The Alpine Trinity: Part 3 of 3 - Mont Blanc/Chamonix
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
The mecca for outdoor extreme sports, Chamonix is a proving ground for anyone who thinks they are hardcore. Surrounded by some of the most vertical peaks in the world and at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, Chamonix is the place where extreme skiing first developed and continues to offer some of the steepest, most gnarly lines out there.
After spending a fantastic day at Zermatt, we decided to chase the storm that was heading directly to Chamonix, on the boarder of France and Switzerland. Having skied in Chamonix once 18 years ago, when I first skied Europe, I had been anticipating returning there for many years. I would always compare each of the many hardcore locations where I have skied over the years with Chamonix. This is the epicenter of extreme skiing and outdoor culture. The fact that we were going to get fresh powder there in already record-breaking snow season, made it so much more exciting.
While the drive from Zermatt to Chamonix is usually pretty direct, earlier in the winter a huge rockslide shut down the highway that runs from Switzerland to France. As a result, we were forced to drive significantly out of the way south into Italy and then back through the tunnel under Mont Blanc before finally arriving at Chamonix. This would add a few hours the trip. Fortunately, it meant that we could go back to Italy for dinner. We drove through the town and tunnel of St. Barnard (where the breed of dogs originated from) down into the Aosta valley in Italy where we stopped for pizza. Satisfied with our second meal of the day in Italy, we proceeded back into the mountains to the eventual opening of the Mont Blanc Tunnel. We drove through the tunnel for about 15 minutes to cover the 11km of tunnel that stretched under the entire Mont Blanc massif before finally emerging on the French side. Since it was now quite late, we bypassed the town of Chamonix and went straight to our hotel.
The following morning, we woke up to a very rainy day in Chamonix. Usually rain does not bode well when you are visiting a ski resort. However, we were in the town of Chamonix at approximately 1000 meters elevation. The elevation where we would ski the following day was close to 4000 meters, almost 2 vertical miles above the town. Cold rain in the Chamonix Valley was definitely going to be snow up high. Because of the weather and the lack of visibility, this meant that we would not be able to ski that day even if we wanted to. That was fine with us. The town of Chamonix is an attraction all by itself and we were more than happy spending the day exploring it.
Being the capital of extreme skiing, the people found in Chamonix include a mix of hardcore outdoor professionals with the inevitable tourists that come to witness and potentially join in the experience. High-end outdoor clothing and equipment stores lined the pedestrian downtown. While there was many of the same touristy stores that we encountered other Swisstowns like Grindelwald and Zermatt, Chamonix was different. Potentially this was because we were now in France. There were many cafés with open patios and tables and chairs in the pedestrian downtown. Bakeries, fine wine, and cheese stores were sandwiched in between outdoor clothing stores such as Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Norrona. After picking up some cheese, bread and wine, we made my way back to the hotel to make use of the day off and complete some work.
In the hotel restaurant, Max and I set up a temporary office so that we could catch up on work. However, the surrounding mountains and images on the wall caused us to deviate from our work. Eventually we gave up, opened a bottle of wine, and started planning for the next day. Around this time, Max got a call from his friend Piero who was a Chamonix local. He suggested we meet at one of the main bars in town to discuss possible routes for the following day and the following weekend when he would guide us. Never needing an excuse to hit a bar in a ski town, we left our unfinished work and made our way downtown to Chambre Neuf, a popular bar across from the train station.
