A Short Walk in the Valley Extrême

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 27, 2012      

Yours truly, headed down from Grans Montets to the Argentière Glacier for a history lesson.

Yours truly, headed down from Grans Montets to the Argentière Glacier for a history lesson. That's Aiguille d'Argentière to left (if I got it correct), Mont Dolent at head of valley. The first day of the classic Haute Route ski traverse uses a pass (Col du Chardonnet) next to the Aiguille Argentiere. To give you an idea of the scale, a hut exists somewhere in this photo, and it's not tiny. These truly beautiful mountains easily show why the Chamonix area Alps are so loved, climbed, photographed and yes, touristed by guys like me. Click to enlarge.

Montes map Chamonix area, France.

Montets map Chamonix area, France. Our somewhat short route is marked, was still quite nice and included a ski down to town for a capper. Dodging the wild Chamonix snowboarders added spice that glacier skiing can only touch.

Extreme skiing (as in the steep variety) gestated above the Chamonix valley. Some say the idea was born here. I’d go along with that, at least in a modern sense.

I’ve always been a fan of the Cham’ extreme skiing pioneers, Saudan, Holzer, Vallencant, Baud, Boivin, Gouvy and a number of others. But such fandom can feel a bit foolish since the sport is tragic as well as inspirational. It being incredibly dangerous since once you reach the top level you’re essentially skiing down routes that you’d otherwise consider breaking a rope out on if you were climbing, and where any sort of fall is certain death. Something about that morbid aspect creates a sort of metaphysical tension in fans as well a practitioners, a fascination that’s both acknowledging of human striving for excellence — but also that little tiny question that gnaws at your brain: why?

Perhaps it is sophomoric to say the Chamonix style of ski extreme is not a sport for everyone. But I’d offer a word and say if you choose it, know what you’re getting into and the commitment you’re making to what will perhaps be an inspirational life, but possibly a tragically short one.

Yes, another blog post, or perhaps a dozen for that philosophical minefield. For now, let’s just say that the “why?” is partially answered by looking upon the arenas where these works are accomplished, and feeling the nearly magnetic attraction of those steeps.

Thus, my visit to one of the coliseums of extreme glisse, the valley of Chamonix. The plan, do a tiny bit of sight seeing so I could gaze at a few famous routes. Torino ski alpinist Paolo Piumatti offered to take me on a few tours in the greater Cham’ area over the weekend, so here I am.

Not Vail, or Telluride, or Kansas...

Not Vail, or Telluride, or Kansas...

Such a crowded resort area is not my favorite sort of environment for mountain sports, but the history of the place supersedes my snobbish snivvlings.

Even so, Paolo and I did practice a bit of throng avoidance and instead of riding the cable to the famed Aiguille du Midi on Mt. Blanc, we drove a short distance from the Chamonix core to Argentière, where we instead took the cable cars of the Grands Montets (still crowded) then dropped to the Argentière Glacier where we took a short walk in one of the places where giants of extreme have left their mark. Above us, such legendary stones as the Aiguille Verte and Les Droites caused us to pause and think on the guys who skied down what are obviously incredibly steep and difficult routes.

View of Mt. Blanc from Chamonix, a bit of snow in the valley this year.

View of Mt. Blanc from Chamonix, a bit of snow in the valley this year. Summit of Blanc is the snow dome in the distance. To left is the spike of Aguille du Midi, where a legendary cable hanging above Chamonix whisks skiers of all stripes into a serious alpine environment.

Lou, at top of Montets cable, Mt Blanc in background.

Lou, at top of Montets cable, Mt Blanc in background. We had some logistical hassles prior to this, so got there late. Still time for the scenic walk, however.

View from Montets down to Chamonix Valley. Yes, a bit of a cliche but WildSnow might as well have its own version, eh?

View from Montets down to Chamonix Valley. Yes, a bit of a cliche but WildSnow might as well have its own version, eh? Click to enlarge.

Paolo knows his history, and spouts off who did the first of what. For example, the stupendous ice couloir on the face of the Aguille Verte is the Couturier Couloir, first skied in 1973 and now a “common” goal, though still dangerous and unless in perfect condition quite difficult. Uh huh. We break out a guidebook for a lesson, and can see dozens of amazing but incredibly scary lines that stun me in their boldness.

On Argentiere Glacier, Aquille Verte is out of photo up to right.

Paolo pointing out the historic routes above Argentiere Glacier, Aquille Verte is out of photo up to right, Mont Dolent up at end of Valley (experts, please correct me if I get it wrong.) Click to enlarge.

