The Vallée Blanche

"Mont-Blanc and the Valley of Chamonix, and the sea of Ice, and all the wonders of the most wonderful place are above and beyond one's wildest expectation. I cannot imagine anything in nature more stupendous or sublime." Charles Dickens, 1846

The Vallée Blanche - The White Valley. The name evokes a vision of an enchanted landscape, something out of a Japanese watercolor. It certainly doesn't hint of struggling down an exposed 30 degree ice ridge in your ski boots in a howling gale. Yet both the vision of the enchanted valley and the terrifying arête are part of the Vallée Blanche experience for thousands of tourists each year.

The Vallée Blanche is probably the most famous ski run in the world. The only competition comes from classic downhills like the Hahnenkamm or the Lauberhorn, which are fairly pedestrian affairs for recreational skiers. Dropping from the Aiguille du Midi at 3880m to Chamonix at 1100m, the Vallee Blanche is in a different league. The figures speak for themselves: 2780 vertical metres of skiing - that's nearly three vertical kilometers. 9200 vertical feet. One and three-quarter miles. And that's straight down.

skiing the vallee blanche

Follow the slopes and you have the longest run in Europe at 22km (13.7 miles). Plenty of time to admire the spectacular mountain scenery that has been drawing tourists to the region since Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786 by two French mountaineers, Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard.

The adventure starts before you get your skis on. At the base of the Aiguille du Midi cablecar, you can feel this isn't just a normal ski run. As you mill around doing the normal Chamonix things like looking for a parking space and queuing for lift passes, you can sense it. People are wearing harnesses. The ratio of guides to tourists is off the scale. Touring and telemark skis outnumber carvers. When did you last see an ice-axe or crampons in Val d'Isère or St Anton, let alone Soldeu or Bardonecchia?

Welcome to the Real Alps
Aiguille du Midi, warning sign
"Attention - High Mountain Region. Tourists do not Adventure past this point" Oh yes they do!
For the next four hours say goodbye to packed powder, high-speed quads, chalet holidays and gluehwein. Say hello to ice, rock, ropes, crevasses. This is a place where individual rocks have had names for centuries, and the pistes are just dotted lines in a mountain guide's head. They don't mention the acrid taste of apprehension in the holiday brochures, do they? But first you have to get into your harness and strap on your transceiver.

Coming out of the Aiguille du Midi cable-car at 3880m, the first thing you notice is the altitude. The air actually feels thin. If you live at sea level you might feel lightheaded, the solid rock under your boots might seem to be moving. So you think altitude doesn't affect you, you macho thing? Try running up the 150 or so stairs up to the viewing platform - you'll find yourself gasping to a stop after 5 steps.

It is possible to take the last cabin up the mountain and stay overnight in the Cosmiques Refuge, a short ski from the Aiguille du Midi, but if you haven't acclimatised you would probably suffer from headaches and not get a good night's sleep, so don't consider it.

There are many different routes down from the Aiguille du Midi. Spend any time with the hardcore Chamonix skiers and riders and you'll get to know the names: Plan d'Aiguille, Pré du Rocher, Combe des Glaciers. Even the Vallée Blanche itself has a number of variants such as l'Envers du Plan, Petit Rognon and Col du Plan. But the route which most recreational skiers take is the classic or "Vrai" Vallée Blanche.

Aiguille du Midi, The arête
The arête - a vertical vertical version of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow
It starts, as do all the routes, with a hair-raising climb without skis down a knife-edge arête from the top station of the cable-car. This is the bit you'll hate. On one side, it's 2700m vertically down to Chamonix; on the other a 50 degree snow slope onto rocks and bergschrund. Take your pick. The path itself is about 30 degrees, and there are fixed ropes to its left and right. So far so good. But its surface is very variable. In an ideal world, it would consist of nicely cut steps. In the real world, it can acumulate so much powder the ropes disappear. It can be sheet ice. It can be a treacherous combination of powder on top of sheet ice.

If you're with a guide, he'll have you rope up for safety. If that makes you feel safer, great. Just try not to think how he's going to stop seven tourists roped together from dragging each other over. Worst of all, as succeeding cablecars disgorge their passengers, the whole thing starts to look like a vertical version of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Take your time, let other people pass if they want, ask your guide for help. Insist on being allowed to rest. You are on holiday, you do not have to establish a new speed record.

Vallée Blanche Scenery
Vallée Blanche Scenery
Skis on - now for the fun part!

At the bottom of the arête it's skis and boards on for a few hours of fairly easy skiing through some of the most superb high mountain scenery in the alps. I promise, the worst is over, you can relax and enjoy yourself.

Look up as you set off and you'll spot the Heilbronner bubbles, inactive during the winter, which bring skiers and climbers up from the Italian side in summer. Look around and you'll see some of the peaks that make Chamonix the leading mountaineering destination in Europe in summer.

The route sets off down the Geant glacier, then follows the Glacier du Tacul onto the Mer de Glace. As you pick your way down between the various glacial seracs, enjoy the view. But don't get complacent, stay in control of your skis or board - every so often as you pass what you thought was a mogul you'll see that it yawns open, displaying an icy cavern below. No fancy stuff here, just follow the path and do as your guide tells you.

Mer de Glace
Mer de Glace - does what it says on the tin!

The route seems endless - pitch after pitch, bowl after bowl. This is where you'll lose most of the 2700m of vertical. Soon you can't even see the Aiguille du Midi behind you, but you're far from the valley below. The ratio of skiing to skier is so great that if you're up to it, your guide will almost always be able to find you some powder. Beneath that, everything is glacier; around you, a perimeter of jagged rock peaks. Not a piste in sight. This is where the Japanese water-colour bit comes in.

Finally after what seems like hours of skiing, the Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice. Yup - does what it says on the tin. It's 7 km long, 1.200 km wide and 200 meters deep! That's a lot of ice wending its slow way down towards the waiting Evian bottles. As you reach it, a good time to stop for a quick bite to eat. Look around. Breathe. You are in one of Europe's last great wildernesses.

After running virtually flat for a few kilometers, the Mer de Glace starts to give way to gravity and slope down once more towards the Chamonix valley. the glacier starts to give up its struggle with the warm air below - boulders litter the slopes, and the glacial moraine can be clearly seen. Last century the glacier powered right on to around 1200m, now you reach its snout at around 1800m. But think about that later when you start your car.

Meanwhile, a brisk twenty-minute clamber gets you away from the moraine and out from the glacial valley for a quick rest and drink at the cleverly-located Refuge du Requin. From there, you ski along a road, zig-zagging down until you hit the nursery slopes of the Les Planards area.

Later in the season, it's a bubble lift out of the valley to the Montenvers hotel and railway station, and then home by the Montenvers train. Either way, you're down, and ready for the best moment of all - a large shandy.
The Vallée Blanche on Ski Sunday