L'Esprit de Chamonix

La Vallie Blanche
  |  Gorp.com

To combat impending arteriosclerosis, Anne and I decided to ride Chamonix's most famous run: Vallie, a 13-mile-long glacier trail that meanders through the granite minarets and chaotic serac fields directly beneath Mont Blanc. According to a man we spoke with, hiring a guide for the Vallie Blanche is highly recommended. The Vallie, he told us, is a standard run only in French terms. As many as 20 people per year perish while exploring it, primarily from crevasse falls."C'est fini," said the man, running a finger across his neck. But hiring a Chamonix guide, we learned, costs about the same as buying a new snowboard. After much debate, Anne and I elected to save our money. We'd trust our own mountain savvy.

We awoke at six a.m. to secure a spot on a mid-morning Aguille du Midi tram. (Space on this lift, which runs once every 10 minutes, is reserved like seats on a train.) The Aguille du Midi tram is one of the world's most extraordinary lifts. In true Chamonix style, the tram seems to thumb its nose at every time-honored rule of engineering. The thing rises 9,209 feet — that's practically two vertical miles — from the valley floor, above the Glacier des Rilerins, to a cloudlike perch, coated in rime, that drops off in rugged cliffs in all directions. Mont Blanc is so close you can taste the icy wind blowing off its summit.

Our fellow tram-riders looked as if they were en route to Everest. Their packs bulged with crampons, harnesses, ice screws, ropes, and all manner of heavy-duty mountaineering equipment. They all said they were headed to the Vallie Blanche. My altimeter cruised up like a second hand. Anne and I began to feel uneasy.

At the top, we walked through a 200-foot-long ice tunnel and emerged on a precarious ridge lined on each side with a rope handrail. Both edges fell away to infinity. One slip beneath either handrail, and c'est fini. Those with ropes and harnesses roped up. We grasped the handrails in death grips and descended one steady step at a time to the flat col that marked the start of the Vallie Blanche.

From there it was easy. We followed the crowds around the pedestal of Mont Blanc, then meandered gingerly around a crevasse field on Glacier du Giant, and finally headed down the long, wide straightaway of la Mer de Glace — the Sea of Ice. It was a pristine high-alpine day. The sky was blindingly blue, reflecting off the glaciers. I squinted behind my sunglasses. Sun-baked rocks warmed the snow around them and triggered small avalanches, which cascaded down the nearby cliffs in exciting thunder-bursts. We stripped to our T-shirts, applied 30 SPF sunscreen, and at the base of the crevasse field we sat on my snowboard and ate the goat cheese and baguettes we'd brought along, joined by two greedy blackbirds. It was the perfect spot for a date.

For the last stretch, down la Mer de Glace, I unpacked my telescoping poles and pushed myself along the flats until my thighs shook with pain. The run ended at a solitary railroad station at the foot of the dramatic Aguille du Dru — a colossal shark's tooth of steel-colored granite. An old two-car train returned us to town.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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