Chamonix – The Heartbeat of Extreme

If there is one name in the world that is immediately associated with winter sports it is Chamonix. It is the capital of High Mountaineering and Extreme Sports and the location of the first Winter Olympics. Nestled beneath the Snow capped dome of Mont Blanc and the jagged peaks of Aiguille du Midi on one side and Brevant on the other, Chamonix is a vibrant town with rucksack loads of character, something that is a little rare to find in the French Alps, where so many of the well known ski resorts have evolved into nothing more than expensive holiday villages.

Chamonix however thrives on its well deserved notoriety, some years in excess of 100 people lose their lives in the surrounding peaks and only fools and mountain goats travel solo in this area. The Railway Station disgorges intrepid skiers and mountaineers throughout the day, and the Cable Car of Aiguille du Midi whisks them up to improbable altitude in minutes, right from the heart of the village, going from what may be a sunny winters day to -40degrees before you can finish your Croissant.

Staring up the mountain from the village you cannot fathom how on earth the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car was ever built, believe it or not it was completed in 1955. (promptly allowing the first first skier to kill himself in November the same year. Louis Lachenal is buried in Chamonix cemetery.) This feat of engineering was completed without the modern convenience of helicopters or indeed computer modeling. In those days Mountain Guides, were the only resource open to the builders, and the sons and daughters of these astonishing men still work the mountain trade to this day.

The skiing in the valley is a real mixture of hard and harder, and I swear some of the blue slopes are only blue to ensure that the holiday brochures have a suitable mix for the weekend warriors. This may be a little harsh because the Chamonix Valley does have something for every level, although as a complete beginner, do yourself and your legs a favour, go to Flaine to learn to ski.

It took me until I was in my Mid 40s before I found the time and motivation to visit Chamonix for the first time. Having always overlooked it because of the inconveniences of the ski buses, and the lack of doorstep skiing, I eschewed it in favour of one of its equally famous cousins, and with young kids it is far easier to go to Tignes and teach them the art of sliding on planks of wood. However, after my first visit back in 2004,  I have found plenty of opportunity to return, indeed I think I have now skied here more than in any other place on the planet….except Glencoe and Cairngorm but that’s another story. For sure the thing that kept me coming back after the first year, was the desire to find the conditions for the Vallee Blanche. This is of course one of those bucket list things for skiers, and with limited resources, it took many years to accomplish, Finally, between Xmas and New Year 2011 with my youngest son, Alex aged 12, we stood at the top  of the world looking down the knife edge ridge walk. I was pretty nervous, but he was pretty matter of fact about it. Even the warning sign didn’t seem to phase him. My trepidation started in the valley, when the guide looked at our small group, Alex and I, along with another couple, and asked if we really had the ability to ski the Vallee Blanche. Now I have skied for 40 years and know that I can go anywhere, and Alex, even at 12 was very capable. The others however looked like……well lets just say you can tell how people ski, by the way they walk carrying skis. The guide did not look convinced, but since everyone was up for it, off we went. Standing on the ridge he roped everyone together and off we stumbled with the reassuring knowledge that if I was to fall off, I should try to go to the right, its only 800m down, not 1,000m and its easier to recover your body.

So here’s the thing about Vallee Blanche, once you get off the ridge, the skiing is as hard as you want it to be, within the limitations of the snow conditions. Intermediate level skiers can, and do, regularly ski this route. What makes it dangerous and technically challenging are the snow conditions. The fact is that most of the way can be a pleasant open snow field that most intermediates could handle on a good day, but you need to be prepared for the hardest part on any run. On VB it can be no harder than a 10m wide mogul slope with rocks on one side and a crevasse on the other. Many intermediates would be excused for avoiding it on the main ski slopes. Here you cannot avoid it, just don’t miss that turn. The next day, the same spot with a metre of powder on top of it, and the crevasse that freaked you out enough to revert your technique to snowplough, is invisible. Strangely this is when you should be freaked out because whilst many recreational skiers have a technique suitable for 30cm of fluff on top of a pisted red run. It normally isn’t good enough for 1m of powder on a narrow mogul slope. That’s where so many go wrong, fortunately though you are smart and have taken a guide with you, so you will make it down one way or another. He may not carry you down, and you are not going to be able to climb back up to the cable car, but one way or another you are going to get down, hopefully under your own steam, but if not, at least the guide will be able to tell the rescuers where to look. Dead or alive depends on you, not only on the decisions you make on the VB itself. Im talking about the ones you made in the pub last night, the one you made getting into the Telepherique and the one you made when you stepped onto the ridge. On the VB each decision can be your last.