Day 4 didn’t warrant a post on it’s own, heavy snowfalls, high winds and poor visibility were the order of the day. Temperatures had warmed in Italy so that wasn’t an option so we headed to Grands Montets for a day of resort powder skiing with the hordes. I don’t think anyone in the group took a photo. We had a couple of nice runs but spent the day in anticipation of the weather clearing and the prospect of heading up the Aiguille du Midi the following day.
And fortunately the weather co-operated – we woke to clear skies and not much wind aloft, but a forecast of a foehn wind coming from the Italian side in the afternoon. So we arrived at the tram station bright & early but after some classic French miscommunication by the lift company ended up on the 4th tram instead of the first. When we saw Glen Plake in the line we knew we were in the right place.
We rode the two cable cars and within a matter of minutes we were up at 3810m at the top of the tram, which is as much a space station as a ski lift. A few snaps were taken on the bridge, but then it was time to don crampons and rope up for the arete.
The famous arete is perhaps the most nerve-wracking section of the Vallee Blanche, it’s an exposed ridge that you need to walk down, with significant drops on either side. However it is expertly roped by the lift staff and with soft snow, expert guides and the right equipment it’s not as death-defying as it might seem. We split into two groups to walk the arete and everybody completed it with aplomb. When we reached flat ground it was time to remove crampons etc, a lot more happy snaps and get in to ski mode.
We split into two groups for the descent, one group took the classic Vallee Blanche itinerary and the others went on the Moyen Envers variation which is a little steeper and more technical.
As over a metre of new snow had fallen during the storm the skiing was excellent – after the first pitch in blower powder we decided to get the drone out to film some skiing – unfortunately it was actually windier lower down so we weren’t able to use it again.
The Moyen Envers twists and turns its way down the glacier and we descended in perfect snow marvelling at the amazing glacial serac formations.
The Moyen Envers group rejoined the classic route and met up with the other group down on the flats of the Mer de Glace. Once you reach the Mer de Glace it is a long flat descent where you can relax a little and marvel at the scenery towering above. The forecasted foehn wind was definitely blowing down from the Italian side and led to an unusual situation where it was colder lower down than higher up.
After a few kilometres it was time to decide how to get back to Chamonix. Typically there are two options, you can ski down to the tongue of the glacier, make a short walk up the moraine wall then ski the ‘James Bond’ track to Chamonix – however this being a low snow year we thought that this might not be the best idea. The alternative is to climb up a set of steps that are bolted to the moraine wall, with another set or two being added each year as the glacier sadly recedes, until you reach a small lift that brings you up to the Montenvers train. However on this day the lift was not running so it was a pretty hefty walk all the way up to Montenvers, somewhere between 3-400m vertical we estimated. But we all made it up with a minimum of fuss and rode the train down to town for the obligatory end of day beer.
It’s a pretty substantial day for somebody who has never experienced it before and can be quite emotionally draining, as there are usually quite a lot of nerves leading up to it, and our crew did exceptionally well and completed the day without incident. A great achievement.