Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Skiing La Valle Blanche in Chamonix

While I sure wish I could have gotten more than one day on the mountain, this is a long way to come for one day, but it was a work trip not a holiday.  The decision had been made with my friend and associate Bruce Rosard, for us to do the Valle Blanche with a guide as a must do life experience. This is one of the true must do things for any serious mountain enthusiasts. We hired a guide for the two of us for the day. This also requires buying your ticket for the day as well.

The day is more of an adventure and alpine touring day than a resort ski day. Mont Blanc is Europe’s highest peak over 13,000 feet high and a true alpine environment. On hiring a guide, I would strongly suggest as a must do if you want to do this. I would not do it any other way plain and simple. It takes two tram/cable car rides to get to the top traveling over 2800 meters. Once on top we took the elevator for views and pictures at the very top, then with our guide Pierre, all guides are certified by a rigorous training and certification process, prepared us for the initial descent down by clipping us to the climbing rope and making sure our crampons were on. I had previously never started a ski day with crampons, or ever climbed down a snow and ice covered ridge to start a ski day. The start to this epic day begins when you one start by descending a narrow ridge that has a drop of several thousand feet on one side and the other side even more exposed that goes all the way down the North Face of Mont Blanc to Chamonix over 6,000 feet below. Personally I hate exposed places like this and new it would be possibly the most difficult part of the day. It probably was. While I knew I was safe at all times I was truly unnerved. At one point I saw a woman without a guide, ropes or crampons loose her footing and start to slide into others. There is a rope to hold onto as well as a slow mass of humanity creeping down this ridge. Once down the ridge I sure needed to catch my breath and relax before proceeding downward. I did hear a story of  a lady recently who also went down this without a guide or crampons and went into a slide only to get her ski stuck and it saved her life and her from falling all the way down the north face. She was taken down by a helicopter as she was too freaked out to even think of skiing down after that. This happened this winter, Pierre smiled as he recounted the recent occurrence.

We wanted a guide as the descent while beautiful and there is a main route down we wanted to ski some off piste terrain and enjoy some of the recent powder. Those choosing to ski this descent need to remember there are crevices and snow bridges all through the area, so getting off track and into trouble is not that difficult to do if you do not know where you are going. Afterwards I read one account of when a guide was pulling a client out of a crevice they were surprised that the first person up was someone who was there alone and had previously fallen in a the same crevice a client had slipped into. I am sure the solo person felt very fortunate. The day was perfect weather, blue skies after a couple of days of snow ensured an incredible day. The views of different peaks and how to ski over to Italy donw to Courmayer was amazing. The guide takes his time to show and tell the history and local geology of the terrain. There were two of us which was very nice. Both being of the same ability and fitness it made for a no rush day. The early descent had more wind sculpted snow than powder, but shortly after the initial descent Pierre was guiding us into untracked powder and descent with more pitch and steepness to ensure some very good powder skiing. We got ahead of the crowd and got first tracks in very soft light snow. This required traversing off slope and carefully following him over snow bridges and around crevices or frozen rivers. 

For me we had an unfortunate event as my rental skis were not cranked down as needed and I started to walk out of my bindings. This proved to be very frustrating and resulted in an exhausting 30minute dig for a lost ski in deep snow. Fortunately another group that was behind us helped with the dig and we found the ski. At that moment I was not happy to not have brought my skis along. Thoughts for another day on this topic. This use of energy would not serve me well as the day ended.

From here we toured through moderate terrain getting some fresh tracks and powder as we toured through the glacier La Mer de Glace. On the right were the Italian peaks that one can climb up to for a journey into Italy. The rock spires against the blue ski provided a spectacular backdrop as we worked our way down to a on mountain outpost the Refuge for lunch. I surely needed lunch and a break at this pint as it was 1 PM. Soaked and drained from the descent, digging for a ski, skiing fresh powder and at the end of this we had a short climb again up to the restaurant. It was the only option to get there. Once there we settled in for warm soup, cheese sandwiches and bread. A note of caution to those looking to do this on a budget and expecting a deal, do not. First off the prices made a Vail and Aspen lunch look like a value meal. We were more than a little surprised, but were not about to not eat. Of course you buy your guide lunch and it was not the moment to worry about the budget. This was not a lunch for the budget conscious. While good and filling the need and providing energy, it was not gourmet by any means. The soup was good and met the need but a tad bland. More like wilderness outpost style dining than sit down dining at 2 Elks in Vail, the Sun spot in Winter Park etc. The cost for lunch was over 50 euros for 3 of us that included a sandwich, cheese platter, cup of tea, 2 bowls of soup and a sandwich. Cost in dollars about $75. When we mentioned this to Pierre he explained they have to helicopter everything in and that is expensive, and he smiled.

From here we again had to climb and traverse for next shots of remaining powder. I felt better but the toil of the first part of the day was sitting in. After traversing into and around various bowls, chutes for some good skiing and powder shot we came towards the lower part of the glacier floor. This is where we made the ski poles were lengthened - adjustable poles were key and strongly recommended - as we needed to skate and enter more into a cross country type of touring through the valley floor. At this point the skiing was pretty much over. As we traveled through the valley the views were nothing short of amazing all around. We had meandered through a frozen river that was in valley floor, huge avalanche ice chunks everywhere and crevices of deep blue glacial ice all around us. One of those sites that you need to see to grasp the full beauty and power that makes this area what it is. One comment Bruce continually made was “who ever thought of building lifts, trams and a resort here.” It is so awe inspiring you can barely fathom the first souls who came here and built this access and opened it to recreation. We had a guide, gear and some preparation but it was till an adventure for the hardy and had us at our edge. 

One thing we did not realize was at the end we were facing a 20 minute hike with skis on our shoulders to get out of there and then be able to ski back to the town of Chamonix. Both Bruce and I were exhausted when we got to this point. It was right about 3 PM. I had started to cramp and was really wondering how painful this was going to be. I t was going to take mind over matter and a determination to finish the day. I was not happy with myself for not being more fit as well. It was take deep breaths, exhale and go slow and steady on the climb out. As I slowly made my way out the guide did come and grab may pack and gear for the final ascent at the end. I was grateful and felt the fee of 300 euros ($450) for the guide was worth it even more at that moment. Once at the top there is a outside shack/hut with snacks and drinks. A large collection of folks hanging and savoring the days accomplishment. We had some water, bought a coke, caught our breath and prepared for the descent into town. This was about another 15 – 2 minute run what Pierre called a forest trail with switch backs, rocks poking out and banked turns into town. The descent ends crossing the town hill were local races are help. By now both Bruce and I were toast with legs screaming and us thinking only of getting off the hill and having a well earned beer. The sun was still out as we made it back to town and a quick bus ride back to the cable car station of the Aguile du Midi.

High fives were all in order and the agreement it was really well worth it and a day we would always remember. Put this on your bucket list, but be ready. This is not for the faint of heart, or those who are not sure they love real mountain adventure. It was only one run and we got on the tram at 9:30. Go do this, get a guide, take lots of water and sunscreen, do not worry about the budget as you will not be doing this often if ever again. Enjoy and prepare to tell all your friends about how really cool it was. Wow was how I felt and will for some time.

For a keepsake I bought two books from a local show to take home, as pictures just do not capture the details for me. There are English versions in most of the book store’s in Chamonix.