A Change of Scenery: Part 2
The thing about posting a part one to something before you’ve written part two is that inevitably something else is going to happen in the interim and mess up the chronological order of your blog. With that in mind, please ignore the date on this post and if you haven’t already, check out part one over here.
After saying our goodbyes to Spain, we grabbed a cheap flight out of Malaga, followed by an expensiveish bus from Geneva to Chamonix. Once there, we pretty much burned 24 hours doing laundry, getting our bearings and, at least in my case becoming completely overwhelmed by the place. Between the astounding mountain infrastructure and the sheer volume of things to do, there is enough to make any first timer’s head spin. We were no different.
Finally, after much staring upwards from the valley bottom, we found a ski tour that both seemed straightforward and didn’t require buying a lift ticket. In true Canadian style, we bushwhacked up to the snow line on L’Aiguillette des Posettes near Le Tour. Due to the extremely warm snowpack, we got a little more euro on the way down and cruised some sloppy groomers.
Once we had a little bit of skiing under our belts, things felt like they were coming together. It’s amazing the difference a few turns can make, no matter what the situation. The following day we decided we were now willing to pay for a lift ticket, so we threw down for a pair of 4 hour passes. This allowed us time to ski our way across the massive Brevent-Flegere ski area before finishing with a bit of a tour. At least that was the hope. The reality was that by the time we got to the edge of Flegere, the weather had socked in hard. Visibility was zero and the sun was absolutely nuking the snow through the fog, so only a few hundred meters into our walk, we called it, retreating back into the valley to eat pastries instead.
The morning revealed that the previous day’s lift access had done a number on India’s back, so we spent a few hours doing some mellow hiking in the valley. Later I ran the excellent vertical kilometer trail up to the Brevant ski area while India went to find a physiotherapist. The trail is two thirds despicable switchbacks, one third extremely easy via ferrata, ends at a bar and has a free gondola ride back down. I loved it. The folks at Kicking Horse who decided to ban hiking or running up the hill in the summer could take some notes.
That trail under the Planpraz gondola gives an incredible view across the valley towards Mt. Blanc and the Aguille du Midi, and both India and I were itching to get up there. I don’t know of any serious skier who doesn’t look to the Aguille with a certain reverence. We were lucky enough to be in the second bin of the day, which had us up to 3800m just in time to watch the last of the sunrise. Between the incredible view and all the ridiculous ski lines that surrounded us, we must have spent a good 20 minutes just staring at things.
After a ski into the Vallee Blanche, we climbed up a ways towards Col Freshfield, next to the Tour Rond, and followed a short bootpack, conveniently equipped with a rope (we are talking about Cham after all) to the top of a beautiful line into Italy. The snow on the solar face was still a little crunchy at the top, but with the power of the sun and the long vertical relief below we knew the lower slopes were already cooking. At 45+ degrees and with a little exposure, a few thoughtful turns were made before the snow turned to corn and we cruised over the pocket glacier and down to the mid station of the Helbronner cable car.
We could tell we were indeed in Italy when the operator took our fancy RFID cards, photocopied them, gave us new, scannable Helbronner cards which didn’t work and then just opened the gate himself. Nobody else got on, so we rode up in the rotating glass cabin on our own, marvelling at the south side of the massif, which is it least as spectacular as the north. From the top, we cruised over to a little nunataq we had passed earlier and climbed its north face in search of cold snow. About halfway up though, a river of sluff rolled down next to us and we decided it was time to go.
After a few steep powder turns, we enjoyed a long, classic descent of the Vallee Blanche via the trade route. At the same time, we tried our best to ignore the number of people on slalom skis with zero gear on their harnesses using sagging crevasses as jumps. That’s certainly not something we see at home.
Eventually, we waded through a horde of people at the toe of the glacier, wedged ourselves into the crowded Montenvers train and returned to town, elated to have spent such an incredible day exploring an area we had long dreamed about. Personally, I’ve never experienced anything like the access provided by the lifts, trains and buses throughout the valley, nor the sheer volume of steep skiing options in such a relatively confined area. I love the adventure of involved approaches to remote terrain probably more than is healthy, but there is something pretty amazing about skipping straight to the technical parts. I can’t imagine a better way to build skill in the alpine.
The whole goal behind this leg of the trip was to get the lay of the land in Chamonix, and I feel we did that and more. I can’t wait to go back, hopefully soon, and sink my teeth into some of the area’s bigger lines.