The idea of this years trip was a bit different to last years trip, we wanted to try and explore some of the big, wild skiing that Chamonix and the Aiguille du Midi had to offer.
We arrived late on Saturday afternoon after lots of umming and arring we finally decided to book an apartment as opposed to living in the van for 2 weeks! We got to the apartment early evening, dropped our stuff made some dinner and went to bed. We weren’t planning to rush out skiing on the Sunday as we wanted to work out exactly where and what we were going to do.
Sunday came round, we walked around town, did some shopping, had a nice lunch and worked out and packed for our adventures starting on Monday morning. The plan was to head up the Aiguille du Midi cable car, ski tour towards the Col d’Entreves and then ski back down the Vallee Blanche to the Montenvers train station and get the train back to Chamonix.
Monday morning arrived, we were up early to make breakfast and prepare the last bits of kit for the days outing. We were out of the apartment and heading to the Midi at 8.45am, both of us were a fraction nervous but combined with the feeling of excitement, neither of us had been in this sort of terrain before with all the added kit we had to lug up there with us it was going to make for an interesting day.
There is much hype surrounding the midi, and not for no reason. It drops you off in some of the craziest terrain in the alps, where it would be all too easy to be lost forever in the maze of glaciers and peaks, a place that even photos can’t do it justice.
In the queue the nervousness turned to excitement and then as we were heading up over the north face of the Midi, which towers menacingly over Chamonix, the excitement turned to nerves, big time nerves, wondering what the hell we were thinking!
At the top of the midi, we looked around took some photos and then wanted to get on with the skiing. The safety rope, that allows you to safely get down the arete, had been taken down, which meant as soon as you were out the gate, the only think to stop you falling 1000m down the north face, which is amount 1 meter away from you, is your own skills. So we opted for the ‘belt and braces’ approach, we put crampons on, roped up together, axes in hand, we set of down the knife edge ridge.
It was such a surreal feeling, I have dreamt of walking down here and skiing in this range for years, and I was finally here!
After a steady walk down, we got to the shoulder ready to clip into skis. After a quick map and route check, we were ready to set off. Skiing down the Glacier du Geant was amazing, we were at 3842m meters getting ready to ski, it was 10am on Monday 11th May, if anything reminds you why we do seasonal work, this is it!
The snow was fantastic, compact but soft spring snow, the surrounding terrain was mind blowing, with the huge faces and ski lines towering above, terrain that I can only dream of climbing and skiing, for now anyway.
We got to the area to put skins on, the guidebook mentioned to be aware of the hanging serac above when putting skins on and believe it or not, it was correct. A huge hanging serac was looming over us, we kept out of the line of fire while we changed to touring mode and roped up as the next sections we had to weave through crevasses and seracs, which meant for interesting route finding!
We got through the maze of crevasses and seracs and headed straight up to the col, situated next to the Tour Ronde, a famous peak siting at the top of the Vallee Blanche, it has some amazing routes on it. We watched as a team was climbing the north face, which as well as being 50-55 degress at the top, also has an ice fall in the middle of it, which makes it an interesting face.
We made it to the col, around 30 mins longer than the guide book suggested, slow and sterady got us there in the end. It gave us incredible views of the east face of Mont Blanc. With the crazy hanging seracs pouring down the face, the scenery really was mind blowing. The other way we could see along the Italian border, up to the Dent du Geant and Grandes Jorasses and then low down in the valley we could see Courmayeur around 2000m below. It really was an incredible place to be.
After a spot of lunch we left the col, which sits at 3527m, at 2pm heading down the Vallee Blanche towards the Montenvers train station situated at 1913m. We were both looking forward to the long ski ahead, after all this is what we had come to Chamonix to do.
As before, the snow was great, soft spring snow for the first 1000m vertical of skiing, before it started to get a bit heavier, we then got to the Seracs du Geant, and area that made us nervous even just reading about it in the guidebook. We had hanging seracs above us from the Glacier d’Envers du Plan and crevases to negotiate, although there are tracks, it still doesn’t make you feel any safer. Especially as we spent a lot of time crossing serac debris and avalanche debris from slides and collapses the days before.
