This article was written by Paul Rudd, Overseas IT Support for Crystal Ski Holidays in Chamonix, France.
The morning started early, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ waking me at 6:30am. We were due to meet our guide who would take us down the Vallée Blanche at 07:45, and the weather forecast was good. There had been snowfall the night before and as I opened the curtains, I was greeted by clear skies – a pale blue dawn as the sun began to rise.
I packed my bag while the kettle boiled, trying to remember everything I would need for the 20km off-piste descent from the highest lift in France, the Aiguille du Midi. Locally known as ‘The Midi’, this lift transports visitors from 1035 metres to 3482 metres in 20 minutes, and still holds the record for being the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world.
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As I packed my avalanche kit (shovel, probe and transceiver), I could feel my excitement building. We were going to what would feel like the top of the world, and then skiing in the shadow of Mont Blanc down the longest glacier in France – the Mer de Glace.
The cold morning air hit us like a slap as we stepped out into the garden, I looked up at the top of the Midi and could see sunlight starting to appear on top of its grand needle. After fixing our skis to our rucksacks, we set off down the road towards the lift – a quick 10 minute walk – briefly stopping at the local bakery for a croissant and a sandwich for our packed lunch.
As we approached the lift we could see our guide waiting for us at our pre-arranged meeting point. Jérome introduced himself to us with a lovely cheery smile and proceeded to learn all our names, then asked us about our ski abilities and what we had done before. He was a short, mountain-weathered man in his fifties, wearing what looked like his grandmother’s tea cosy on his head and his presence oozed oodles of experience in the mountains, filling us with instant confidence.
He passed each of us a harness which would rope us together for the tricky trek down the arête into the Vallée Blanche and also enable us to be rescued from a crevasse should the worst happen on the ski down.
Feeling slightly nervous at the precaution, we began our ascent on the Aiguille du Midi up to the mid-station. The air was full of excitement and everyone was desperate to begin this unique ski experience. When we reached the mid-station, we were jostled like sheep at a market towards the second stage of the lift which would take us to the top of the Aiguille du Midi.
We boarded the lift, packed in like sardines and began our ascent to the top, ears popping, nerves and adrenalin growing. After what seemed like only a couple of minutes, we arrived at the highest lift station in France and stepped out onto the walkway, a blustery ice cold wind hitting our faces, our breathing more laboured after gaining so much altitude in the past 20 minutes.
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Jérome led us towards the ice cave which would lead us out onto the arête and began to rope us together for the tricky descent onto the glacier. He would be our anchor at the back of our group of 6 and I would be leading the way, trying to not fall off either side of the arête and potentially taking my friends over with me.
As I stepped out of the ice cave onto the arête, the strong wind smashed into the side of me again, trying to push me off the ridge. With shouts of encouragement from Jérome, I began to slowly walk down the arête, the others following a couple of steps behind. The snow was up to our knees and was incredibly slippery in our ski boots. I steadily placed one foot in front of the other whilst Jérome calmly helped us down, shouting at me to stop if the others had fallen or were struggling in the deep snow and strong winds. In-between these brief stops Jérome was jumping on either side of the arête, stopping us to take photographs on his camera, which he would later upload and share with us. I looked at my partner in disbelief and marvelled at his deftness on the snow and ice.
At the bottom of the arête and I looked around, everyone had the biggest smiles on their faces. The toughest part was over, we’d made it down to the top of the Vallée Blanche. All that lay ahead of us was 20km of fresh back country powder, in a landscape virtually untouched by man. As I looked over my shoulder to Chamonix and then forward down the glacier, I was overwhelmed by the difference in landscape and what a beautiful place we were in.
Jérome proceeded to tell us the rules of the ski ahead: We were told to always stay behind him, following his tracks where he told us to and that we should always stop above him, contrary to normal piste ski rules. This was to avoid plunging into the many crevasses that exist on the glacier, most of which are hidden by snow bridges. Still slightly nervous, we began our descent.
The snow was incredible – all fear was gone. We glided like eagles over the untouched, pristine powder, whooping and laughing like children. The fresh tracks kept coming, the scenery spectacular and the silence of the valley, blissful.
All around the valley we could see other groups of people – Some touring to more inaccessible parts of the glacier, others coming from Pointe Helbronner in Italy, skiing in the fresh powder down the other side of the valley. Others that had come up the Midi had taken different and harder routes down the valley, but even with all these people around, we were the only group on our portion of the valley. We were all alone, getting fresh tracks as we slowly descended.
Jérome would stop us every few hundred metres and tell us the history of the surrounding mountains, the valley and give an insight into his incredible life as a guide. He pointed out to us a mountain standing at 4,013 metres, called the Dent du Géant (The Giant’s Tooth) and told us that he had climbed it the previous summer with his teenage son. He also gave us tips on how to ski in the powder and would frequently go ahead to check if we could ski down some more dangerous lines of the glacier.
As the midday sun beat down on us, we arrived at the ice fall, the fastest moving part of the glacier. The crags and precipices were magnificently beautiful. We stopped and could hear the cracking and groaning of the ice as it moved slowly down the valley next to us.
We skied on and found a place to sit for lunch, and sat and gazed at the incredible landscape. Behind us was the ice fall, majestic in its size and beauty. Ahead of us lay the rest of glacier down to the exit point at the Montenvers tramway. I could see the Aiguille du Dru ahead, its pointed summit jutting high into the blue sky.
We finished lunch and continued down the rest of the glacier, the skiing becoming flatter and rockier as we neared the glacier terminus. All around us we could hear rock falls as the moraine collapsed at the glacier edge. We reached the ice caves of the Mer de Glace, carved out of the glacier so tourists can walk inside and admire its beauty, took our skis off and started ascending the 400 steps up to the gondola which would take us to the train and back into Chamonix.
Exhausted, we arrived back in Chamonix centre. It had been 6 hours since we had reached the top of the cable car. We had skied over 20km, seen some of the most impressive scenery in the world and experienced skiing that I had never thought possible. We went to a local café, where we sat with Jérome drinking hot chocolate and comparing photographs. It had been the ski of a lifetime and something I cannot wait to do again.