Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chamonix Day 2: The Vallee Blanche

Our alarms went off at 7:00am and we dragged ourselves out of bed, sore from the previous day's skiing at Les Grand Montets, but eager for the day's adventures that lay ahead. After our baguette and pastry breakfast we began packing our things up, since we would be checking out of the Hapimag that morning in order to make the drive back to Milan that evening after the day's skiing. I had brought along an adapter for European outlets, and when I removed my laptop charger from it the adapter cover broke while still in the outlet, leaving the two live metal contacts exposed. I wasn't quite sure how to deal with this since I didn't want to leave it in there and have the cleaning staff electrocute themselves, so I tried prying at it with the plastic of the enlosure, but after about a minute of doing this there was a loud crack and a bright spark (I had shorted the contacts together) and all of the lights went out (it was still early enough that the sun had not risen).

The upside of this turn of events was that there was no longer power to the broken adapter so I was able to remove it and thus preemptively save a member of the cleaning stafff from electrocution, but the downside was that it was really dark inside now which would make packing difficult. Stinker! Dylan found his headlamp and we fumbled our way to the circuit breaker box (which we had luckily noted its location previously), but even after pushing the circuit breakers back on there was no power restored. We joked that maybe we had blown the power for the entire Hapimag and perhaps all of Chamonix, and continued on with our packing by headlamp.

We then headed to the car, checking out along the way and informing the clerk of the mysterious absence of electricity in our suite. We had arranged to to the Vallee Blanche as part of a guided group (Martin had recounted the story of his friend who had decided to try it on his own and ended up being helicoptered out the next day after spending the night in a crevasse) through Evolution 2 Mountain Guides, and we had been instructed to meet at the base of the Aiguille du Midi cable car at 9:00am so we headed into Chamonix and reached the cable car on schedule. My selection process in choosing a guide had been to e-mail 3 different guiding services and then choose the single company that replied to my e-mail. In hiring a guide you can either get a private guide or do it in a group, we had elected to take the former approach for cost considerations and the chance to meet other people.

The guide fee was 105 euros which seemed pretty reasonable, and we ended up doing it just as a group of 3 (the website said that groups run from 4 to 8 people) which was nice since we were able to chat with the guide more and we were all at about the same level (with the exception of our guide). We convened with Robert (pronounced Roh-bare, of course), our grizzled french guide, and Garret, our fellow client who is from Manchester but currently lives in Egypt and loves windsurfing, at the base of the cable car and then headed to the ticket booth to buy our 50 euro ticket that covered the cable car ride up and the train ride at the end. Unfortunately, when we asked to buy a ticket the woman in the booth said that they were not selling tickets at the moment since the cable car was not operating due to technical problems. When I inquired as to what those technical problems might be, she replied in a thick french accent: "Electricity.", to which Dylan and I turned to each other and burst out laughing, thinking that maybe my inadvertent adapter short circuiting at the Hapimag that morning had shut down the Aiguille du Midi cable car and ruined our day of skiing. Dylan told me that I had to go and apologize to each and every one of the skiers and climbers assembled at the base of the cable car for spoiling their days adventures, but I decided my french wasn't good enough to explain myself so I took a pass.

We spent the next hour and a half drinking coffee in a nearby cafe, listening to the periodic announcements that the next information on the cable car status would be in 15 minutes (every 15 minutes). We had begun considering what we would do for the day if the cable car didn't get fixed (shopping for Euro ski outifts in Chamonix? Playing ping pong back at the Hapimag?) when finally at 10:25am Robert came striding into the cafe with the news that the cable car would be up and running in 5 minutes. We hurriedly donned our harnesses, gathered our skis, and got into line, and sure enough at 10:30am the announcer informed us that the problem had been resolved and we moved through the queue and into the holding area to board the cable car. The cable car soon came sliding down to the platform, and it looked like we were going to have our ski adventure after all!

We boarded the cable car and it whisked us up to the midstation at the Plan de Midi, where we transferred to the next cable car which took us up to the Aiguille du Midi at 3840 meters. I had been up there last summer with Roanne, and I remember seeing the ridge that led out onto the glacier for the Vallee Blanche and other objectives and being super excited at the possibility of skiing it someday, so it was pretty surreal to be back there just 4 months later making it a reality!

We exited the cable car at the top of the Aiguille du Midi and crossed the exposed bridge to the main structure, from where we caught a glimpse of the ridge that we would descend to start our route (the prominent ridge in the foreground):

After crossing the bridge we re-entered the corridor that had been tunneled into the granite spire and headed for the exit onto the ridge. We paused here to put our skis on our packs, and Robert put on crampons. I kept waiting for him to pull more crampons out of his pack and offer them to us but this didn't happen, so we had to be content with short-roping ourseleves together with the thin cord that he offered us. Here are Dylan and Garret donning their packs in the corridor and wondering why Robert didn't bring us any crampons:

With everything in order, we donned our packs and headed out the icy corridor that led onto the ridge. This was pretty amazing, as I this icy corridor had been my strongest memory of the Aiguille du Midi from the summer before, so it was awesome to be headed through it with a set of skis strapped to my pack. Wa-wa-wee-wah!!!!