We finally got off the main bit of the glacier and towards the moraine, still covered in crevasses and glaicers hanging above us. It was time for skis on our bags, and time to start walking. We knew it was a fair walk, but we had to start walking much earlier than we thought, with the terrain under foot and weight of our kit, it was slow going.
We were planning to walk to the ice caves, get the bubble up and then be at the train station, to get the train back to Chamonix town centre, we finally saw the lift and it still seemed miles away, but step by step it got a bit closer. The last 500m were treacherous, the boulders were difficult to pass, even in trianers and sports clothes it would have been difficult, let alone in ski boots, with big ski bags and skis on our backs. As we got closer to the lift, I realised that it wasn’t moving, and then quickly worked out that it wasn’t open. It was a bit of a blow, it meant we had to walk up from the glacier to the train station about 300m vertical above, which does sound much, but when you have already been walking for 2 hours it adds on that extra bit that you really don’t need, and it was certainly the last thing Becky wanted to hear, as big blisters had developed on both of her feet.
We finally made it up to the train station at 5.30pm and were the hit with some much worse news, we had missed the last train. There was no other way home, we had no choice, we had to walk down from the train station back to Chamonix town. We had a couple of cereal bars, no water and we knew it was going to be about 3 hours until we were back home. We planned the days route meticulously and just assumed when we were back at the train station we were done, but unfortunately failed to check when the last train departed, a big lesson learnt!
We sat down, ate the last bits of food to get some energy, re-organised the kit to spread the weight evenly, somehow I ended up with what felt about 40kg of kit, while Becky had 5kg, but apparently that was fair, so I got on with it.
We finally set off from the train station at 6.30pm, after a long, tiring and some what painful walk back, we got finally arrived back at the apartment at 9.45pm after quickly picking up a kebab from the takeaway.
After a 13 hour day on our feet and in ski boots, its fair to say that we were a bit stiff for a few days afterwards. What a first day skiing in Chamonix, one that neither of us will ever forget!
In the down time between skiing, we enjoyed some drives around the valley, walks, small bits of climbing and an evenings BBQ.
Some how, despite the aches and pains, we were desperate to get back up and ski some more, we had to wait a while for Beckys blisters to semi-heal, the weather also changed drastically, we had snow in the town and temperatures plummeted 20c in over night. So we enjoyed a few days relaxing around the town and waited for the next weather window.
We wanted to incorporate a night in a mountain refuge into the next ski which would mean 2 days up high in the mountains, with most huts being unguarded, it would mean we would have to take food and extra supplies that would be a lot of extra weight to carry, so we quickly decided to stay in a hut that was guarded, which meant we would have meals cooked for us and all the sleeping stuff there that we would need.
Scouring the maps, we decided to stay at the Torino refuge, which is actually located just inside the Italian boarder and sits over 2000m above Courmayeur and the Aosta valley. We phoned up the night before and booked ourselves into, it would be rather annoying to get there and it to be full, it turns out it was empty anyway.
We headed for the Midi at 9.30am knowing that we should be in the refuge by mid-afternoon, the second time down the Midi arete didn’t make it any more comfortable, it was still a nerving experience. We skied to the same spot as previously to put skins off and then we would head off towards the refuge. Just as we got to the area to put the skins on, we heard a loud rumbling, knowing what was above us, we both quickly looked up, we could see what at first looked like an avalanche or serac fall coming down above us, we then quickly both spotted that there were skiers high on the face above and it was just the sluff that they were creating rolling of the end of the glacier and down the serac. It still wasn’t comfortable hearing the rumbling, we repositioned ourselves as best we could to try and get out the path if anything bigger came down, we quickly got kitted up and then got the hell out of there!
The week after we got back I found the photo above, it shows the area where we had stopped to put our skins on, the serac that loomed above us had collapsed and wiped out the area where we had stopped to put our skins on, for us, a strong reminder that there are somethings that are way out of your control and being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be catastrophic.
We headed through the maze of seracs and crevasses and made our way up to the refuge, it was a short and pleasant tour, with the sun beating down on us it was seriously sweaty work. Around two hours later we were at the refuge, ordered a beer and sat on the terrace in the sun for the rest of the afternoon, perfect.
