Roof of the World: Skiing France's Vallée Blanche
by BEN DAVIDSON
“The Vallée Blanche is not just skiing, it’s a dream,” said Denis Etienne, our wiry mountain guide from Chamonix, a snug ski village at the foot of Mont Blanc in the heart of the French Alps.
Denis was referring to the most talked-about adventure in town, a thrilling five-hour, 12-mile-long glacier run between the 12,601-foot summit of the Aiguille du Midi and the town of Chamonix. Each winter, hundreds of international skiers and snowboarders drawn to this glacial “descent of a lifetime” board the two-stage téléphérique (a cable-slung tram) in good weather and in bad, stoked for an adventurous, if somewhat surreal, day-trip into the very heart of the Rhone Alps.
France’s Grizzly Adams
For Denis, an accomplished rock and ice climber and mountaineer who spends his summers climbing in Alaska, South America and the Himalayas, the route was a cakewalk, a yawner, another day in the office. For us, it was sheer suspense.
Before arriving in Chamonix we had met other skiers who had successfully ventured into the “White Valley.” They all relished the re-telling of their descents down the precipitous knife-edge ridge at the start of the route, the careful skirting of deep crevasses, and the quickened passage beneath ice falls and the avalanche-prone cliffs along the way. Some related odd, somewhat suspect tales of seeing the bodies of century-old skiers trapped in the glacial ice, and plane wreckage such as old mail and a frozen monkey from an ill-fated flight from southeast Asia that crashed in the valley in the ’60s. For us, their lively stories only enhanced our excitement about the Vallée Blanche, although their peculiar smirks left us wondering about what we were really getting into.
Comment Dit-On “No Sweat?”
My expedition companion was an advanced skier and I had seven years experience on the snowboard after 15 years as a skier. So, despite the stories, we felt fairly confident about our abilities in the Alps’ wilderness backcountry. “Pas de problème” — no problem, as they say in France.
Having a guide is not required for the Vallée Blanche expedition, but with off-piste (backcountry) skiing in France, it’s everyone for him or herself. If you break a ski, get altitude sickness, get fatigued or follow bad tracks into difficult terrain, you’re basically out of luck if you need assistance. There are many accidents in the Vallée each year; most are not serious, but some are fatal. A guided expedition is really the smartest, safest and ultimately most enjoyable way to tour this special place.
We found Denis, our guide, through the Chamonix-based Compagnie des Guides, which describes itself as the “oldest and most prestigious guide company in the world.” Founded in 1821 to satisfy an increasing demand, particularly from English mountaineers, to attempt Mont Blanc, the guide company was created by local men who knew the surrounding mountains inside out. Today, the company has 150 professional guides on staff and they are considered by mountaineering en-thusiasts to be among the most experienced and highly trained guides in the world. In addition to winter ski expeditions, they offer mountaineering courses, rock and ice climbing trips, glacier treks and mountain biking excursions in the French Alps.
We met at the base of the téléphérique, along with dozens of other excited skiers, tourists, and a few winter alpinists strapped with ice axes, ice screws, ropes and cramp-ons. The morning fog enveloped the tram’s cables, hiding the mountains from view. But Denis assured us that soon we would be above the clouds, enjoying brilliant sunshine for the entire day. We were lucky: often the Vallée Blanche is socked in with snow and blizzard-like conditions, creating extreme hazards for adventurers.
Don’t Look Down
Crammed with 62 others into the tram, we were whisked some 8,000 feet to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi — literally meaning “The Middle Needle.” The tram’s second stage spans nearly two miles without a single tower between the Plan de l’Aiguille and the Aiguille du Midi (at one point you dangle 1,000 feet off the ground). Views on the 15-minute ride were astounding. During the second stage we rose above a sheer rock face draped with icefalls where a few daredevil alpinists slowly made their way up massive, frozen columns toward the spired top of the 12,601-foot granite peak.
