It was Warren Miller who said if you wait another year, you will be another year older and another year further from the dream. After eight years of being a diligent parent and mostly staying away from my true nature to seek adventure (not that having two kids is not a constant adventure), I finally secured the hall pass to check another box on the old bucket list. I have always dreamed of skiing in Chamonix France and this year the stars lined up and in the company of four good friends I pointed the boards across the pond to tackle the steeps and off piste’s of the Alps. While I thought the skiing was going to be the piece that gave me the big pucker (which it did) the real adventure was getting across the pond on my beloved United Airlines. After a week at the Outdoor Retail show and a fast pack, I boarded my flight and made it half way before the likes of a raging north easterly storm busted me in the nations capital and left me sleeping on the marble floors of Dulles International Airport for more time than one would truly care. A bivy of sorts and some light tempering for an epic seven days to come.
After surfing cab lines that cliffed out into nothing, sleeping on unusually cold floors and dealing with all the incredibly helpful folks at United ( NOT ), I finally boarded flight 954 to Geneva Switzerland in pretty good spirits belayed of course by the spirits provided by Firkens Airport Pub. With a night flight and a couple of pints down the gullet, I looked forward to knocking back some serious sleep in economy class, not easy at nearly six foot five inches tall. As the in-flight movie lulled me off to sleep, my dreams were empty and hollow after the first twenty-seven hours of the adventure had left me totally exhausted. I kept shuddering awake with the sense of falling. Between that and the drool chain, I am sure my fellow passengers were impressed.
I awoke nine hours later with my travel donut around my neck to the captain announcing our arrival in Geneva. I slipped up the window cover I caught my first glimpse of the Alps poking above the clouds blanketing Geneva. I had made it. I had cleared the seemingly karmic hurdles of my flight cancellations in Washington and now seemed to be in the clear, minutes away from the land of some of my greatest alpine dreams. The wheels touched down and with the screech of rubber hitting the tarmac we taxied to our gate past the throng of private jets, probably belonging to the great chiefs of commerce attending the world economic forum at Davos.
Upon arriving we cleared the stone-faced customs agents and landed in the baggage claim and waited. Slowly but surely the baggage claim area went from about 100 people to just me and one other woman looking down the conveyor belt with semi perplexed looks that said “could these turkeys have really lost our bags with a mere 27 hours in Washington to get them to the right plane…………………? “ The baggage carrier stopped indicating that the karmic folly was not over yet. I had already missed day one skiing on the Grand Montet with my ski partners and tomorrow was our big day in the Valle Blanche, WTF over. After another hour in the Swiss baggage claim office, I was informed that at the current time the airlines could not locate the bags in the system and I proceeded to attempt a description of my bags. Thank god for the baggage cue cards, they were by far the most helpful tool the airline had provided to this point. “OK man don’t lose it….this will work itself out ”, I said to my self or perhaps out loud, I was so whacked at this point I am not sure. I departed the Swiss baggage office with little confidence and in need of a double espresso and a lift to Chamonix.
Allez, Allez I have a shuttle to catch and this would be the last for the day. In the absence of my bags I sprinted to the Cham Express counter and squeezed myself into the Diesel Minibus with about twelve other Euros who were headed to Chamonix for the Kandahar World Cup for the weekend. After chatting with Dr. Jack from South Hampton about the merits of the European holiday system we finally arrived in Chamonix. When I stepped out of the bus, the sheer scale spun me around with a sense of vertigo a place like this could instill in even a seasoned mountain veteran. As I gawked at the valley the peaks of childhood dreams revealed themselves. The Aiguille Du Midi, Mont Blanc, The Drus, The Petit Drus, The Grand Jorasse… holy shit, I felt as if I had arrived in Mecca. With no bags or ski’s to check I hit the town in search of those items I would need for the upcoming days and my ski down the Valle Blanche. I am totally psyched as the airlines has provided me with two hundred dollars to replace about five thousand in gear. Chamonix is a town that I believe has more gear shops per capita than any other place in the world. As I cruised the streets I passed The North Face Shop, Ice Breaker, Patagonia, Millet and they kept going, I thought my little town was competitive as a small specialty mountain shop owner. After a bit of research I found that the best place to rent was just down the street and I set out to replace my kit for the day of ski mountaineering coming on the following day. While I feared I would be skiing in an electric pink one piece, euro-style, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to rent all high quality goods in the finest condition for ascent and descent off the Aiguille du Midi. Thanks to the folks at Sanglard for getting me geared up head to toe.