Due to the poor weather, the bar was quite crowded when we arrived at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. After ordering drinks and getting a seat, we started chatting with the people around us. Everyone was super excited to be in Chamonix. After several drinks, Piero arrived at the bar. He brought with him several thick books he had just purchased that highlighted some of the classic climbing and mountaineering routes in the region. He showed us several different lines which we might be skiing the following day and more than he was hoping to take us when we returned to Chamonix the following weekend. The afternoon was turning into the night and we were several drinks deep where we decided to head back to the hotel and get some sleep. We wanted to wake up early to be one of the first people in the tram lineup…
After waking up at 6 AM, we hurried over to the base of the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car. There we would board a tram that would take us from the valley elevation of 1000 m to the top station of 3842 m, which was the highest vertical ascent of any cable car in the world. We thought that we would be one of the first to arrive at the base, but instead we were welcomed by a huge crowd of outdoor enthusiasts and extremists already waiting. It seemed that everyone had all the latest ski mountaineering gear. It reminded us of a base camp in the Himalayas. There were few tourists in this crew, a rarity when waiting in line at a popular ski resort in the Alps. At one point we even noticed a silver haired old lady in her 70’s strut past us with rope and ice ax attached to her backpack. This was definitely our scene.
We lined up to get our reservation to board the tram, a unique system I've only encountered here. Rather than a wait in massive queue to get on the tram, when we purchased our ticket, we were given a reservation for a numbered tram that would leave later in the morning, ours at 10:30am. This meant that after getting our reservation, we were able to relax in a coffee shop and wake up with a café au lait and a delicious French croissant. This pause also allowed us to wait for our friend Jeremy who was coming down to meet us from Geneva. Jeremy was also from Vancouver and had been living in nearby Geneva for the past several years. Since it seemed that most of the people lining up to ski the Aiguille du Midi were in a guided group, we were glad to be skiing with a local who knew the mountain.
At 10:15 AM, we made our way back to the tram to board our reserved tram. We loaded onto the new and modern cable car that had been upgraded substantially since my trip 18 years prior. Just like before, the tram quickly ascended the steep slope. After about 15 minutes, we disembarked at the halfway point. A thick mist clouded this portion of the mountain. As a result, we did not have a very clear understanding of what was below us when we got into the second tram. This cable car rose at even faster and steeper ascent. We gazed at the slopes below the tram through the mist. They seemed to be at pitches of over 60° with massive cliff drops all around. It was hard to believe that some of these lines were ski able. It made sense that they are considered some of the most extreme ski runs accessible by lift anywhere in the world. The clouds eventually began to separate revealing gigantic rock spires that rose from the massif all around us. We were entering the upper reached of the Mont Blanc massif, a collection of over a dozen +4000m peaks surrounding Mont Blanc at 4,808 meters or 15,781 feet.
As we made the final accent to the observation tower on the Aiguille du Midi, a sense of nervousness swept through us. While it was fantastic to have perfect visibility and a healthy amount of fresh powder, it also meant that we could see all of the potential dangers that existed at this high altitude. Once at the top, everyone disembarked into a tunnel that bore directly into the side of the peak. Within the tunnel, the halls were lined with people putting on
their harnesses and ropes. We followed suite and prepared for our decent. We followed the line of people waiting to emerge from the opening of one of the side tunnels. From here, there
were 2 hiking paths (or stairs) dug into the snow down the side of the steep peak where people were slowly climbing down while holding onto a rope, many with crampons and ice axes. Overly excited, we chose the steeper path down. We soon realized this path was primarily for local guides who obviously did this regularly. In typical Euro fashion, they barged through with a cigarette hanging from their lips shouting insults in French and Italian. Not to be outdone, we matched speed and made it to the bottom of the path in short time. Once there, we realized that we were at the top of the famed off-piste ski run, the Vallée Blanche.
The Vallée Blanche, or white valley, is a 20km long run that descends over 2700 meters vertical elevation making it one of the longest and definitely highest in vertical ski runs in the world. While the terrain of much of the valley is not necessarily extreme, the main route flows over a massive glacier that was wedged between the surrounding peaks. When crossing glaciers, it is important to be aware of the many obstacles and traps that exist and are often hidden under a small cover of snow. This is why it is so important for visitors to ski with a guide. The large amount of snow that had fallen this year meant that many of the crevasses had been covered so it was safer than usual. However we knew that there was other dangers since we decided to ski the route on the far left of the valley, called the Grand Envers.
