Vallée Blanche Descent, Gourmet Ski Tour, Mont Blanc, France


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | April 17, 2017      

Aaron Schorsch

Roped together with our skis on our packs we take in the view of Chamonix, France from the Aiguille du Midi.  Photo by Ludovic Erard.

Roped together with our skis on our packs we take in the view of Chamonix, France from the Aiguille du Midi. Photo by Ludovic Erard.

I learned to slide on snow in the French Alps. Snowboarding first, which ended up being a gateway sport into telemark skiing and eventually into alpine touring skiing and downhill. Skiing in the French Alps is amazing because the mountains are dramatic, the views unspoiled, and of course, the food is outstanding. It was with these points in mind that I decided to lead a Saveur the Journey Skiing and Cheese themed trip to the French Alps, March 2017.

We would ski the 12 interconnected Portes du Soleil resorts by day and eat cheese by night. One day my group of 10 joined two guides for a ski tour of the Vallée Blanche on the Mont Blanc glacier, a 20 km descent with an elevation drop of more than 9000ft.

The Vallée Blanche is immense and there are many different routes down depending on skiers’ level. It is important to go with a guide as the glacier and landscape are constantly changing and crevasses are a real danger. We hired two guides, Ludovic Erard and his colleague Francois Xavier (nicknamed “Fix” which is also short for “fixation” which means “binding” in French).

Ludovic and I were in touch leading up to our descent to make sure we chose a day that would have reasonable weather. The descent begins at 12,600 feet after taking the Aiguille du Midi gondola up from the town of Chamonix. We decided on Thursday, March 9th because heavy storms were hitting the Alps the first part of the week and the high winds and visibility wouldn’t clear until then.

Skiing on the glacier is not particularly difficult. A strong intermediate level skier or snowboarder should be fine. However, since it is a backcountry descent the snow conditions can be very variable which can significantly increase the difficulty. We had been skiing nearly bottomless powder at the resorts the previous days so we were hopeful for deep, fluffy snow. Our group was all intermediate or better skiers, however very few had backcountry expertise. Ludovic and Fix provided everyone with the necessary alpine gear: avalanche beacons, probes, shovels, harnesses, and packs to carry everything.

Our guides Ludovic (far left) and “Fix” (yellow jacket) prepare our group for the famous Vallée Blanche in the French Alps.  Avalanche equipment and harnesses are a must.  Photo by Aaron Schorsch

Our guides Ludovic (far left) and “Fix” (yellow jacket) prepare our group for the famous Vallée Blanche in the French Alps. Avalanche equipment and harnesses are a must. Photo by Aaron Schorsch

We met at the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi Gondola to get outfitted and to go over basic safety measures. The gondola opening had been postponed due to poor visibility and was scheduled to open at 10 am. When it opened, we jammed ourselves into the gondola with lots of other skiers and sightseers and quietly ascended one of the longest gondola rides in the world. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the Aiguille du Midi where winds were strong, everything was blasted by snow, and it was quite a bit colder. We snapped a few photos before heading to the hallways carved out of the mountain.

Traversing the ridgeline roped together off the Aiguille du Midi.  By far the most impressive part of the descent.  I couldn’t see the bottom to our left.  Photo by Ludovic Erard

Traversing the ridgeline roped together off the Aiguille du Midi. By far the most impressive part of the descent. I couldn’t see the bottom to our left. Photo by Ludovic Erard

With skis strapped onto our packs and everyone roped with the guides, we began traversing the impressive and thin ridgeline that leads into the Vallee Blanche. The ridge is only wide enough to allow one person at a time and the drop off to the Chamonix side is several thousand feet. A series of pickets and thick rope make it feel reasonably secure but I didn’t see anyone lollygagging or taking photos (other than our guide). We slowly followed this ridgeline down for about 100 meters until we arrived at a flat spot where we clipped into our bindings and untethered ourselves from each other. One member of our group had a fear of heights so she valiantly traversed the ridgeline while screaming and not risking any glances downward.

