Interview: Tom Grant on First Descent of Mt. Aoraki’s Caroline Face

Mountain

Dying has never been an option for me, but as a father I’m more keenly aware of my own mortality than before

Last month, Tom Grant completed a First descent of Mt. Aoraki’s notorious Caroline Face with fellow Brit Ben Briggs and Italian Enrico Mosetti. The Caroline Face was the last to be scaled by mountaineers due to its propensity for avalanches and numerous unstable seracs and in 2013, a failed attempt to descend the face led to the death of skier Magnus Kastengren.

Based in Chamonix, Tom specializes in steep skiing and offers custom private guiding, from rock climbing to remote ski mountaineering expeditions. His ski mountaineering highlights include first descents in Mont Blanc Massif, New Zealand, and on Baffin Island, Canada.

Exweb caught up with Tom to talk to him about his achievement on the Caroline Face, the preparations that went into it and the risks his friends and he faced.

ExWeb: You are based in Chamonix and have achieved some first descents in the Mont Blanc Massif. How do the NZ mountains compare to those in Europe? Specifically, what was special about the Caroline Face?

Tom Grant: Well, nothing compares to Chamonix, it’s my hometown and the mountains have a special place in my heart! The scale of the mountains and quality of the terrain is comparable in both NZ and the European Alps. The access is way better in the Alps with massive telepheriques and funicular railways whisking us up to steep 1000m lines in a matter of minutes. The Southern Alps of NZ are more wild and rugged and access to the huts and good skiing is sometimes extremely arduous and treacherous! Climate change is having a big impact everywhere, but the sheer speed the glaciers are retreating in NZ is something else, leaving behind colossal, teetering moraine walls of death. Dealing with these was probably the most dangerous thing we did all trip.

By any global standard for a skiable face, the Caroline is absolutely massive! It’s bigger than any face in the European Alps, except maybe the East Face of Monterosa which is a far more simple descent. It is also highly skiable with big, beautiful slopes which are very attractive to ski down. The Face also has a mythical status, steeped in mountaineering history and stories from previous ski attempts. Worth travelling halfway across the world for!

ExWeb: Could you talk us through your descent of the Caroline Face, from preparation to execution?

Tom: Route finding was one of the cruxes, we had to nail that and be sure that we could find a reasonably safe way through the middle serac band. This meant that we had to do our homework scouting the line, we flew by the Caroline and then made two trips to the bottom of it. I had looked hard at the face two years ago, trying to imagine a way to ski it. Ross Hewitt and I envisaged another line that we wanted to try in 2015. But this year the gods were smiling on us and the heinous and dangerous middle serac band had developed to form a nice gulley to ski into and safely make one 40m rappel. This was the key to unlocking the entire descent since we wouldn’t have attempted to rappel over a crumbling serac band, taller than our ropes are long.

It still wasn’t always obvious which way to go once on the face, but we have a lot of mileage between us on big descents and we managed to always find the right way to go. We had wanted to try and ski in direct from the top of the East Ridge, but when we climbed there, it was obviously too icy and probably hardly ever holds snow.

The climb up also wasn’t trivial, the East Ridge is a long and committing route in its own right. It took us longer than we thought because of deep breakable crust and fresh snow creating delicate snow aretes.

ExWeb: Do you have any advice for anyone who might want to retrace your descent?

Tom: Mountaineering skills are every bit as important as ski ability on a line like this, so make sure they are dialed. A face this big should ideally be skied in cold snow conditions to give some consistency of quality of snow on the descent. Otherwise the snow could be too hard high up and too soft lower down in spring conditions. So best to wait for a relatively lowish isotherm and stable weather. Be sure to have a lot of previous experience on big and committing faces, the Caroline isn’t something you can jump straight into without years of steep skiing experience and alpine climbing experience. And scout the line thoroughly!

ExWeb: Talking of which, risk management is a key theme that runs through every form of exploration we cover at ExWeb. Your relationship with risk has probably changed over the years – especially now that you are a father. What was your approach to risk management on the Caroline Face?

Tom: Dying has never been an option for me, but I’m more keenly aware of my own mortality than before I think being a father accentuates that. Skiing faces as big and as committing as the Caroline isn’t something I’d want to do all the time. However, I feel we had a good safety margin. We needed stable snow on the face, took an educated guess that would be the case and got it right. On the lower face, we were under some nasty looking seracs, but only for perhaps 20 minutes. There is no rhyme or reason as to when seracs fall so the only thing to do was to minimize our time under them. That meant skiing fast and not getting lost.

ExWeb: So after it was all done, how did you celebrate after your success?

Tom: We had a few drinks and found ourselves at a karaoke party at the Chamois Bar. Our team preformed a stellar version of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.

ExWeb: I am sure it was sublime! Did any of your equipment give you a key advantage?

Tom: I’ve been using the new Scarpa Maestrale RS which are the best ski boot I’ve ever used for a balance of climbability and skiability. I also love the Black Crows Corvus for steep skiing, it’s so solid and stable and can charge through anything. For bindings, I swear by the Plum Guide for being the most reliable and minimalist pin binding around. I trust my life to these day in, day out. For climbing a long alpine route with skis, I need two technical ice axes to confidently climb through steeper ground but they also need to be light. I absolutely love my new Grivel North Machine tools for this sort of up-and-over mission.

ExWeb: Thanks Tom, and all the best for your future adventures!

Tom Grant is an IFMGA guide based in the Alps offering guiding services year round and worldwide. Find out more about him on his site.

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First Descent of Caroline Face by Extreme Skiers

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