I’m grinning ear to ear and I can hear Steve laughing out loud ahead of me. We’re skiing the Vallee Blanche, it’s my first time, and I’m loving it. The winter is just getting better and better with everything building up to this moment where I am making fresh tracks in knee deep powder, weaving between bottomless crevasses, and not another soul in sight.
What is The Vallee Blanche
In short, the Vallee Blanche, or the VB as it is affectionately known, is a 17km long, big mountain, off-piste ski descent with over 2500m metres of descent to ski or snowboard. It is a world famous classic and, I can now say with confidence, rightly so.
You start by taking the telepherique to the top of the Aiguille du Midi then, after negotiating the precarious snow arete, you strap your skis on and set off on an amazing adventure. The expanse of terrain as you set off is immense and, as such, there are a number of different itineraries from the gentler Classique through to the much steeper Grands Envers.
As a Chamonix classic and right of passage, it has been on my wish list since I moved here but it was only this day that everything came together.
A last minute change of plan
The day before our plans were set. We were to head up to Grands Montets, ski over to the left bank of the Argentiere glacier and ice climb. Then it snowed. A lot. The plans were thrown out of the window and, before you could say allez boom, ski gear was packed and we were going to ski the fresh stuff.
A morning of running laps on the amazing lift access off-piste of Grands Montets brought us to just 11:30 and we started to get itchy feet. The snow was perfect, the sun was out, and we were all skiing confidently. On the lift back up, as an almost aside, Steve puts up the idea of heading up the Aiguille du Midi and skiing the Vallee Blanche.
I’m instantly in.
Not without a hint of nervousness, however. Steve has been skiing with me all morning and knows my ability so, after checking he thinks I’d be ok on the terrain, we jump off the lift, point our skies downhill and straight-line it for the car and the short drive back into Chamonix.
Getting high in Chamonix
Racing back into town, Steve goes left to grab food for us both from the bakery – I think I still owe you for that – while I headed back to mine to grab a glacier rope and a map as the weather is starting to come in and, if we get stuck in a whiteout, we’ll need it to navigate our way down.
Meeting back at the Midi lift, we are greeted by a very welcome surprise: no queue and a lift waiting for us. We pile in with 30 other excited skiers and then we are off up into the heavens.
Coming out of the Midi is always an experience. In the summer, the exposed and often terrifying snow arete is bare of any protection; you have just yourself, your crampons, and an ice axe to negotiate the 300m ridge line of snow and ice to the lower platforms. In the winter, with all the tourists and guided groups descending, they put some very helpful safety ropes up as well as cut steps. Amazing! Glissading – aka skidding down on your boots – the arete, grinning with excitement, it isn’t long before we’re stepping into our skis and preparing to head down into the unknown. Well, the unknown for me, thankfully Steve has skied the route several times before and has a good idea where we’re heading.
The Petits Envers
With all the guided groups swarming down the Classique descent route, we wanted to find something a little different. We headed over to the Petits Envers route, a more technical and steeper descent path that weaves between crevasses, rock outcrops, and sheer granite faces.
From the first moment, we realise we are in for a treat. It is gone 2pm yet still there is plenty of untracked snow. Knee deep in fresh powder we’re carving our own lines down short but consistent steep sections stopping at the bottom of each admiring the fortune the day had brought.
Tight sections where you needed to keep your speed up were followed by steep powder slopes where were could completely cut loose, all while taking in the truly breathtaking surroundings of the Mont Blanc Massif.
The run went on and on however, before we knew it, we could see all the crowds from the Classique linking up with where we were coming down. We joined onto their tracks just below the Refuge de l’Envers and carried on down in felt like rush hour in London after how isolated we had just been.
Steve seeing that climb for the first time
As we negotiated our way down, Steve slowed and asked if we could stop to check out a mountain far above us on the Leschaux Glacier – the Petites Jorasses. The smaller brother of the famous Grandes Jorasses it is no less of an undertaking and 18 months earlier Steve had been climbing the North West Goulotte when he took a horrific fall. This was the first time he had seen the mountain and climb since being rescued in a helicopter by the brave and unparalleled PGHM.
Skiing the Vallee Blanche was always going to bring us to this point and I stood back waiting to see Steve’s reaction and give him the space he would need.
It didn’t take long for Steve to turn to me with a giant smile on his face and say ‘You know, what, I’m just smiling when I look at it.’
Steve ended up receiving very serious injuries that left him in a wheelchair for 8 weeks followed by many months of physiotherapy. His whole world was thrown upside down but, while taking the time to rebuild his body, he was given an opportunity to rebuild his life too.
He started documenting what had happened and asking questions to other climbers about the magnetism of the mountains and what draws us to these dangerous environments. These questions have evolved into an eagerly anticipated film, Magnetic Mountains, with some of the world’s most famous mountaineers adding talking about what draws them into the mountains and, after accidents, what pulls them back.
At the same time, his personal life was given a complete shake up but then this lead him to meeting his fiancée, Menna, and her 6 year old daughter, with them now settling in Chamonix as a happy and beautiful family.
Maybe that was why he was smiling?
Without the tragedy of the climb he wouldn’t be where he is today with everything that he has worked so hard to build. If anything could be called a silver lining, that most certainly is one.
After a few more moments, Steve turned and lead off back down the mountain. With just a kilometre or so of easy angle ground left, it was a perfect time to take in how today had gone, how it had been an amazing step, one I had been hoping to take for a while but the situation just hadn’t presented itself, and one that I will cherish for a very long time.
As the winter gets fully underway, I know there will be plenty of more incredible days out but this was truly a spectacular one and one that I will remember for a long time.
Thank you Steve!