The weather was clearing slightly so we caught glimpses of the actual Mont Blanc (which is a full 1000 meters higher than the Aiguille du Midi). We descended a short windblown section with Fix leading us and Ludovic bringing up the rear. The scenery on this descent is stunning. One is completely dwarfed by the size of the peaks, the valleys, and even the hunks of glacial ice, which are often the size of office buildings.

Jeanette, author (Aaron Schorsch), and Barbara stop for minute on our way down the glacier.  Notice the huge chunks of ice behind.  Photo by Ludovic Erard.

Jeanette, author (Aaron Schorsch), and Barbara stop for minute on our way down the glacier. Notice the huge chunks of ice behind. Photo by Ludovic Erard.

Some of the peaks here are pointy!  The weather was supposed to clear for us but evidently it didn’t get the memo.  Photo by Aaron Schorsch.

Some of the peaks here are pointy! The weather was supposed to clear for us but evidently it didn’t get the memo. Photo by Aaron Schorsch.

A note about gear: Almost everyone in my group had normal downhill bindings and piste oriented skis. Virtually all the guides I saw had tech bindings and “mid-fat” skis, with leashes rather than brakes. I was skiing my wife’s skis because her stuff is nicer than mine (I bought it for her). I had K2 Gotback (the women’s version of the K2 Coomback) with a set of Dynafit Radical 12s. I have my own set of Coombacks but they are mounted with the very burly Marker Barons which would eat up valuable weight space in my one checked bag and would make me more hesitant to tour. The snow boarders in our group were equipped with poles to help them on the flats, which generally made them look like some sort of medieval snow knight wielding twin swords to kill dragons.

Our courageous snowboarders!  Shannon and Francois got their workout polling on the flats but they remained in good humor and their poles made them look like knights hunting snow dragons.  Photo by Ludovic Erard.

Our courageous snowboarders! Shannon and Francois got their workout polling on the flats but they remained in good humor and their poles made them look like knights hunting snow dragons. Photo by Ludovic Erard.

We were not the only people skiing the Vallee Blanche that day. Everyone tends to bottleneck at the beginning before the Vallée opens up. We skied down a short steep section and then across a long flat that made everyone who didn’t have a snowboard happy they didn’t have a snowboard. The first long pitch already had tracks and the snow was windblown powder so the skiing wasn’t the best or easiest.

I was one of the first to descend and I found the conditions challenging, even with the extremely excellent Gotbacks plowing through the snow. I turned back to see how the others were faring and saw at least three of our group down, with Ludovic patiently helping them back up. Skiing off piste in variable conditions was a new experience for several people in our group and it took some getting used to.

The landscape made us feel very small.  That skier is actually 6’11.  Just kidding.  Photo by Ludovic Erard.

The landscape made us feel very small. That skier is actually 6’11 (just kidding). Photo by Ludovic Erard.

This is why I ski in France.  Local pork sausage (name that sausage!), cheesy polenta cakes, and a sauce of course.  Plus hot chocolate and a Kronenbourg.  Photo by Shannon Sims.

This is why I ski in France. Local pork sausage (name that sausage!), cheesy polenta cakes, and a sauce of course. Plus hot chocolate and a Kronenbourg. Photo by Shannon Sims.

We descended another pitch and stopped to wait for the rest of the group. A fast skier approached, hit a small lip and completed a front flip, landing briefly on his feet before falling down. While at first I thought he was an experienced skier pulling off a backcountry stunt, I quickly realized it was one of our own group who hadn’t seen the lip at all, had double ejected and landed squarely on his feet, sans skis. He was fine but it took Ludovic quite a while to find both of his skis because they were so sunk into the snow-lip. Of course, there was also some nice untouched snow for us to ski.

All this skiing and falling was making us hungry and this is where it pays to be in France. About halfway down the descent (2516 m) sits the Refuge du Requin, an overnight hut with a restaurant named after the shark teeth’s appearance of the nearby rocks. The refuge sat slightly above our ski trajectory, necessitating some poling and then a bit of boot-packing. The staff at the refuge were very nice and welcoming. After taking some photos on their balcony, cooling off a little, and ordering drinks and lunch, we stepped inside and sat at two long tables. We found ourselves within the vastness of the glacier coming off Mont Blanc, in a stone hut, being served food brought in by helicopter by staff who commute by ski.

