Chamonix: Winter's Natural Home
The Holy Grail of big backcountry descents, the Vallee Blanche sits at the top of a skier's lifelong list for good reason. This classic route runs for a whopping 12.5 miles through the heart of the Mont Blanc massif into a towering world of ragged peaks, tumbling glaciers, and panoramas so breathtakingly immense that the ski experience itself can be easily humbled by the beauty.
Though there are less complicated ways to work down the glaciers that wrap around famous summits such as the Grand Capucin, the Tour Ronde, and the Dent du Géant, the Vallee Blanche is still no place for beginners. This is big-mountain adventuring and avalanches, crevasses, and variable snow are all part of the mix. Hiring a guide is an absolute must unless you're extremely skilled at route-finding and have all the necessary mountaineering equipment and the know-how to use it. But if you're a solid intermediate skier, this is one of the most approachable big mountain descents on the planetbe prepared for the most spectacular run of your life.
The big day starts with a tram ride up the Aiguille du Midi where you'll step into harnesses and rope up for a hike down a steep and exposed ridgeline off the summit of the needle. For many, that is the spookiest part of the whole trip. Once you're off the ridge you can click into your skis and let the real fun begin.
The Vallee Blanche isn't one route but several. The easiest descent, called "La Vraie," or the "True Route," follows gentle slopes past seracs and around crevasses. Expert skiers will yearn for something steeper—and thus there's the Grand Envers, the most committing route with slopes up to 45 degrees that spill into crevasses, meaning you can't let crusty snow knock you down. The Gros Rognon is a good compromise as it basically follows the true route with a few variations to hit untracked powder. With any route, good weather and visibility are musts.
The whole trip takes the entire morning and can last into early afternoon, as rushing through such a gorgeous spot seems blasphemous. You'll eventually work your way down to the gentler aspects of the Mer de Glace, a sprawling glacier where you can zip along at a comfortable pace without making turns, giving you time to look around as the wind whips around your goggles. On good snow years you can ski all the way back into town. Late in the season you'll have to hop a train to get back. Either way, count on more jaw-dropping scenery along the way.
American Michael Silitch is an internationally certified UIAGM guide who lives in Chamonix and provides professional guiding services down the Vallee Blanche as well as numerous other classic descents. Contact him through www.high-alpine.com or in France at +33.689.48.4118.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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