The Grand Envers was the most vertical and technical route down the Vallee Blanche. Since the route consisted of multiple, sustained 40-45% pitches, we were concerned about the potential for avalanches. When a slope is greater than 35%, the danger of an avalanche greatly increases. Since the recent storm had deposited 82cm of fresh snow, we knew that the chance of slides was substantial. Since this route was steep and contained several cliffs, we were also aware that even a small slide could result in serious consequences. However, judging from the avalanche report and from talking to other people who were familiar with the conditions, we decided that the snow was relatively stable and would likely only sluff out as it had for us in Zermatt a few days prior. So, we proceeded with our plan and veered left.
Since it was still relatively early in the day and this was not a route for the casual skier, there were few tracks down the route we were taking. We paused at the first steep slope to assess the snow pack and the potential for a slide. Max went first with some aggressive kick turns to test the stability of the snow. When he made it to the bottom, Jeremy and I decided everything looked safe and proceeded down one at a time. The snow was a perfect velvet consistency that you always pray for when in this type of terrain. Similar to the snow of high latitude or altitude locations like Alaska or Gulmarg, the cold snow clung to the steep pitch. By the second drop in elevation, we felt comfortable opening up and laying some large, giant slalom turns. By the third decent, we collectively agreed that we were experiencing something truly unique and special. This would be one of our greatest days on skis.
As the route started to mellow and become a little safer, we followed closer together and charged through the open snow field, playfully jumping in the soft white pillows. Past the danger of the steeper runs, we began to take note of the sublime vistas that surrounded us in every direction. Bright blue skies were in stark contrast to the pristine white peaks. The air was crisp and healthy and we were happy to be alive. Massive grins were pasted on our faces with the occasional yelp of joy coming from each of us.
Video of our decent down the Grand Envers:
After a few more descents, we began to merge with skiers and snowboarders who had come down the other runs of the Vallee Blanche. While there were a few awkward people who were obviously in a little over their head, most of the people were ripping pretty hard. At one point I noticed a small man fly by with a Superman cape and bug eyes protruding from his helmet and a weird mask on his face. I then realized that this older ripper was on a monoski. A relic of the Golden Age of non-practical skiing equipment of the 1980’s, the monoski is a rare sight in resorts in North America. Seeing someone charge down the backcountry of Chamonix on one was almost too much to believe. Since both feet are attached to the same large ski, it is not an easy piece of equipment to get around on. All the same, this guy was charging big time. I later learned that he is a local legend and seeing him out meant that today was truly a exceptional day.
Eventually we reached the flat valley below where we traversed across for a few kilometers as it meandered through the valley. More and more people funneled into the valley from the different routes down. Eventually we were with a large group of happy skiers and snowboarders (and a monoskier) all beaming from the epic lines we had all just come down. At one point, the route deviated around a large ice outcropping that appeared to be an above glacier crevasse. Some skiers had created a path through the crevasse that reconvened with the other path at its end. We followed through the gap thankful that there was no hidden drop hidden within.
Shortly after, we came to a flat spot where everyone was taking off their gear. A long line of hikers were marching up with their gear over their shoulders or strapped to their backpacks. We joined the trail and followed it up and over the ridge for about a 20 minute until it culminated at a mountain hut selling food and beer. While quite appetizing, Jeremy suggested that we make our way down to the town to have a proper après. We followed him down a bobsled-like run over avalanche debris, dirt patches, and a set of train tracks until we finally reached the bottom of the mountain, almost 3000 vertical meters below the top of the Aiguille du Midi (In comparison, Whistler’s vertical, the highest in North America, is half of this).
When we finally reached the bottom, we contemplated attempting another run somewhere else in the resort. We then realized that from it took over 3 and half hours to get to this point since we loaded the cable car earlier in the day. Since we were planning on coming back to Chamonix the following weekend, we decided to declare victory and grab some après drinks and food. We made our way back to the center of town to celebrate with all of the others who had shared this amazing day with us. I had finally quenched my desire to truly ski Chamonix. From here we were heading to Verbier for a full week of some of the best skiing of my life.
Slideshow of Images