Finally exiting the gondola into brilliant sun, thin mountain air and biting wind, we then took a quick lift to the building’s roof in an ascenseur (elevator) built into solid rock. There, we were greeted with a dizzying panorama that stretched from Switzerland to Italy, and included the Alps’ highest and most famous peak — 15,771-foot Mont Blanc — and others such as the Dent du Géant, les Grands Jorasses, and the Matterhorn.
Below us, an ant-line of skiers made their way down the arête, a spectacular, knife-edge ridge leading to the start of the Vallée Blanche run where we were also headed, nerves in tow.
Using climbing harnesses, the group roped together for safety at the top of the ridge. Our skis slung over our shoulders, we clutched a set of well-placed handrails and joined a long line of other skiers making baby steps in our ski and snowboard boots down the steep, snowy ramp. Fortunately the footing was excellent; on both sides of us, sheer cliffs dropped away for literally thousands of feet into a vertiginous pool of snow and rock.
After a short while, the ramp eased onto a huge snowfield covering the Glacier du Géant. After unroping, my companions clicked into their skis and I strapped on my snowboard and set off for the start of a sublime afternoon of wide-open glacier skiing amid famed climbing peaks — the Aiguille Verte, Aiguille de Dru and others.
En route, Denis carefully shepherded us over avalanche chutes and hidden crevasses, replete with ice walls and an otherworldly ambiance. At the head of one crevasse Denis pointed straight down. “We’re going in there!” he said with a smile. I looked at him incredulously and wondered if I was about to be victimized by some quirky Gallic mountain guide humor. We slipped down the steep sides of the icy crack to find a narrow tunnel formed by dense ice that glowed deep blue. We slid quickly through the curvaceous, smooth chamber and exited back onto the glacier field — one of those magical moments that made this journey a truly memorable adventure. After all, where else in the world can you ski through a 1,000-year-old ice cube?
No Time to Whine
A series of massive glacial benches — the Seracs de Géants — proved to be the most difficult section of the route. Carefully side-slipping down, we passed numerous skiers stymied by this maze of jumbled ice blocks. On my broad, single-platform snowboard, the side-slipping was easy — like standing on an elevator and pushing the button for the lobby. The skiers on the route had a tougher time, especially the steep middle passage of this glacial staircase. It proved to be too much for one skier who had fallen and was injured, requiring rescue by emergency helicopter back to Chamonix.
Once through, however, de rigueur creature comforts were waiting — and very welcome — at the Refuge du Requin, a rustic mountain hut run by both young and seasoned guides high on a ridge above the glacier. The refuge offers skiers a traditional, and trés français, stop for hearty Savoyarde fare — cheesy tarti-flettes and kir-laced fondues, local red wines such as Gamay and Crépys, and fresh salad and bread — and exquisite deck-side views. Rest stops are much appreciated on the run, as we felt fairly fatigued after four or five hours of skiing.
The final leg of our journey remained: skiing down the long Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) to the historic Montenvers cog railway, where we would exit the route for a rail ride back to town. The run earns its name because in the summer, while the snow around it melts, the glacial ice remains solid, resembling a vast sea of ice in a rugged, colorful alpine valley.
That evening, we celebrated in a local bistro, reveling in having lived a ski dream in Chamonix’s legendary domain of rock, snow and ice.
The season for skiing the Vallée Blanche is generally January or February through May. Expedition participants should have strong intermediate skiing or snowboarding skills, and, most importantly, a sense of adventure. Skiers should be comfortable making parallel ski turns and side-slipping some sections of the route. Snowboarders may have difficulty with the long traverses and flat sections; it’s handy to have a ski-pole to assist with such terrain.
Guides can take a maximum of eight people in a group into the Vallée Blanche. For a private guide for one to four people, the cost is approximately $230 per group of up to four people for the guide and evacuation by helicopter in case of an accident. Each additional person (up to a total of eight) costs $20. This price does not include the tram ride, Monten-vers train, or food and drink at the refuge. For guide information and reservations, contact: Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, Tel: 011-33-450- 530-088; Fax: 011- 33- 450- 534-804; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.cieguides-chamonix.com. Or visit the Chamonix Website: www.chamonix.com
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “France—Skiing/Downhill.”