Last week, I finally skied the Vallée Blanche for the first time.
A 17km itinerary that, in good conditions, takes the skier from the top of Aiguille du Midi, at 3,842m, to Chamonix village, at about 1000m, through the very heart of the Mont Blanc massif, this is justifiably one of the most popular off piste routes in Europe. Some family friends were in town and mentioned that it had been on their hit list for many years, so Ben volunteered his guiding services.
The Aiguille du Midi is, itself, a remarkable place. Reached by the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, the lift station is a feat of engineering; perched on two adjacent bastions of granite towering over the Chamonix valley, the spires are connected by a small bridge which is always bustling with climbers sorting gear and tourists clutching cameras and the railings with equal fervour.
To reach the col from the station, it is necessary to descend a fairly thin, steep arête; if you slipped, on one side, you would fall 300m, on the other, about a thousand metres. Fortunately, during the winter, the arête is equipped by the Compagnie des Guides with two rope banisters, making the whole enterprise much less hair raising. Still, I was glad to be wearing crampons. The arête is reached via a small ice tunnel, which is usually jammed with parties roping up and strapping on crampons, and it is always interesting to see people’s faces at that point; expressions ranging from exhilaration to nerves to, for some of the guides, boredom at another day at the office.
Once back on relatively flat land below the arête, we clicked into skis and shot off down onto the col. I had only ever been there previously in summer, when it is covered with traffic; small groups of roped parties, trudging slowly through the thick snow, soloists who appear to be practically jogging by comparison towards their objectives and even little tent communities which have set up home on the glacier for the season.
It certainly isn’t empty in winter, but, at least the day we were there, there were many fewer people, and this enhanced the sense of grandeur I felt as I anxiously tried to take in my surroundings while my skis glided over the snow; so much more relaxing and pleasurable than that summer plod! We stopped regularly to admire the jagged peaks around us; Mont Maudit, le Grand Capucin, Mont Blanc du Tacul, le Dent du Geant… The sun danced off the faces and couloirs where some of the world’s most talented mountaineers perform their almost superhuman feats.
To my mind, that first hour was the best skiing of the day. Beyond that, the path picks its way carefully through a highly crevassed landscape where two glaciers meet and erupt into a tangled, icy mess. I find glaciers incredibly ugly; the debris of the moraine and the snarls of crevasses and seracs resemble some sort of monster of the earth, waiting to swallow up any prey that makes an error in its domain. And yet the intensity of the blue ice deep inside the crevasses is quite wonderful – perhaps that is the temptation that lures the unsuspecting traveller in.
The final few kilometres comprise a fairly flat path, which skiers take as far as possible before the rock and rubble start to intrude on the snow. When snow is plentiful, the path goes all the way back to Chamonix village; however, at the moment, one must leave the glacier via a metal staircase to a small gondola which deposits you at the Montenvers train, a charming little railway that has been operating since 1908 and was indeed the valley’s first purpose built tourist attraction.
The alarming feature of this staircase is the series of plaques that mark the level of the glacier in 2000, in 1990, and so on. The magnitude of its retreat is shocking and saddening, all the more so when contemplated in the context of green mountainsides in February. It does make me wonder what all this will look like by the time my children are ready to ski here. And yet… what a pleasure to pull off harnesses and Gore Tex and return to Chamonix for enormous ice cream cones in that unseasonal sun…