We celebrate our delicious lunch with a nice view behind.  Photo by Refuge du Requin Staff.

We celebrate our delicious lunch with a nice view behind. Photo by Refuge du Requin Staff.

The menu was simple and the portions were fitting for people who are exerting themselves. I ordered the special of the day which was the local pork sausage (any guesses?) with thick hunks of cheesy polenta cake and a tomatoey sauce. It was delicious and paired very nicely with a big mug of hot chocolate. I have no idea how much a meal like this would cost at a similar location stateside (one million dollars?) but I can tell you that the bill for the 12 of us for this delicious lunch including drinks and a few desserts was just over 200 Euro, a ridiculously good deal anywhere but especially considering the exclusiveness!

After lunch we packed up, reshod ourselves, and continued onward. Gradually the run became flatter and we cruised along easily taking in the magnificent surroundings. We followed Ludovic though a spectacular ice field. We made sharp turns by beautiful blueish ice blocks that would have been perfect props to advertise ice-cold thirst quenching liquid or minty fresh chewing gum.

Crazy icefield with skiers barely visible.  There were some nice crevasses to fall into but they were easily avoided.  Afterwards my breath was minty fresh for some reason…Photo by Ludovic Erard

Crazy icefield with skiers barely visible. There were some nice crevasses to fall into but they were easily avoided. Afterwards my breath was minty fresh for some reason…Photo by Ludovic Erard

The Mer de Glace glacier (sea of ice) has been steadily receding. This is painfully evident when you reach the level of the Montenevers Train station. In the late 1980s the train station sat at about the same level as the glacier. Now it is about 430 stairs up from the glacier to the train station, making for a not so enjoyable human powered end to your trip if there is not enough snow to ski all the way back to the village. One of our group was exhausted and didn’t feel she could ski anymore so she opted to climb the stairs and take the train back (costs about 15 euro).

The rest decided to push on and after a few more tricky turns and tight passages we stopped, removed layers, strapped our skis to our packs and began a 25 minute climb up out of the valley. Here the valley had narrowed considerably and we could hear and sometimes see large rocks and boulders sliding down the opposite side, careening and crashing as they went. Luckily we were out of harm’s way but it was still a bit unnerving.

Mer de Glace and the Montenevers train station in the 1980s.  Photo of photo by Caroline Pascal.

Mer de Glace and the Montenevers train station, early to mid 1900’s. Photo of photo by Caroline Pascal.

It turns out that resort skiers don’t always like hiking when they are skiing, but our group was game and I didn’t hear too much grumbling about the “skiing up.” Everyone was happy to reach a small buvette (place selling drinks and snacks) where a few people downed a quick beer before we readied ourselves to ski the final leg of the descent. It was mostly a switch-backing cat track through a spruce and fir forest with occasional bare spots to dodge. While it was not very exciting it was great to be able to ski all the way back to Chamonix, where our vehicles were parked.

Thanks to good advice from the guides we arrived within 50 yards of where we had parked. Everyone was stoked from such an impressive day and it was immediately suggested that we find a brasserie (bar) to celebrate. We returned our gear to Ludovic and Fix, donned street shoes, and headed for the nearest establishment where a round of beers appeared. Ludovic and Fix joined us but skipped the beer opting instead for pineapple juice (they live about two and half hours away in Grenoble).

The whole crew minus 'Fix' the photographer living the good life at Mont Blanc.  Photo by 'Fix.'

The whole crew minus ‘Fix’ the photographer living the good life at Mont Blanc. Photo by ‘Fix.’

The Vallee Blanche is definitely a worthwhile adventure. With good conditions the skiing can be excellent, but much of the appeal for me was skiing in such a dramatic and immense landscape.

After a long day on skis we headed back to our chalet for “Raclette”- melted alpine cow’s cheese over boiled potatoes with loads of charcuterie (cured meats), cornichons, and white wine. Bon Ski et Bon Appétit!