That was us done for the rest of the afternoon, it took all afternoon to take in the scenery, and I still don’t think it was enough. We were perched at 3371m and could see all the way down to Courmayeur at 1224m and the summit of Mont Blanc at 4810m, I have never been anywhere where you can see that much vertical, it is seriously impressive, the towering east face of Mont Blanc is mesmerising, and to work out where at the ski lines around the area are unbelievable when you realise how steep it is.
That night we ate in the refuge, a lovely 3 course dinner was included in the stay, cooked by the crazy Italian chef who talked to his cat, Pippo, like he was his brother. All we heard most of the afternoon was him shouting ‘Hey Pippo!’.
It wasn’t an early start, certainly not as alpine starts go, but we heading down for some breakfast, got sorted and headed out, we were back on the mountain for 8.30am. The plan was to head down to the Montenvers train station and hopefully this time actually catch the train back to town.
We walked out of the refuge, the sun was already high in the sky, we were the only people there, it was amazing to think that there were probably on a handful of people exploring in the valley at the same time as us. We decided to scramble up a small peak called the Petit Flambeau, it was only a short 20minute scramble up a ridge, but the extra vertical meters, gave us the most spectacular view of the valley, a complete 360 degree view of the valley and the amazing peaks that surround it.
The clouds suddenly started coming in, so we quickly got going, clipped into our skis and set off, fortunately they soon disappeared. The snow at the top was soft spring snow, but unfortunately, due to the orientation of the main slopes it hadn’t been in the sun long enough, so we ended up skiing on rock hard compact ice, a fall would not have been deadly but with it being so hard you would have easily slid 500m down the slope to the plateau at the bottom.
We rejoined the section of the Vallee Blanche that we had skied the previous trip, what amazed me was how quickly the glaciers can change, a crevasse that was only a few inches wide the other day, had turned into bottomless pit with just enough snow coverage to get across. As we were constantly trying to keep our speed, it often wasn’t until the last moment that we would see the size of the crevasse we were trying to cross and even then, it was only when we watch the footage back we realised how lucky we wherein a couple of occasions, a fall into one of these and you would be 30/40 meters down right in the belly of the glacier. All we could think about when watching the footage back was the film Touching The Void, where Joe Simpson crawled through a glacier for days to escape!
Anyway, we made it to the end of glacier and into the awful moraine again, but this time, as opposed to walk to the bubble lift that was closed we decided to take the ladders which accesses a footpath, leaving a short walk back to the train station, meaning it saves walking up the 400+ steps.
If someone asked me to climb some ladders, the last bit of kit I would wear would be ski boots and ski clothing, let alone carry a big rucksack and have skis on my back, but there was no other way. We decided to try and do it as safely as possible, we used the little clips that run next to the ladders and clipped a rope in as we went, which effectively meant we were belaying each other up. But after having to do this 3 times up 100 meters of ladders, we got impatient and thought it would be quicker to just climb the rest of them solo, only in Chamonix would you have this sort of thing!
We finally made it, the train station was open and the trains were still running! We couldn’t have been happier, after a quick cold drink, we hopped on the train and enjoyed the 20 or so minute train ride back to town, much more appealing compared to the 3 hour walk! We made it to our favourite snack bar, Elevation 1902, and enjoyed a delicious lunch and a beer. Crazy to think that while we were sitting in the 25c heat with blue skis and sun, just a few hours ago we were at over 3000m enjoying the skiing, again only in Chamonix!
What a trip it had been, something that I had dreamt of doing for years and that we both had our eyes on since our last trip a year ago. Chamonix is such an incredible place, somewhere that I am sure I will visit for years to come, this town really does have it all and with enough ski and climbing lines to last a lifetime. It is a very down to earth place where some incredible athletes really push the boundaries, we couldn’t have done anything more basic, but we were happy with that, we had been self sufficient in an environment that can catch people out, even the best sometimes don’t make it home.
We are both looking forward to and already planning our next trip, until next time………..
We made a short edit of our trip, click the image below to watch.