After a heavy lunch of wine and cheese and ham so rich that it could turn the heartiest stomach inside out, I headed back to the charming Hotel Faucigney to meet my mates and go over our plans to descend the Valle Blanche the next day. After the usual boy like greetings and back-slapping we headed out to a local Brasserie to imbibe and lay out our game plan to meet our guide and prep for our first big day. The boys had been skiing the Grand Montet all day and despite an absence of snow in the valley, they were able to find some good turns out of bounds in what we called recycled powder blown in from the area. We were encouraged. We continued into the night attending the World Cup bib ceremony, then had a dinner of fondue and Grog. Once fed and wined we headed out into the world of The World Cup revelers draped in the flags of their home country ringing cow bells staggeringly drunk. I was reminded of my annual visits to Lambeau field in GreenBay . World Cup Fans are like Packer Fans on their way to the Super Bowl, anything goes if it goes down the gullet. Unfortunately one could not get to the bar for a beer so we headed back to put down some pillow time before our big day.
The next morning we gathered early in the dining room of our small ski country hotel and enjoyed a continental breakfast of cheese, Nutella and coffee before heading to the tram dock at the Aiguille du Midi to meet our guide Jeff Banks. The day was upon us to experience one of the longest backcountry ski runs and surely one of the most classic. As we walked the narrow streets of Chamonix , street keepers swept away the accumulated butts from the night before. Revelers were many with the World Cup in town and cigarettes are just part of the training program here in Chamonix for the locals. Upon arrival at the Tram Dock we kitted up for our launch to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. Beacon, Shovel, Probe, Harness……..check, check check.
There is an art to cramming yourself into a tram in Europe and it is a bit like a good old fashion playground pile on. There is always room for one more and as long as you don’t mind the acrid smell of café un du tabac in your face then its all good for the 3800 m trip to the top. Fortunately I was pressed against the glass so as to enjoy the view of of the valley pealing away under my feet. The Telepherique held the record for two decades as the highest cable car in the world. The Aiguille du Midi translates as the Needle of Midday and for the early settlers of the valley acted as a sundial. Upon climbing out of the tram one shuttles through granite tunnels, across the steel walkway and through the infamous ice tunnel to arrive out on the knife-edge ridge descent to the Valle Blanche a 20 km back country piste with 2700 meters of vertical descent. One of the most classic BC routes in the world indeed.
After our brief but deft safety meeting with our guide we begin our descent of the ice covered knife edge ridge, the route is protected with ropes but the air below our feet makes for a thrilling descent to the Col to begin the 20 km descent of the valley. When you ski in Chamonix it is common to buy helicopter rescue insurance on your pass so that in the event of a minor epic, one can be extracted quickly any-where in the range via helicopter. While reassuring this perhaps creating a false sense of security. The helicopters run all day and by the look of some of the folks descending the ridge with us, I can see why.
From here pure off piste lay ahead of us and for the next five hours our only task would be to ski the best lines in the safest fashion avoiding the gaping crevasses which would litter our descent for 20 km down the valley. With blue bird skies and most of the others descending the trade route, we are treated to a series of steep pitches sewn together with a maze of snow bridges , bergshrunds and recycled powder. Despite the lack of snow, our guide Jeff Banks bird dogged some pretty fine lines for us.
As one descends the journey seems like it could never end in the best of senses. Each pitch is met with another and equally beautiful line creating what almost seems like the run that will never end. Eventually we of course hit the Mer de Glace and the descent turns into a nice cruise down the glacier sliding just below the towering fang of the Drus, on of the most classic Granite spire rising 3700m from the glacier. As we descend, our guide points out the level of the glacier just twenty years ago. The drop is shocking and a reminder that somewhere not so far from this incredible place human induced climate change is stripping these amazing places of their heart and soul. For some skiing the Valle Blanche could represent a lifetime of turns with this leg of the Journey behind us, we would look forward to the days ahead in Courmayeur and on the Argentiere Glacier.
I am driven by these wild places and feel blessed to be able to stand among such majestic peaks. As I travel through this immense wilderness I am reminded of my own inconsequentiality on the face of this planet, a mere speck searching and seeking for truth through adventures. As I walk from the glacier up the ever expanding stairway system to the cog-train which will take us back to Chamonix I pass signs every 50 steps or so that say “Level of the Glacier 2000 “. All I can say is that this wonderful place is slipping away and with the lowest snow levels in almost a decade the glacier will again vanish a bit more this summer. If you wait another year, you will be another year older and the glacier will be another year smaller. I will never forget my week ski touring in the Alps. The ski lines are many and the hundreds we were not able to track up will haunt me until the next time.