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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.