Ski Mountaineering

La Vallée Blanche

April 21, 2000

Reiner Stenzel (Private Trip)

La Vallée Blanche is the premier off-piste skiing tour of the European Alps. It is located East of the Mt. Blanc (4807m or 15,863'), starts at the Aiguille du Midi (3842m), and leads after a 24 km ski descent over glaciated valleys down into Chamonix, France (1030m). Last year, after skiing the Haute Route, we could not do it because of a major storm. This year, I attended a conference in Torino, Italy, was free for a few days afterwards, and was lucky to do it. And luck was necessary, since it had rained for 3 days in a row, and skiing seemed impossible. On Wednesday, 4/19/00, my brother Juergen from Germany picked me up and we drove through the beautiful Aosta Valley to Courmayeur south of Monte Bianco. In order to warm up on rented randonnee gear (I had left my teles at home) we skied Thursday on the slopes of Courmayeur (Col Checrouit). High pressure weather had moved in and it was superb spring snow skiing.

The plan for the next day was clear: Skiing the Vallee Blanche. But easier said than done. It was late in the ski season, no guided tours were available, and private transportation back from France to Italy proved exuberantly expensive. The only chance was to do it as a private trip, i.e., a loop from Courmayeur (Italy) to Chamonix (France) and back in a day which includes a ski ascent between Aiguille du Midi and Punta Helbronner where the Mt Blanc lift does not operate in the winter. Timing was critical since we had to be back at Punta Helbronner by 4:30pm to catch the last tram down to Courmayeur. It was a daring plan, and Juergen was very reluctant since the trip description called for a guide, groups of at least 4 persons, avalanche beacons, and no touring in the afternoons. After talking it over with some locals and guides alpines, it became a plan of calculated risks which cost me a few hours of sleep. But that's part of ski mountaineering.

On Friday, 4/22/00, we took the first (8:30am) tram of the Funivie Monte Bianco at La Palud. It took us in 3 stages in less than 30 min from the valley floor (1370m) to Punta Helbronner (3462m), the border between Italy and France. The ride goes up spectacularly steep slopes with plenty of avalanche signatures (slabs and wet snow) and brought us into the high country of glaciers and rugged peaks, called aiguilles, aretes, puntas, dentas, etc. The tram operator left us with a "buon viaggio" and there we stood alone on the Glacier del Gigante to find our way down. But the weather was on our side: Nothing but sunshine, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky, a rare exception for fickle April weather in the Alps. We even could see the summit of Mont Blanc. We followed the numerous ski tracks which lead parallel to the (nonoperating) Mt Blanc lift and tunnel. The snow was hard in the tracks and powder elsewhere but we left the inviting powder alone due to potential crevasses below it. After passing the Col du Gros Rognon we started our descent down the Vallee Blanche, a wonderful wide valley with great surroundings.

From the French side (Aiguille du Midi) more skiers were arriving which added a sense of security. The ski tracks coalesced into a narrow passage near the Serac du Geant, the spectacular icefalls of the glacier of the Giant, Northwest of the 4000+m Dente del Gigante. There is a hut (Refuge de Requin, 2516m), perched on a rock outcrop above the glacier, but we bypassed it due to time constraints.

After some exciting skiing down a natural mogul field we arrived on the Glacier du Tacul, located between the Aiguille du Tacul (3444m) and the Dent du Requin (3422m). Now it was easier cruising down a smooth, gentle glacier bed. After a few km other big glaciers (Talefre, Leschaux) joined in from the East which came down from the Groupe des Jorasses and the Aiguille de Triolet at the end of the Argentiere glacier. We spotted a group of roped climbers as they made their way up across the glacier to a peak climb. The scenery of rugged mountains and glaciers was spectacular, but peace was occasionally spoiled by helicopters transporting material to the huts.

The glacier du Tacul and the glacier de Leschaux join into the Mer de Glace where the ice flows down into the valley of the Arve between Argentiere and Chamonix. We encountered another exciting traverse through an icefall below the impressive Aiguille du Dru just East of the Aig. Verte (4122m). In late April, due to the rising snow line, it is not possible to ski down into the Arve valley. The tour ends at Montenvers (1913m) where a short lift and a train brought us down into the town of Chamonix-Le Blanc. Now it was 1pm. We walked about 1 km from the train station to the Telepherique de l'Aiguille du Midi, purchased one-way tickets and got a 9000+ft lift in about 30 min. That's high-tech skiing in the Alps. Like the other tourists on the Aiguille du Midi we enjoyed the views of the Mt Blanc and the panorama of the Alps. In the distance the Matterhorn was visible, a reminder of last year's Haute Route.

After lunch we realized we had to be back in Italy in 2 hours. Precarious stairs led down from the Aiguille to a small plateau from where one can ski into the upper Vallee Blanche. For another 30 min we enjoyed downhill skiing on spring snow. Then, Northeast of Mt Blanc du Tacul, we put on skins and ascended several km to Punta Helbronner. We arrived just before 4pm and got the next to last tram down. Everything worked out fine but had we lost half an hour we could not have completed the loop. In the afternoon clouds covered again the summit of Mt Blanc and a ring around the sun indicated a change in weather. We were extremely fortunate. Our successful adventure in the haute montagnes was appropriately celebrated with a fondue dinner in town.

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