WildSnow guest blogger, Aaron Schorsch, is the owner of ‘Saveur the Journey,’ an experience based culinary adventure company that leads trips to Europe, the USA, and beyond. He is a chef with a background in anthropology who loves combining skiing, eating, and travel. Aaron lives in Davidson, NC with his wife and young daughter.



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Comments

19 Responses to “Vallée Blanche Descent, Gourmet Ski Tour, Mont Blanc, France”

  1. Jack April 17th, 2017 11:56 am

    Wow! Some day soon, for me. I wonder about a crew roped together without an ice ax in sight. Are people relying on the fixed rope or the guide to arrest?

  2. Rod Georgiu April 17th, 2017 12:21 pm

    Exactly.

  3. Tibo April 17th, 2017 2:14 pm

    The sausages are called “diots (de Savoie)”.

  4. Aaron Schorsch April 17th, 2017 2:30 pm

    And the “name that sausage” award goes to Tibo! “Diots” is the correct answer and they are pretty delicious. Tibo if you ever come on one of my trips I will buy you a celebratory beer (or bevrage of your choice) and some “Diots” to go along!

  5. BenL April 17th, 2017 2:30 pm

    I think the photo of the station looks more like the 1880s.

  6. Patrick Fink April 17th, 2017 3:37 pm

    Jack, what I saw on the Aiguille du Midi is that that guide is short roping from behind, usually with crampons on. Only guided groups bother to rope this section, because the hand line is stout and the walk is not so steep.

  7. Lisa Dawson April 17th, 2017 8:04 pm

    BenL — good catch! The rail line was completed in 1909, so I changed the caption to “early to mid-1900’s.”

    It looks like the locomotive in the photo is a steam engine. According to Wikipedia, “The trains originally were drawn by steam locomotives. In the 1950s the line was electrified using an overhead line at 11000 V AC and 50 Hz, and service is provided by six electric railcars and three diesel locomotives.”

  8. JCoates April 18th, 2017 5:43 am

    I skied the Vallee Blanche unguided last year about this time (April–early season) and have two suggestions:
    1) stay in the Cosmiques Hut for a night or two if you have time or a need to acclimate to the altitude. It’s a beautiful hut–especially by Chamonix valley standards–and the manager(s) are super cool.
    2) take the time to put on crampons and put your skis on your pack so you have your hands free to use the handrail for the walk down from the lift station to the start of the tour. My friends and I watched a Brit fiddling with his crampons (what do they know about mountains, right??) and–feeling that we were too experienced and fast in the mountains (we are from the Rockies, damn it!!) to transition for a simple walk down a man-made rope line–opted to walk down without crampons and our skis over our shoulders in a show of bad-ass’ery. This might have worked but we then also opted to take the direct route down instead of the more mellow switchbacks that the guides usually take clients down. Bad idea, and I ended up sliding down one particularly steep 50ft section on my butt wondering if I was going to have to drop my skis from my free hand (gone forever into the abyss) to grab the rope and save my life. Moral of the story? If your visiting, don’t try to look like a bad-ass in the Chamonix valley. You’ll just end up looking like an idiot.

  9. wets nostrebor April 18th, 2017 7:06 am

    its a tram

  10. Aaron Schorsch April 18th, 2017 8:51 am

    Good advice JCoates! Wow sounds like a dramatic start to the Vallee Blanche. Glad you didn’t lose the skis or worse. Luckily we didn’t have any problem with acclimatizing to the altitude as our group had already been skiing at 8000ft (and eating cheese, does that help?) for the past week. Altitude can be a problem though, and staying in those huts is a great idea. Does anyone know of any similar huts in the US? Great food, stone contruction, impressive views, rustic but charming…In France during the summer I have seen someone pretty much running up the mountain with a specially designed backpack to carry a 50# wheel of cheese to provision the “refuge” at the top of the mountain (Dent D’oche).