Skiing down to Argentiere Glacier.

Skiing down to Argentiere Glacier. Click image to enlarge.

Glacier exit it classic, if somewhat downscale from other such skiing in the region.

Glacier exit it classic, if somewhat downscale from other such skiing in the region. Nonetheless, you could tumble into a hole if you make a wrong move. Click image to enlarge.

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44 Responses to “A Short Walk in the Valley Extrême”

  1. Matt Kinney February 27th, 2012 10:25 am

    Nice TR for monday am..tks lou..good stuff. Have fun!

    BTW When I click on your pics for larger, its not much bigger at all. Be nice to get much larger photo.

  2. Stewart Harper February 27th, 2012 11:52 am

    Nice photos. If you have any GPS tracks from your trip you should upload them to our site as we have a WordPress plugin so your readers could see exactly where you went and where the photos were.


  3. Nick February 27th, 2012 12:10 pm

    Lou – great post and photos. I particularly like this statement you made:

    “But I’d offer a word and say if you choose it, know what you’re getting into and the commitment you’re making to what will perhaps be an inspirational life, but possibly a tragically short one. “

  4. Mike Carr February 27th, 2012 1:53 pm

    Good times Lou. I love your next to last photo with a neat perspective of the Ginats route on Les Droits with the JacksonShea just visible. The Argentiere hut is huge altho I have only been in the winter emergency portion of it (even in September!!!). Its amazing that you can’t see it in the photo – gives you an idea of the scale. The Montets lift was closed when Tom and I went up to the Ginats and we had to walk all the way up from town – a brutal hump… The big rock on the glacier that your skis are pointed at in the first photo is a fun landmark and a turn-point on the way to the hut. Looks like great weather, hope you get some fun tours in. If you get higher up the Argentiere, you get to see the Walker Spur and Shroud climbs and Mt Dolent is cool as it is the common point for three countries. Hyper jealous as I’m tied to my desk today…

  5. Lou February 27th, 2012 2:02 pm

    Yeah! Dick has had a rough go for the past while due to his flying accident. He seems to be doing much better, but getting reminded of his Chamonix days will no doubt stimulate the healing process. Right Dick?

  6. Rob Coppolillo February 27th, 2012 3:04 pm

    Just saw Dick a couple weeks back and he looks like he’s just about back to his usual ways–right on!

    Lou, have a Round Midnight sandwich for me and enjoy it over there. Damn, what a winter they’re having…Ciao man! RC

  7. Ola February 27th, 2012 4:23 pm

    You can see the hut in the picture. It looks like a rock from a distance though.

  8. Pete Anzalone February 27th, 2012 5:35 pm

    Great post and pix.
    Was there once about 12 years ago but poor weather prevented seeing the sights that your beautiful pictures have now provided. WOW!!

  9. john doyle February 27th, 2012 7:48 pm

    If conditions permit, Try the Pas du Chevre off the Grand Montet or tour from the Aiguille du Midi over and down to Courmayeur. Yeah, I wish I was there. Vive la France!

  10. Tom Gos February 27th, 2012 8:55 pm

    Good to see the great snow there, I am headed over to begin the Haute Route in two weeks. I’ve been reading that conditions are excellent, but its good to see the proof on Wildsnow. Thanks Lou!

  11. Lou February 27th, 2012 11:29 pm

    Matt, I’m not sure how I ended up making the slightly larger photos instead of much larger… but I do know that on my smaller netbook the enlargement system doesn’t work as it tries to fit photo to my screen, so be sure you have a full-sized screen. Lou

  12. Chris February 28th, 2012 4:24 am

    Great Photos Lou! how are the conditions over there?

    they look great on the photos, but the warming is brutal right now in Geneva and am a little worried about avalanches (I am heading to Chamonix on Saturday, weather/conditions permitting).

    Btw, if you have a couple of minutes in town, i highly recomend you up a copy of Anselme Baud’s book on Mont Blanc & Aiguilles Rouges ski routes – truly a mind bending bible and enough to keep you busy for 5 lieftimes (beautifully illustrated w great route descriptions).

  13. stephenn February 28th, 2012 8:21 am

    ^ After a quick search I found one used copy for $1k – it’d have to be a *really* good book to pay that much!!!

  14. RTrain February 28th, 2012 9:19 am

    no affiliation: Chessler Books has the book for about 80USD. Always a good place to find mountaineering books.

  15. Lou February 28th, 2012 10:10 am

    Tom, you should have one of the best Haute Route ski conditions in years, in terms of coverage. Type of surface you’ll get is of course an unknown.