We emerged from the tunnel onto the narrow ridge in glorious sunshine, and started heading down in a long line of other skiers. I was pleased to see that there were fixed ropes installed, if those hadn't been there I would have been really wishing hard for some crampons but with one hand on the fixed line and one using a ski pole it was no problem. It reminded me a bit of the hike up Half Dome in Yosemite, with the fixed lines up the final slab section to the top.

After an uneventful but breathtaking descent of the ridge we stopped at a flat section at the base to don remove the rope, don our skis and beacons, and get ready to head down. Here is a shot of Dylan and I at the base of the ridge, with Robert getting his skis ready. To our left the sheer north face of the Aiguille du Midi drops steeply down to Chamonix (though apparently insane people do ski this when the conditions are right, to me it looked like the only way down would be drop a 2000 foot cliff).

Here is the view looking back up at the Aiguille du Midi and the ridge that we had hiked down (one person skied down it while we were walking, maybe next time we'll do that!):

With our skis on we swiveled around and took in the majestic view surrounding us, and peered down to the glacier below where we would be descending. Here is about 30 degrees of the view that we had, with some skiers visible on the glacier below:

After a short set of instructions from the grizzled Robert ("Ski behind me, I don't want to pull you out of a crevasse"), he started singing some french song and took off down the glacier with us hot on his heels. Oh man, SO AWESOME!!! I really like the act of skiing, but skiing in surroundings like that is almost too much fun to bear. I had to yell out loud about how much fun I was having otherwise I think I might have exploded with delight. It was an amazing sunny day and was actually pretty hot since there was no wind, so before long we stopped to shed some layers and admire the scenery some more:

We chatted with Robert a bit about the surrounding peaks and climbs, and he told us that he had been guiding for 36 years and it was impossible to say whether he liked skiing or climbing more, but he liked them both ("beacoup, beaucoup, beaucoup."). Now this is someone that I can relate to! Here is Robert holding forth on Chamonix alpine history:

As you can see there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and on the horizon we could just make out the triangular summit of the Matterhorn (also on my climbing objective short list, even above Mont Blanc) which is across the border in Zermatt, Switzerland. At this point we could look back up at the South Face of the Aiguille du Midi which according to Robert has classic rock climbs on it from 6b to 8a, as well as the famous Cosmique Arete which also needs to be climbed by me. To give a sense of scale, you can see a small skier in the lower right of the picture.

At the conclusion of our break Robert broke out into song again and headed down the glacier with us following as I attempted to whistle along to his song (difficult because I had never heard it before, but I still gave it a shot). Robert kept a pretty even pace so it was fun to try and turn exactly where he did, and try to mimic his elegant french technique. After a while we stopped for another break and some more Chamonix climbing trivia, here is Robert holding forth once again with another spectacular backdrop:

Before long we were off again, heading across a flatter and wide-open section of the glacier, with Robert out in the lead under the sunny blue skies:

We continued our pattern of descending for a while and then stopping as we progressed along and down the glacier, here I am soaking it in at one of the stops:

The skiing on the upper sections was really fun, varying from wind slab to consolidated powder that made for some really good skiing, here is a shot of Dylan paused after one of the looser sections:

And here is the view down the glacier as we began to wrap around and head back towards Chamoinx, very nice!

There are 6 variations on the Vallee Blanche route, of varying difficulty. They differ in how the top section is skied, and by now all of the routes had funneled into one so there were a fair number of tracks. Apparently we were on one of the routes of intermediate difficulty, the classic route goes through a lot of crevasse-riddled terrain so it cannot be skied until later in the season and the more difficult routes have south facing 45 degree sections that are dangerous to ski in sunny conditions due to the sun crust that forms and could result in a skier inadvertantly routing himself into a crevasse or off a cliff. Here is Robert headed out along one of the well-tracked traverse sections of our route:

We stopped at the Refuge du Requin (Shark Hut) which is beneath the Dent du Requin (Shark Tooth) formation. The hut wasn't in operation at the moment, but it did have a nice sunny patio and seemed to be a popular spot to stop for lunch. Robert told us that it opens in February, and described some very attractive-sounding backcountry intineraries that involved staying at the hut and skiing over into the Italian side of the alps and back during the day.

