Chamonix is the birthplace of alpinism and big mountain skiing. Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc (4,810 m), majestically reigns over the Chamonix valley. It has inspired poets such as Shelley and Byron, and generations of mountain lovers. Today Chamonix is the undisputed international capital of mountaineering. It’s a mecca for climbers and skiers who come from all over the world to test their skills on snow, rock and ice surrounding the Mont Blanc massif.
Chamonix is not only for serious, accomplished mountaineers and whoever is in need of an adrenaline rush. You can easily go to one of the ski resorts in the valley, buy your lift
pass and cruise the mountains on patrolled ski slopes staying within the resort boundaries and stop for hot chocolate or a proper 1,000 calories mountain meal like you would do in any other ski resort in the Alps. If you ask me though, given everything those mountains have to offer, going to Chamonix just to do that would be a shame.
I never ski in Chamonix without having my harness on. It just doesn’t happen. Just like those in [La Grave], the mountains here are very intense. They can be extremely friendly one moment and very mean the next one. What makes Chamonix a high intensity place is how easy is to feel exposed. About 20 minutes is all you need to go from the bottom of the valley at 1,000 m to the Aiguille Du Midi at 3,800 m. There is a cable car to take you there. It was built in 1955 and still holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world. There are two sections: from Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 m and then directly, without any support pillar, to the upper station at 3,777 m.
When we got back from Norway, my Argentinian friend Jorge spent some time guiding in Verbier and he is now working in Chamonix. This past week winter has been back so we decided it was a good opportunity to ski something nice together.
We are not too motivated to go touring so we decide to do a lazy Vallée Blanche. After all, it’s one of the world’s great ski-runs, arguably the best in the Alps that is accessible by mechanical lift. Even without the Vallée Blanche, Chamonix would be one of the top 3 ski resorts in the world; with it, it’s in a league of its own.
It’s a 20km route that starts at 3,800 meters on the Aiguille du Midi and finishes either at the Montenvers mountain rail terminal or directly in Chamonix depending on snow conditions. Today we won’t be able to ski below Montenvers.
On the first lift up Jorge doesn’t miss a good opportunity to do some marketing for his company Andescross
Crowds and lifts often go together. This is one of the main reasons I only rarely use them. I know that technically there is nothing wrong with it, but being surrounded by people takes some of the pleasure of being in the mountains away. Besides, I can’t help but the purist in me feels as I am cheating taking a lift up.
Before Jorge and I can start skiing though, we must negotiate the famous arête from the cable car station. Judging by the number of lives this ridge claims every year, I would say this is probably the most dangerous section of the entire route. If you fall on the left hand side you end up somewhere near Chamonix, about 2,000 meters below. It is probably around 60 degrees pitch so once you slide, you go all the way. So we put crampons on, we rope up and get going.
The peaks around here are incredibly aesthetic. I still remember when I skied here for the first time many years ago. It was a spring cloudless day just like today. I was so captured by this landscape full of rock, snow and ice that I didn’t even notice snow conditions were horrible. I could not take my eyes off these mountains and barely looked in front of me. I was lucky I didn’t fall into a crevasse.
This is another iconic peak, a classic of Chamonix ski mountaineering, the Tour Ronde 3,792 m. This is the north east face. From the top there are few routes down. The most famous is probably the one on the west face, the Gervasutti one. It’s a 60°, 400 m couloir.
Jorge cruising on the Mer de Glace, one of Europe’s longest glaciers. It’s a fairly flat section where you follow a track doing a zigzag between the crevasses. You can relax, but don’t fall in the holes. In the background, the Aiguille du Dru, another icon summit in the Mont Blanc massif.
It’s been a fairly lazy day so far. The most physical task is just ahead of us: climbing the equivalent of something about 7 floors to reach the bottom of the lift. Why did they not build it so that it went straight from the glacier? They did. There are signs on the rock showing the different level of the glacier throughout the years. Only a few years ago, in 2003, the level was about 30 meters higher. The rising temperatures are rapidly melting the glacier which has already receded by a hundreds of meters in the last few decades.
So a morning of perfect skiing with a great friend in these extraordinary mountains ends with an unpleasant reminder of the dramatic changes taking place in the natural world. I feel privileged for just being here and for being able to share these moments with a good friend in such a unique environment.
Next time you ski the Vallée Blanche, be safe, enjoy your skiing and when you reach the Mer de Glace, please think about the fragility of the natural world and on the responsibility
we all have to do what we can to protect it, every day.