The jagged, raw edges of the Alps have called to my mountain heart for years. Moving to London in March of 2017, I knew I had to make a trip to Chamonix before the snow melted. My addiction to French culture, food, and language made the trip higher on my list.
I’m definitely new to backcountry skiing, especially if you look at the residents living near and around Chamonix, and wanted to ski tour away from the ski resorts during my visit. It might have been cliché to choose the Vallée Blanche, but it was my first introduction to the local ski culture.
As a tourist, it can be hard to plan outdoor adventures, know the snowpack, and have confidence to navigate glaciers. With little ski experience in Europe, a mutual friend recommended IFMGA/UIAGM certified guide, Caroline Ware George, to ski the famous off-piste (or not groomed) the Vallée Blanche. Caroline is a guide for Into the Mountains and is a local who recommended an alternate to the normal Vallée Blanche route, we were sold.
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Top of Aiguille du Midi to bottom of SkyWay Monte Bianco
- Distance: Approx. 5 miles (8 kilometers)
- Ascent: 1054 feet (321 meters)
- Descent: 6258 feet (1907 meters)
Top of SkyWay Monte Bianco to bottom of Mer de Glace
- Distance: Approx. 6.5 miles (10 kilometers)
- Descent: 5167 feet (1574 meters)
Alternate Vallée Blanche route description
Step 1: Ride the Aiguille du Midi cable car.
Andy and I met Caroline at the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi cable cars. She made a reservation for a place in line to ride. The cable car can get busy and the queues can be long if you don’t have a reservation.
Packed into the cable car with other skiers, we rode through the mid station and eventually made it to the top. After using the toilets at the top, it was time to put on harnesses, crampons, and attach skis to our packs for the short walk down to the snowfield.
Pro tip: Don’t plan on exploring the Aiguille du Midi station if you opt for a guided tour. It takes time to really experience the venue and location. Since we bought the unlimited pass, we were able to go up the day before to orient ourselves and save time.
Step 2: Descent to snowfield.
Photo by Caroline Ware George
From the Aiguille du Midi, exit via the ice tunnel to gain access to the Arête de l’Aiguille du Midi. The ice tunnel forms from moisture and freezes during the winter’s cold temperatures. With packs in our hands to keep the ski tips from scraping the ice, we exited the tunnel to begin the walk down the steep, direct line to the snowfield to avoid the crowded and more gradual path.
Photo by Caroline Ware George
Step 3: Transition to ski mode.
It’s time to ski! We removed the spiked crampons from our boots and took skis off our packs as we got ready to make a ski traverse downhill before we’d be transitioning to uphill travel (or skin) mode.
Step 4: Transition to tour and skin to Italy.
Photo by Caroline Ware George
Passing the massive vertical rock faces of the Alps, the skins on the bottom of our skis gain upward traction on the snow. From here, we’d climb up to the France/Italy border. Other groups played on the untracked snow around the area making me excited for my ski turns. The weather was a perfect spring day and the snow was softening up with warm temperatures.
Step 5: Access to Toula Glacier.
As the route met the Italian border, we arrived at metal stairs. After stepping out of skis and carrying them, it was time to enter Italy-no border patrol here. The stairs became a bottleneck to the route, so we waited in line and strapped our skis onto our packs to downclimb the last section on a ladder to the glacier where other groups were putting on their skis to descend the Toula Glacier.
Step 6: Ski Toula Glacier.
Being able to see the SkyWay Monte Bianco from the top, it was an easy navigation path to the base of the cable car. The SkyWay Monte Bianco is a unique gondola of sorts and was in a scene from “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”
The spring conditions had me smiling ear-to-ear and yipping down the slopes as my quad burned from lack of skiing the past month.
Step 7: Ride SkyWay Monte Bianco cable car.
Discounted tickets can be purchased in advance if you bring a printed confirmation of the Mont Blanc Unlimited pass. As other guided groups also joined us at the cable car, the lift situation was a bit confusing but was sorted out in the end with patience. Here’s where a guide that speaks five languages comes in handy.
