Skiing trip report from Chamonix and the Vallee Blanche

See where it is on Google maps. Or go here if you just want to see a slideshow from Chamonix.

Skiing in the alps at Christmas is a gamble on snow conditions, so after a disaster in Serre Chevalier two years ago (picture), we chose Chamonix this year because it has pistes up to 3200m, and even if there is no good snow, there are plenty of other things to do, including ice climbing, parasailing, hiking, or just hanging out in the village, which has somehow managed to retain its charming alpine character despite its enormous tourist burden. Chamonix sits in a deep valley with fantastic views of the surrounding glaciers and peaks, including Mont Blanc, although this high-point of Europe somehow manages to look like a modest blob from here. There is plenty of skiing in the valley, but it's split up into several resorts connected by buses, and so doesn't give the same grand impression as other resorts in the alps. Since they are each fed by bottle-neck cabin lifts from different parts of the valley, a lot of ski time can be lost if you try to do more than one resort in a day.

We were very lucky that 'Cham' got it's first big dump of snow a week before we arrived, and the pistes were still in good condition. The weather was -5 deg C, sunny, and windstill almost every day. We must have been very good this year.

We had heard that Grand Montets had the best skiing, and so went there on our first day, but a combination of flat light and technique amnesia prevents me from confirming that, and since it gets very little sun and we had such great weather, we didn't go back later. But I have no reason to doubt that it's a great place.

Day 2 we went to La Flégère/Brevent, a pair of resorts connected by a short cable car ride. They are south-facing, but midwinter this didn't seem to affect snow quality, and we had a good day. On the western extreme of the Brevent area is a cable car up to the Panorama restaurant with expensive food but a great view over the neighbouring valleys, and the black runs back to the main area aren't too black. On the eastern extreme of La Flégère was our favorite run of the week, Floria, a varied 4.5 km long black run that was also rather empty because it takes three lifts to get back to the top.

Day 3 we went to the sunniest of the resorts Domain de Blame, at the north-eastern end of the valley. The front side is an enormous open bowl with wide, easy pistes and great views, but baked hard by the sun and low elevation. The back side has enormous off-piste possibilities, but a week after the last fall it was all tracked out and crusted except for one small stash I found. Later in the afternoon I witnessed my 3rd helicopter rescue in 3 days.

Day 4 was our cloudy day, and for reasons that maybe made sense at the time we went up the Aiguille du Midi that day. Two cable cars take you up to the spire at 3800m in less than half an hour, and since I live at sea level I was noticeable affected by the altitude, feeling light-headed and becoming breathless after climbing a few steps. The view was also breathtaking, though presumably greatly diminished compared to a sunny day.

We then had a half day in Les Houches, a small easy resort at the south-west end of the valley. What I liked about this place was the proximity of the opposite mountain wall, with its huge glacier that hangs above the slopes. I found it more impressve than the wide vistas of the other areas, but alas this was the one day I decided not to lug my camera around. You can also see the Matterhorn from here.

Day 5 was back to La Flégère/Brevent for another great day of skiing in the sun. The New Year holidayers were starting to arrive, so there was a 40 minute wait for the cabin up, but still no queues for the lifts on the pistes.

Day 6 and Vallee Blanche ! This classic off-piste tour down the glacier can be up to 24km long and normally starts with a hairy hike down a knife-edge snow ridge from Aiguille du Midi, but conditions led our guide Pelle Bagewitz to decide on a more cautious start from the Italian side in Courmayeur. 40 minutes on a bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel and 3 cabin lifts later we were kitted out with avalanche beacons and harnesses at 3460m. Conditions couldn't have been much better : -5 deg C, sunny and windstill again, unusually much snow so early in the season, and yet no crowds yet.

Pelle was very professional and cautious, and we got clear instructions on how far we could deviate from his tracks, which could be "as much as you like", 10m, 2m, or "In my tracks". The first bowl had great loose snow, and we were guaranteed no crevasses +/- 10m from Pelle's tracks. Above us the glacier rolled over a ledge at a rate of 20cm per day, and a wall of crevasses loomed. Classic rock and ice climbs surrounded us.

Then the skiing started to get more demanding, with steeper terrain, narrower passages, and often bare ice. Despite being comfortable (if not elegant) on all the in-bounds black runs, I was right at my ability limit here, and I would say the difficulty and commitment was on par with the few double-black-diamond runs I've attempted. But maybe it's easier later in the season. The others in the group were all Swedes who had been skiing for decades, and patiently waited for me to catch up.

At one point we had about 1 metre of skiing room between an ice wall and a newly-opened crevass, and as I leaned into the turn I was looking straight down into the abyss, which was probably 150m deep. A kid in the group behind us made a hockey stop a couple of metres above the crevass when his guide screamed at him to stop, and despite being way off season about 50 people in various groups passed us during the day, often in narrow passages and often recklessly. I started to wonder about the accident statistics for this popular trip. We hurriedly passed a wall of seracs that threatened to calve on us, and then entered the 'Mer de Glace', waves of ice caused by the confluence of two glaciers. Then there was a long, gently sloping section to the end of the glacier, after which we hiked up about 100m to a ridge whence you often need to take a train down to the village, but in our case we could ski all the way down at the expense of a few rock scars.

We booked our holiday as a half-board package through the Swedish organisation Sportresor/STS-alpresor who did a great job, and we stayed at the Hotel Pointe Isabelle, which was OK but not great - really good service and great breakfast, but shabby decor, and very noisy from the street, even on the 'quiet' side.

External links :
A very useful and chatty snow report from Chamonet, complete with archives back to 2003.
A good schematic map of the valley.

© Mark Harris 2008

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