Sometimes opportunities so rare and unique present themselves to you that it is better to say yes before your sensible side starts to think of reasons to say no. This occurred to me at the weekend when I was asked if I fancied joining a group to ski the Vallée Blanche, a famous high alpine off piste ski route above Chamonix, France. What made this opportunity unique was the fact that the plan involved a sunset dinner followed by skiing back down to Chamonix under a full moon and a clear sky laden with stars. A truly memorable and awesome experience.
Now, for those that don’t know, the Vallée Blanche is regarded as, in favourable conditions, an easily skiable route in terms of difficulty and steepness (somewhere between a blue and a red grade piste). However, in less than favourable snow conditions it turns into something considerably harder. I’m not really a fan of less than favourable snow conditions because I’m not very good at skiing in said conditions. After 2 weeks of bright sun and warm temperatures, I think Sunday evening was definitely at the bad end of the less than favourable scale with hard, icy snow and plenty of moguls.
However, when first asked if I wanted to join, the challenging snow conditions were not the main reason to say no to this adventure. Much of the 17km Vallée Blanche route is on a glacier which presents the not so insignificant hazard of falling into a crevasse. This made me a little nervous to say the least because prior to this trip, I had absolutely no experience of glacial traversing. I was confident I was in good hands though as our born and bred local Chamonix friends were excellent guides and provided all the necessary equipment to cope with any crevasse related mishaps.
After a couple of hours skiing in the sun with the holiday makers (I’m still riding around on my high horse with my nose in the air), we made our way to the bottom station of the famous Aiguille du Midi cable car, where I had to up my game and make it look like I knew what I was doing in the presence of hardened ski mountaineery folk who were all queuing for the last car to the top, just like us. I just tried to act cool, not look too excited/shit scared about what I was about to do and not fall over when trying to put on my climbing harness.
The cable car flies up in two stages from the valley floor all the way to about 3800m where the view is quite simply breathtaking. We hung out here for a little while taking pictures before heading to the first challenge of the evening. The arête (ridge) is the main (“easy”) gateway to the off piste skiing from the top of the Aiguille du Midi. It’s a narrow, steep, icy path with a rope to hold on to but the huge drops on each side (you look straight down to Chamonix, 2600m below) certainly concentrate the mind somewhat and encourage you to take your time.
Once we had negotiated the ridge, we put our skis on and made our way to the dinner spot looking NW ish and straight at the forth coming sunset. In true French style, we cooked up a fondue (seems to taste much better at altitude) and watched the sun set over the horizon.
As we skied down we heard rocks falling down the cliffs at the sides of the glacier, reminding us that it’s not only the crevasses and avalanches you have to worry about up there. One rock fall was so big we could see sparks in the darkness as the boulders bounced their way down the side of the moraine. The evening ended in a slightly tricky descent through the forest made somewhat more challenging by my headlamp that, due to lack of battery, resembled a candle in a jam jar. I made it down in one piece though and I am so glad I said “yes”.
For the camera geeks, all photos were taken on a Nikon D7100 with the following lenses: Tokina 12-24mm f4, Nikon 10.5mm f2.8 fisheye and Nikon 18-70mm.