with whatever the 10 Euro note in my bib could get me for breakfast. The croissants weren’t ready yet, so a Mars Bar (for Cedric), a pouch of apple puree and a shot of espresso would have to do. “Better than nothing,” I thought to myself as I hurried back to find Cedric talking with one of his friends about our objective. That’s when our suspicions were confirmed: the line was skiable. The snow was still good from the storm two days earlier, and we only had one pair of tracks to follow.

According to Cedric’s friend, Jacob and Oscar Wester, professional skiers and brothers from Sweden, made the tracks that would guide us down the face—that is if someone didn’t beat us to it. The fanboy in me wanted to squeal, but I remind myself that in the eyes of the mountains we’re all the same, just a disturbance that comes and goes, hopefully gracefully and safely.

The author at the summit station of the Aiguille du Midi. PHOTO: Cedric Aubert

We followed the fixed ropes out of the summit station, boot skiing most of the way until we were in the clear to clip in and start the descent. It was truly a perfect morning. There was almost no wind, not a cloud in the sky and temps warm enough to melt away our giddish levels of stoke. Our traverse across the mouth of the Vallée Blanche took us around the Gros Rognon and under Mont Blanc du Tacul to the base of the Vallée Noire.

After battling a tricky sun crust on our mellow descent to the base of our zone, we stopped, took a moment to take in the epic scenery, unbelievably perfect weather, have a snack and plan our skin track across the glacier. The deep snowpack left the glacier fairly easy to navigate and the usual skin track banter ensued.

Cedric skinning toward the entry couloirs. PHOTO: Nat Houston

As we checked the small talk boxes pertaining to our childhoods, occupations, significant others, lifelong passions, etc., we landed on a pretty epic discovery when age became the topic. Although a few years apart, both Cedric and I were born on the same day—June 1st! Cedric shockingly disclaims that he knew we’d be a good duo and gave our team the self-proclaimed name, “Gemini Bros.” Immediately, that Step Brothers quote popped into my head: “Did we just become best friends?!” Our day now had a whole new meaning.

The author pauses to snap a selfie when we realized the duo were “Gemini Bros.”

I’ll spare you the energy-wasting details, but without much actual beta to rely on other than condition reports and the fact that the line was “in,” we booted up the wrong couloir and ended up a decent chunk above the start of the face we were supposed to ski. Now, we stood on a pretty nasty, exposed ridge, far off from where we should have been eating Mars Bars and exchanging forceful high-fives. At first, we let negativity and the thought of having to bail on our objective creep into our heads. The day was only going to get hotter, the snow less stable, more susceptible to wet slides and our race against the clock less practical. Fortunately for us and this long-winding editorial, the Gemini Bros weren’t out of try-hard.

Booting up the wrong entry couloir. PHOTO: Cedric Aubert

Cedric nearing the top of the incorrect couloir. PHOTO: Nat Houston

Cedric looked at me and almost playfully and asked, “You down to go for it?”

It was still early, and I was properly buzzing from espresso and chocolate bars. I grabbed my rope, looped a sling around a fang-like horn of a rock for an anchor, put Cedric on belay and let out a questionable, “Send it!” We inched-wormed our way three rope lengths out of the ridge until Cedric went around a spire and out of view. A very long couple minutes crawled by. A bird hovered up near my head, curiously coasting a thermal and scoping the scene. I yelled Cedric’s name and, to my relief, his white helmet popped around the corner to answer my call.

The cornice in the lower left corner is where we were supposed to be. PHOTO: Nat Houston

Defeatedly, he yelled back to me, “We’re fucked!” The ridge didn’t connect, and it was time to cut our losses and retreat. We retraced our three pitches back to our initial, sketchy stoop on the ridge; but although we wasted a lot of crucial time, our flame wasn’t yet extinguished.

The author returning from the ridge. PHOTO: Cedric Aubert

Following our dismal return to the top of the couloir, Cedric noted there was still a silver lining, that if we didn’t succeed with the day’s goal, “at least we got to do some alpinism?” I chuckled and agreed with his point.

This is when we were faced with two very clear options: the first would be to put our skis on, survival ski down our still frozen and botched entrance couloir, rejoin the proper couloir, boot like madmen to the top, and hope the line was still in safe enough condition to ski; the second would be to completely bail.

After a quick snack break, gnawing through the frozen caramel of a Mars Bar, we agreed that we still had the time and energy to pursue our original goal. The next hour or so was far more efficient than we expected and put us on top of the North Face of La Noire right before noon. The snow was still in pristine skiing shape and the majority of the line had yet to be harassed by the afternoon sun. Finally, after hours slogging around on the glaciers, we clicked in to our skis, found the Wester brother’s tracks and the proverbial stoplight switched from red to green.

Due to the nature of the face, we hopped our way through technical cruxes that consumed much of the line, only opening the throttle on rare occasions where the terrain permitted. The whole route was steep, committing and no-fall in nature; yet the lack of direct sunlight since the last snowfall made for some dreamy turns through boot-top pow. In all, the euphoric combination of perfect weather, great company and idyllic springtime pow made for an unforgettable day on the Mount Blanc Massif.

I’ll wrap things up with a line from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson, which I read on the flight home, one day after Cedric and I skied the North Face of La Noire: “This is the most simple and basic component in life: our struggles determine our successes. Our problems birth our happiness, along with slightly better, slightly upgraded problems. See: it’s a never-ending upward spiral. And if you think at any point you’re allowed to stop climbing, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Because the joy is in the climb itself.”

Photo Gallery

A view down the North Face at a brief pause at the top of the line. Dramatic ice falls draw the eye as the Vallée Blanche extends off into the distance. PHOTO: Nat Houston

The author slashes deep into the new snow high up on the face. PHOTO: Cedric Aubert

Cedric initiates a hop turn near one of the many constrictions. PHOTO: Nat Houston

Taking a break atop the crux of the route. In a normal snow year this spot is a mandatory rappel, but this year’s deep snowpack let us ski this elusive face top to bottom. PHOTO: Nat Houston

The author enjoys the rare blower pow on the Noire. PHOTO: Cedric Aubert

Cedric lays down a dreamy slarve on the sun’s shadow line. PHOTO: Nat Houston

The author hopping his way toward the final choke of the face. In the top right corner of the photos you can see skiers navigating the mid section of the famed Vallée Blanche. PHOTO: Cedric Aubert

After an adrenaline filled descent we almost forgot to look back at the objective. Cedric takes his best shot at the monster line we just skied. PHOTO: Nat Houston

A final, zoomed-in look at the days mission. PHOTO: Nat Houston


Curious what gear we used on this trip? Click here to find out.


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