Forget cramponing down a death defying ridge before leaping over gaping crevasses – the Vallee Blanche is not what you might imagine. That said, it’s no pushover either; Charlie Boscoe uncovers the myths.
Let’s put the top ten Vallee Blanche myths right.
1. You can just follow the tracks
Afraid not. for a start, the Vallee Blanche (VB) is best when there are no tracks but the main problem with just following others is that you don’t know who they are or where they’re going. Given that nothing below 50 degrees is considered steep in Chamonix, it’s not the place to be blindly following others. However, even worse than following a steep skiing expert, you might be following someone who doesn’t know the way either. If you haven’t got experience of route finding on your skis through glaciated terrain, take a guide – they’ll take much of the stress away and find the best snow around.
2. You have to climb down an exposed ridge
True to an extent, but the experience of descending the infamous Aiguille du Midi snow ridge is much easier in winter than in summer. In winter the lift company dig out the ridge to make it easier to walk on, and install tug-o-war style thick ropes to grip on to. Guided parties are roped up too so it’s pretty steady all round. Provided you haven’t got chronic vertigo, you even stand a chance of enjoying it!
3. It’s crowded
Yes and no (there’s a politicians answer for you!) The cable car and the snow ridge can be crowded, but after that there is an endless selection of routes and detours so it’s normally easy to get away from it all. Some sections do become mogulled where the various routes converge but generally you can find solitude and fresh snow without too much effort.
4. If you can ski blue runs you’ll be fine
In theory you can find a way down the VB that shouldn’t involve terrain much steeper than a blue run but in practice it isn’t that simple. A blue run in a ski resort is prepared for you and nicely smoothed over. On the VB the snow can vary hugely, and the presence of crevasses mean that you will need to stop and turn quickly. If you can ski red runs in complete control and have some off piste experience, you should be fine.
5. It’s just like skiing off piste in a resort
Nope. The skiing on the Vallee Blanche “normal” routes is usually quite straightforward but to compare it to skiing in a resort is to miss the point. I’m sure all of us could walk along a foot wide path without batting en eyelid, but if you put that path at the top of a ridge, with big drops on either side, it would suddenly feel completely different. The VB isn’t that extreme but it’s a wild place with crevasses and seracs and no signs or piste markers in sight. It might not be logical, but the human mind and our ability to perform is affected by our surroundings, so don’t expect it to feel like nipping off the side of the piste.
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6. Snowboarders can’t do it
False. Plenty of people snowboard the VB – they just have to work a bit harder than the skiers. There are some sections low down that are relatively flat so while a skier can gently pole along with ease, snowboarders find it a bit trickier. All that’s needed is a collapsible trekking pole and the willingness to put your back into it for a few minutes here and there!
7. You have to do a long walk at the end
This really depends on your definition of long! If you’re catching the Montenvers train down as most people do, then you just need to walk up steps for about ten minutes. If you’re skiing all the way down to Cham then it’s a fifteen minute bootpack up some snow. Neither of these should present any problems for fit, healthy BMC members!
8. You need to own off piste safety gear
Although you do need specialist gear (avalanche transceiver, harness etc.) to ski the VB, most recreational skiers don’t own all this kit themselves. Luckily guiding companies provide everything you need and if you’re going unguided then it is available for hire. Make sure you know how to use it though…
9. Powder skis are a must
Powder skis are great in the right conditions but most people don’t own a pair and certainly don’t want to hire a pair for a day in the middle of their week's skiing. The good news is that the VB can be skied on just about anything and although having a slightly wider ski will be useful, the skis you use for the rest of your skiing should be fine. The old adage that, “It’s the Indian not the arrow that matters”, is never truer than in skiing!
10. The Aiguille du Midi cable car is really expensive
True, but if you’ve got a “Mont Blanc Unlimited” lift pass for the duration of your ski holiday, the Midi is included on that.
Looks like you’re all out of excuses – see you on the snow.
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