  16. El Jefe February 28th, 2012 11:56 am


    I am also headed over for the Haute Route in March. (starting the 31st) is it possible for you to give me a couple recs on where to stay before we start? 27th to the 31st? so many options and towns in “chamonix”. nothing high class, but close to a good watering hole and lift.


  17. Lou February 28th, 2012 12:50 pm

    Jefe, I’m not your man for that, but I’m sure some other WildSnowers can help you out. Anyone care to comment?

  18. Chris February 28th, 2012 3:28 pm

    you can get a copy at the Maison de La Presse, on 93 Rue du Docteur Paccard, near the place Balmat and opposite Snell Sport.

    Everyone will know Snell, it is the biggest moutaineering shop in town, kind of a mecca. Dont expect to go there and come out as wealthy as when you went in.

    If you want to mail order the book, you can do it on Maison de la Presse’s web site (www.alplib.com). Search for Baud and you will see it for €30.

    Or maybe you can convince Lou to bring back a whole bunch of copies 😉

  19. Martha February 28th, 2012 3:29 pm

    Wonderful pics and great write-up! Why the Anselm Baud book is so expensive online, I’m not sure – you can buy it in plenty of shops in Chamonix. Try Snell Sports or the bookshop next to the Hotel des Alpes.

  20. Martha February 28th, 2012 3:31 pm

    Ah Chris beat me to it 🙂

  21. stephen February 28th, 2012 7:23 pm

    30 Euros is much more reasonable than $1000USD…

    eBay, Amazon links, etc seem to be filling up with profiteers and money launderers – there are some truly unbelievable prices being asked/paid for some things. 🙁

  22. KR February 28th, 2012 7:34 pm

    Hotel l”Arve is a good choice but there are plenty of options closer to the telepherique, as well.

  23. Ed February 28th, 2012 10:41 pm

    Hotel De L’Arve is a great choice – folks are friendly and food comes recommended – contact@hotelarve-chamonix.com or phone +33(0)4 50 53 02 31 (If phoning from Canada or the USA dial 011, country code 33 omit the (0), then the last 9 digits.)

  24. dmr February 29th, 2012 12:08 am

    Great photos, Lou! Glad you were able to enjoy a quick trip to Chamonix. The Argentiere basin is indeed amazing (and easy access). Even in an amazing snow year such as this one, those steep north facing routes won’t have snow or be skiable until the wetter snow of April/May.

    I highly recommend the Aiguille d’Argenitere via the Milieu Glacier for your next trip up the very same basin.

    For those of you looking for a good Chamonix / Mont-Blanc guidebook, there is also the English version of the Toponeige Mont-Blanc guidebook (volopress).

  25. Richard February 29th, 2012 8:51 am

    I first stumbled down the iron steps at the top of the Grand Montet in 1982. I was doing the Haute Route for the first time. I was wearing, floppy, ill-fitting Koflach touring boots that I’d never skied in, Iser bindings that I didn’t know how to use, 190 gs race skis that I’d never skied on, an overloaded pack that I could have taken to Everest, L.L.Bean wool pants (I kid you not), and skins that I didn’t know anything about. Oh, and did I mention that it was a howling blizzard at the top with zero visibility? One of the best ski days of my life. I remember it like it was yesterday.

  26. Lou February 29th, 2012 8:53 am

    Richard, that sounds like fodder for a guest blog! Awesome!

  27. Richard February 29th, 2012 1:34 pm

    Lou, It was quite an adventure. My main hope is that the folks who are heading off to do the Haute Route in the next few weeks are much better prepared than I was back then and that they get better weather. We didn’t have much luck that time. We got weathered out in Verbier. Detoured to Arolla and climbed to Cabane de Dix and then got stuck the next day at Vignettes and bailed out to Arolla. I should tell the complete story someday. It includes a bumbling Belgian mama’s boy that the guide threatened to dump in a crevasse and my friend’s chain-smoking 65 year old mother.

  28. stephen February 29th, 2012 1:46 pm

    Next instalment please…

  29. Ali E February 29th, 2012 3:34 pm

    Some sobering reading about an avalanche on the Vallee Blanche. Luckily no one was seriously injured, but some really good lessons here.