  11. JCoates April 18th, 2017 9:21 am

    We were acclimatizing for Mont Blanc. But nothing can get you ready for that much cheese. 😉

  12. Jack April 18th, 2017 9:44 am

    Thanks for the clarification, Patrick. My curiosity was sparked. I’ve heard the “put crampons on” advice before and it seems smart, JCoates. I took a fall and slide in Tuckerman Ravine [I am an Eastern skier: QED] *before* donning skis, and I can testify that leaning on a pair of skis makes for a lousy arrest technique. That was one long butt slide!

  13. Bruno Schull April 18th, 2017 10:57 am

    I’ve walked down and up that ridge at least a dozen times, mostly to climb, sometimes to ski. I would say that anybody on their first trip down should definitely wear crampons, even if short roped by a guide. It’s especially tricky in the morning when icy and hard. A fall to the Cham side would mean almost certain death. A fall to the Midi side would be also be extremely dangerous and perhaps fatal. It’s even more “interesting” when they take the ropes and handrails away in summer and fall. I have often talked with climbing partners about how, if we encountered that ridge in the middle of some climb, we would think very carefully about how to protect ourselves, probably by tying in and doing some version of the “you jump to one side and I’ll jump to the other” routine, or simul climbing and placing ice screws (if it was hard enough) or pickets (if we had them, which would be unlikely in the Alps). But, since everybody just walks up and down, we do the same. It’s said that many people’s alpine climbing or back country skiing careers begin and end on that ridge–fear is a powerful thing. The first time I skied the Valle Blanche with my wife and a guide, we told the guide that my wife was most afraid of the ridge. He said, “No problem, It’s like the Champs-Elysees!” Indeed. Despite the impressive exposure, I have heard that accidents on the ridge itself are very rare. Nonetheless, it is not something to take lightly.

  14. Apingaut April 18th, 2017 2:44 pm

    Super post thank you!

    I have been and I found the walk up the steps from Mer de Glace past the historical ice markers even more moving, eye opening, depressing and amazing than the Vallee Blanche.

    400+ steps to gondola to train. The train is where the ice used to be!

    I remember after a bit of spirited stair climbing you pass a “ice was here in 2005” marker. 2005, is so high above the ice and that’s only the start… You still need to get through the 80s to reach the gondola!

  15. Shannon April 18th, 2017 5:35 pm

    This is SUCH a fun article, thank you Aaron for putting words to such a memorable and magnificent experience!!! (I am the girl snowboarder in blue for anyone else reading this..!). I cannot recommend Aaron and Saveur The Journey enough times to anyone considering one of his trips. I am getting all tingly just thinking about it all and reading the detailed recap of Midi! Aaron is hilarious and takes such good care of everyone, has the most amazing collection of people, knows SO MUCH about French cuisine and traditional Alpine food culture, and clearly sold his soul in order to get amazing snowfall in perfect timing for his trips! Did I mention he shreds?? And honestly, I felt the trip was priced INCREDIBLY well considering everything that is included — we skied, slept, and dined like royalty! I just want to go again!! So grateful that I have had this truly cultural experience and he made a true backcountry experience a priority for us. Thanks again buddy. :))

  16. Atfred April 19th, 2017 12:51 am

    Apengaut
    Just finished a tour in the berner oberland, Switzerland. The climb up from the glacier to the konkordia hut is now 430 steps, where the glacier used to be when the hut was first built 100 plus years ago. Am now in shape to climb the 400 plus steps to the top of the duomo cathedral in Florence Italy, built by workmen 600 years ago, and climbed by them every day to work on the dome!

  17. Katie April 21st, 2017 9:52 pm

    It was epic, I was there. Craving more….

  18. Atfred April 21st, 2017 11:45 pm

    Was in the valley Blanche two days ago, skied up to point heilbrunner, then down the mer de glace .

    The top was not bad walking down with crampons and guide attached.

    Views and skiing were great up high (many canvasses, thus need for guide)

    Worst part was near the bottom where you have to ski/hike over ice/slush/rocks to get to the stairs for the. train – must be spring!

  19. Lou Dawson 2 April 22nd, 2017 7:15 am

    Hi Shannon, thanks for stopping by, glad you enjoyed Aaron’s post. There are so many ways to enjoy ski touring, we love the variety, a big part of our mission. Lou





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