We sat in silence during the journey from the Chalet to the bottom of the Aguille du Midi cable car, a perfect calm before the storm that was sure to ensue. Despite having been advised against the decent by our previous day’s instructor, we found ourselves contemplating not a crazy idea, but what we had actually let ourselves in for. Every year people die on the Vallee Blanche either falling to their death from the Arete, a steep, narrow decent that must be undertaken by foot whilst carrying skis from the Aguille Du Midi to the top of the glacier. Or by breaking through a snow bridge and ending up 25 meters down a crevice. I think our moment of silence was well deserved, we were about to undertake our most dangerous decent ever.
Our party was joined by one other, an American Army officer by the name of Brett when we met our guide at the base of the cable car. Neither of them seemed quite as phased as the rest of us, or at least as me. I had found our previous day’s 4 hour off piste lesson very tiring and by the end I was barley able to make it down at the end of the day. The danger here being that there is no way out but down. Once you start your decent you have to complete it. There is no rescue.
At the summit we attached our transceivers and harnesses, and were roped together while we descended the Arete. Two lines of people make the decent, each line clinging perilously to the rope at either edge of the ridge. On the left is a 2800 vertical meter drop of greater than 40 degrees right down to Chamonix, on the right is a less terrifying, though just as fatal 300 meter drop onto exposed rock. I’m not quite certain that being roped together is a good idea. The principle is that if one person falls, the others can stop them, but some part of me thinks that they will simply be pulled down together - a thought I ignored as much as possible during the 20 minutes it takes to walk the few hundred meters.
When you finally make it to the glacier you can breath a sigh of relief, the most dangerous part of the day is over. Well, the most dangerous part if you are a good skier, and can follow your guide’s line to within a meter or two. After the initial 3 minute ski to where the different routes split our guide changed insisted we do the “easy” route, which we were most pleased with. Whilst less technical (and probably less dangerous) than the other routes, it is significantly more scenic, perfect for a first descent.
The start of the 17 km decent is everything you would imagine from a James Bond movie. Panoramic vistas of untouched snow surrounded by giant, looming peaks. The skiing here is easy and you can take wide, sweeping turns and really enjoy that feeling of untouched powder as you carve your own personal mark through the snow. It’s not all quite as easy going though. Over the next 3 hours you will have to descend steep, powder covered faces which will tire even the fittest of people. You must learn follow the tracks of your guide to within mere centimeters to avoid crevasses that your could reach out and drop your poles. And finally you will find yourself poling frantically across expansive flat regions, all the more harder since your poles wont reach the hard base beneath the powder.
As you start to see moraine (boulders and rocks deposited by glacial flow) you may think you can can rejoice in having completed this endeavor, but you will be wrong. Your guide may have told you about a 40 minute walk at the end of the glacier and you may have thought 40 minutes? No problem, I’ll just strap my skis to my back and walk out. Wrong. the 40 minute walk is more like a 40 minute hike up through the powder on the side of the valley you have just skiied into. For me this was sheer hell. That is until the US Army office in our troupe offered to carry my skis for me. Score!
The final hour of the decent is somewhat anti-climactic, a slowly winding alpine path, but you have to expect that after skiing one of the most beautiful descents in the world. Your are finally spat out onto a piste somewhere in Chamonix where it is time to reward yourself with alcohol and greasy food.
Whilst I didn’t over exaggerate the dangers of the Vallee Blanche earlier, they are significantly minimized by taking a few precautions such as going with a mountain guide (really, this is essential), being quite fit, and having at least some real off piste experience. My advice to good skiers is to take an off piste lesson or two and you’ll enjoy the experience so much more.