  30. Oli C March 1st, 2012 4:12 pm

    thanks for your views on Cham Lou. I have followed your blog for many years and am now in cham, its my first winter & probably not my last. its quite a place for better and for worse. you came during the busiest time of the year, french school holidays. 3 weeks of hell & bad drivers! for all the pollution issues this valley has, the stupid long que’s on powder day, its still, like you say steeped in history and ever awe inspiring.

    have you seen The Ordinary Skier? its kind of a good, but basic look at Cham style.

    i think its soon time to get the mountain bike out though…

    and as for food, SAVOYARD ALL THE WAY, hearty filling mountain farmer food, or stlyish, slicked back hair from Italy? HAUTE SAVOIE!

  31. Rob March 4th, 2012 9:51 am

    Too bad you didn’t come earlier in the year. Late December and entire January were supposedly the best times this area has seen in decades (or so I’ve been told by locals, it’s only my second winter here). No crowds, fresh powder almost every day. Not a lot of sun, but a lot of unforgettable skiing. Have fun and keep up the good work on your blog. We should be getting some fresh snow tomorrow. It’s about time. 🙂

  32. Lou March 4th, 2012 12:31 pm

    Hi Rob, thanks for the “mine is deeper than yours is” post (grin). But since it’s the truth we’ll let it pass (grin). The snow is still deep around here in the Austrian Alps, just shifting to nieve season, or else will act as base for some new storms. A bit manky at the moment, but I’ve been getting out and having fun anyway.

  33. stephen March 4th, 2012 1:34 pm

    Just what does “manky” mean anyway? I gather it’s not good but have never seen a definition and it’s not a term used down here. (Still, not great snow is better than no snow.)

  34. Lou March 4th, 2012 10:48 pm

    It’s a polite term that matches other derogatory terms that reference human or other animal waste products. Clear? (grin)

  35. stephen March 5th, 2012 2:08 am

    ^ So it’s referring to a quality, rather than a particular type, yes? (I’ve noticed that waste products come in a wide range of consistencies.)

  36. brian h March 5th, 2012 11:01 am

    I’d say ‘mank’ occurs with somewhat fresh, soft snow, that is undergoing a consistency change because of warm weather. Skied the mank yesterday after we got a couple feet through the week and then got solar blasted. ‘Manky’ should not be confused with ‘skanky’. Mank still has some redeemable qualities because, well, it is still snow…

  37. Lou March 5th, 2012 12:49 pm

    Very good Brian, perhaps I should hire you to work on the WildSnow glossary (grin)?

  38. brian h March 5th, 2012 12:54 pm

    Lou- It would probably be a good (and likely needed) lesson in brevity…

  39. Mike Selby March 21st, 2012 9:41 am

    Greetings Lou, Lisa and other Cham fans,

    Leaving this Sunday for first La Grave followed by Cham and taking my 10 year old tele son who wants to follow in Mike Hattrup and Kye Peterson’s ski tracks via Poubelle Coulior etc. Wants to meet Anselme, Fan Fan and do things that no other 10 year old tele man has done in both locales. Any recommendations for guides who would be understanding of such an undertaking or other advice. Anything at all would be helpful. First time in Euroland for both of us.


  40. brian h March 21st, 2012 9:56 am

    I applaud your son’s enthusiasm, but when I read ‘Edge of Never’ I was struck by the serious back and forth about whether or not a child should be skiing that stuff. Pretty heavy decisions…

  41. Mike Selby March 21st, 2012 10:04 am

    Totally agree on that one. Noa was teleing double blacks at 7 but unlike so many kids of his age bracket has a wonderful sense of caution and Budda like focus that slows him down and makes him very considerate and sensitive to the mountain’s mood and risk. I have been very surprised and impressed with his maturity in this regard…. very budda-like on his skis…

    The macho end of it seems pretty small. He just loves the moving in the mountains and dancing with gravity….


  42. Scott Newman March 21st, 2012 12:23 pm

    Mike, please be careful. La Grave takes it all to another level …

    You may want to speak with Per As (i thnk you can contact him through the La Grave Guide Service). wonderful guide who can speak to your request of “Any recommendations for guides who would be understanding of such an undertaking or other advice”

  43. Mike Selby March 21st, 2012 12:46 pm

    Will do Scott. The last thing we have is a cavalier attitude about La Grave. We have studied the ski history and will go at least mentally prepared. We are both no stranger to backcountry snow conditions and I know its much bigger and badder than I can imagine and we can’t give it enough respect…

    Thanks so much for your guide recommendation. We will try to contact him before we go.


  44. Andy June 12th, 2012 6:01 am

    Great pictures, the photo of the Chalet’s with 2 foot of snow are just a distant memory now 🙂 Great write up and great photos, thanks

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