We enjoyed a delicious picnic in the sunshine on the patio, and looked out onto the glacier below where the Vallee Blanche glacier merged with another glacier to form the Mer du Glace (sea of ice):

After finishing our snacks we traversed out from the hut, and skied a nice steep descent to gain the Mer du Glace below. From here it was a long gentle downhill along the glacier, made a little more interesting by the sun crust which made turning difficult. Here are Garret and Robert leading it out as we ski down the glacier:

Just to keep things from getting dull Robert steered us across some snow bridges and along some gaping crevasses in order to show us some spots where we could ice climb in the crevasse, and eventually the terrain became a bit more difficult with combinations of rocks to avoid and crevasses to bypass. Here is a shot of one of the more memorable traverses which went along a steep, icy slope where w fall would have meant extracting yourself from the depths of a crevasse which disappeared into darkness. The skier in the middle of the shot is about to do the intimidating part.

Robert went first and assured us with a confident "C'est facile!" so we all followed, taking great care to look forward only and not divert my gaze down into the crevasse. Here is a shot looking back at the crevasse which fortunately did not swallow any of us:

The traverse is on the right of the photo, with the just-visible boulder forcing you to ski along a narrow track that is uncomfortably close to the icy slope down into the darkness. Thank heavens for momentum! From this point we had great views looking across the valley to the Petit Dru:

Apparently several years ago a huge section of the famous Bonatti route up the north face broke off, so the route can no longer be climbed. When the rock face seperated there was a party on the route, but luckily they happened to be just above the fracture line. I bet they had to change their underwear after that one!

After skiing a little further we reached the bottom of the glacier. Starting in late January it is possible to ski right down into Chamonix, but at this time of year our only option was to take a cable car up out of the valley (the cable car exists so that tourists can come down to see the glacier) and then take a cog-wheel train back town into Chamonix. We removed our skis and started hiking up the metal steps to the cable car base:

You might think it is strange that you need to hike up to the cable car, the reason is that when the cable car was installed in 1990 it reached the glacier, but in the 20 years since the glacier has receded so much that the top has dropped by 80 vertical meters. This was one of the most tangible demonstrations of global warming that I have witnessed, as we ascended the metal steps there were signs that denoted where the glacier level had been throughout the past 30 years. The accelerating nature of global warming was evident, as while the glacier had only dropped 5-10 meters in the decade from 1980 to 1990, the next 20 years had seen it drop an additional 70-80 meters with the current drop rate being 5 meters per year. Sucks! I hate global warming! Let's all stop creating CO2 so that we can keep skiing! I think we need to hold the next global warming summit at a ski resort, once the world's leaders get addicted to skiing they will have no choice to focus on enacting legislation to combat climate change.

We rode the cable car up to the train station where we had a good view up the valley and the glacier that we had just descended:

While we waited for the train we took a group photo, here we are:

After 20 minutes or so we boarded the cog-wheel train that whisked us back down into the valley below, where we disembarked and walked to the shuttle bus stop for the final leg of our trip back to the Aiguille du Midi cable car station:

Back at the cable car station Garret rushed off to the pub and we said our good byes to Robert who gave us his personal business card for when (not if) we return to Chamonix. If any gentle readers are headed to Chamonix and want a guide recommendation let me know and I will put you in touch with Robert, he was a great guide and when I asked him if he had ever had a client fall in a crevasse he said "Non!", but then grinned and added that he was probably just lucky.

Oh man, what an awesome day! After popping into the Aiguille du Midi office to pick up a guide book for Mont Blanc (next year?), we climbed into the Fiat, made one last stop at the Hapimag, and then headed back through the Mont Blanc tunnel (which has a 37 euro toll, yikes!) towards Milan. As we neared Milan the thick Italian fog returned which made driving quite difficult, but we eventually found the airport where we were staying at the onsite Sheraton (chosen to maximize sleep the next morning so that we could roll out of bed and walk straight into the terminal to catch our 7:00am flight).

We made it to the airport by 7:30pm, but then the quest to find gas for the rental car turned into a 2 hour epic of driving slowly through the thick fog while Italian drivers tail gated us and flashed their high beams at us, finding two unstaffed "24 hour" gas stations in a row that only accepted cash (as conveyed by handwritten notes to the effect that the credit card part of the payment machine was out of order), a long search for an ATM, plenty of wrong turns, an inadvertent tour through the "Family Fun Center" parking complex, and the eventual purchase of gasoline. The best part was that when we finally had cash to buy gas we put in 50 euros and it only ended up being 36 euros to fill the tank, and since the machine didn't give change we ended up paying about 1.5 times more for the gas than we should have, which is probably more than the rental car place would have charged us if we had just returned the car with a half full tank. How do you say "stinker" in Italian? Oh well, 2 hours spent exploring the foggy roads around Milan isn't the worst thing you could do on a Sunday night, molto bene!!!


  1. That's an epic day!!!! I could do without the crevasses though...

  2. Fantastic! That is amazing that you have seen all this! (Glad you took the photos!)

  3. WooHOO!! I'm coming next time Max!