Everyone gets the same view while riding the SkyWay cable car as it slowly spins around throughout the ride. The snow covered mountains and sharp exposed rock was perfect scenery for its location.
Step 8: Have a snack or coffee at the Bistrot des Glaciers.
Photo by Caroline Ware George
After riding the cable car, it was time for another restroom break and snack. Even though we had packed our own snacks for the day, Caroline ordered lardo on bread, which she offered a bite to Andy and me. I honestly don’t like fatty parts of meats but found the lard to be very buttery and greasy. Not my favorite, but I’m glad I sampled a piece. After a delicious Italian coffee, we were warm and ready to enter back into France to ski.
Step 10: Ski the Vallée Blanche.
Now, it’s time for a long ski descent down the Mer de Glace (France’s largest glacier) starting from Punta Helbronner. Similar to other backcountry conditions, sections varied based on the slope and aspect. There were patches of breakable crust and soft spring corn. The lower we descended, the softer and more enjoyable the snow was to ski.
This alternate route doesn’t pass the Café Requin Refuge, which the standard route does. Though we did see it in the distance with others skiing the section, which gets moguls from the high volume of skiers and lack of new snowfall.
Step 11: Exit the Mer de Glace.
We skied until we couldn’t ski anymore. The snow became brown slush intermixed with rocks turning into a moraine field. Since it was late in the season, the Mer de Glace had ended as it recedes up the valley. Here, it’s time to strap the skis back onto the packs and make our way to the train.
Step 12: Ride the Train du Montenvers-Mer de Glace.
Plastic boots on metal stairs isn’t the quietest of sounds. As all the skiers ended the day by climbing once again to board the train. Caroline took us on a detour around part of the stairs to avoid losing more elevation. We scrambled on wet rocks in our boots hoping not to slip and fall with the weight of the skis chopping at our backs.
In European fashion, you push and shove to get as close to the front of the line during the stair climb as possible. Caroline took care of securing the train tickets. The skiers with all the gear squeeze into the train as best as possible.
The train began bringing tourists to the valley in 1908 and still feels as old with its slow chug down the steep mountainside as its brakes screech to keep the speed low and in control. The train is probably one of the best ones I’ve ridden on to date as I was perplexed on the engineering that went behind building such a route. The train runs on a single track with one passing section to allow trains to descend, and the trains now operate on electric energy but were originally pulled by steam locomotives.
Step 13: Arrival to Chamonix.
It was time to saw au revoir to Caroline as we returned the borrowed gear and received her recommendation of where to celebrate the ski day.
Step 14: Apres ski
The word apres in French and means “after.” When in France, we celebrated memorable day of skiing with drinks.
Trip date: April 8, 2017
Know before you go
Getting around: Public bus and walking
Best time of year: January – May depending on the snow pack
Our guide: Caroline Ware George
1. Hire a Guide – Especially if you’re hiring a local guide, they will pick up what you don’t know like reserving a time to go up the cable car to planning the best route.
2. Buy your cable car passes before you go. I bought the Mont Blanc Unlimited 5-day pass that included Aiguille du Midi and the top of Grand Montets for some glacier and off-piste skiing options. The pass also allowed us to decide which resort we wanted to ski based on conditions and terrain.
- Skis – while I did see skiers on downhill-only skis, the best option is to bring a touring setup (or ones that allow you to go uphill and downhill).
- Ski poles – use adjustable ski poles that can be packed down and strapped to your pack.
- Skins – use skins if you plan on gaining elevation higher than the lift.
- Beacons – a device that transmits and receives radio transceivers which are used to help find people buried under snow.
- Probe – used to poke through avalanche debris to find a buried victim.
- Snow shovel – used for building snow shelters, digging snow pits to analyze the stability of the snow, or recovering buried victims after an avalanche.
- Rope – used for tying to climbing partners on harnesses when crossing difficult terrain, such as glaciers with crevasses and snow bridges.
- Harness – used to rope-up to glacier team in case someone falls into a glacier. Other rope mates may be able to save the fallen climber if attached.
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