Descending the Vallee Blanche can be the highlight of a trip to Chamonix. But, whether first timer or a local, it’s all too easy to get blasé about the risks of glacial terrain – as this team found out. Watch this skier fall into a crevasse and ask yourself: would you know what to do?
We’re all guilty of assuming that falling into a crevasse is something that happens to ‘someone else’. But the dangers of glacial terrain should never be underestimated, as skier Matt recently found out the hard way.
This February, Matt was skiing the Grand Envers du Plan in Chamonix (one of the most beautiful and difficult routes of all the Vallee Blanche variations) with two friends, when he skied straight into a 15-meter crevasse.
The group thought they were prepared for anything. They all had excellent ski technique, avalanche equipment and some crevasse rescue kit (harnesses, two ice screws, three screwgate karabiners, one belay plate and one 30-meter rope), but they were unable to rescue Matt on their own, and the incident proved to be a real wake-up call.
Matt’s tale: "I accepted I could die and it wasn’t a great feeling"
“We were doing Grand Envers, one of the least crevassed routes on the Vallee Blanche,” explained Matt, who got back out onto the snow just days after his incident. “We’re all fairly experienced skiers, 18 plus years each, and a small amount of climbing experience.”
“It was a perfect bluebird day. We weren’t going to ride that day but we then made a decision to go, so we got up, put crampons on, went down the arête, saddled up took a few photos, got ready to go. It was nice snow, really fun. Then, ten minutes in, it happened.”
“It’s a route I know, I’ve done it before, but I had a momentary lapse of concentration, and that’s all it took. I was searching for the powder on the left, clear of the others tracks, and I didn’t turn soon enough.”
As he fell in, he says, he accepted that he might die. “When I went in, I tried to keep calm. I was upright and balanced. I hit the far side and I got a mouthful of snow as the snow was coming in with me. I completely accepted I was going to be buried at the bottom of crevasse and that I might suffocate. I tried to keep calm so that, should I be buried, I might last a minute longer. I accepted I could die and it wasn’t a great feeling.”
When I arrived at the bottom I was on my feet – no blood, no broken bones. I did a quick pat down and I was in one piece, so I started shouting that I was safe. I got a phone call from the guys that they were going to get a helicopter and send me a rope.”
Matt’s friends called the PGHM (the Chamonix rescue service) immediately to inform them that there was an incident that may need a helicopter evacuation. But they were told there was no helicopter immediately available and that they would call back in ten minutes to find out how the situation was progressing. In the meantime it was up to them.
“It all seemed to happen slowly. No one panicked; everyone was on point, knowing what they were doing. The rope came down with a screw on the end, I made myself safe on the screw and rope, then they made an anchor and we were going to wait for helicopter, and that was that. We had harnesses and a half rope, but it was only enough to make us safe, not enough to make a rescue.”
“But then these guys came along, one of them had been a mountaineer around Chamonix for 35 years. He organised the rest of the guys so that they could work together to get me out.”
Matt says the three are “a little closer now. We all shared a moment together. We had a quick hug, put our game faces on and skied down. The snow was still good and it didn’t hit home for a while what had happened.”
Matt says they’re now all going to get some crevasse rescue training. “I have a list of equipment to buy, but we are all going to do some training. We’ve never done it before and if you’re going to ski in glacial terrain it makes sense. Wearing a transceiver and having avalanche equipment is pointless if you don’t know how to use it, so we’re all going to educate ourselves. I want to be the guy who helps, rather than the one standing by the sidelines.”
Analysis: the mountain guide’s view
Martin Chester, IFMGA British Mountain Guide and Director of Training at Plas y Brenin, agrees that it’s all very well having the equipment, but you must know how to use it.
“There’s always a risk of crevasse incidents when skiing on wild, untamed glaciers. The danger is that well-frequented routes such as the Vallee Blanche are just as wild and untamed as any other glacier and need to be treated with the same respect. The crowds and popularity do nothing to make the likelihood of this sort of event any less. Furthermore, the risk is generally higher early in the season. Early in the winter, fresh powder can give an illusion of safety. Hence, it’s really important that skiers and boarders always ski with harnesses and crevasse-rescue equipment – and know how to use it.”
Also,” he says, “I’m curious to know ‘what happens next’ for this crevasse on such a popular route? The skiers in this film were clearly following tracks. There is now a track heading straight into this crevasse. Therefore we should all learn a lesson about the perils of blindly following the tracks of others in the mountains …”
Get the skills: learn essential crevasse-rescue skills
Looking to ski off-piste and onto glaciated terrain? Check out:
Watch the BMC off-piste essentials trailer on BMC TV:
What gear do you need to carry?
Mountain guide Stuart Macdonald runs the Avalanche Academy in Chamonix, which offers crevasse-rescue courses. He says: "Crevasse rescue is an emergency procedure. Through sound planning, good navigation and controlled skiing you should be able to minimise the risks. It’s far better to avoid falling in rather than having to carry out a rescue. However, if operating on glaciers you have to be prepared for the worst.”
He emphasises the fact that it’s no good for just one person to have the appropriate kit: “All team members should be wearing harnesses (preferably with extension slings to the shoulder to ease access in case of falling in to the waist), and should have the local rescue number in their phones.
Every team should have at least two ropes, and team members must have sufficient equipment to allow them to carry out self rescue, and unassisted hoisting. There are numerous gadgets available now to make this easier, but most important is that you know how to use the equipment that you have. These skills must be practised thoroughly."
Standard crevasse rescue kit includes:
Standard off-piste riding gear (including avalanche-safety kit)
30m 9mm ski rope
5 x screwgate karabiners
2 x prussik loops
2 x slings (1.2m when laid flat)
Mechanical traction devices such as Wildcountry Ropeman, Petzl mini traxion or micro traxion
He had a lucky escape...
It appeared that Matt had a very lucky escape. Just days later, two skiers fell 25metres into a crevasse whilst skiing the nearby Petit Envers route with a guide. There had been over 10 cm of fresh powder overnight and conditions appeared to be very good. The two skiers, part of a group of six, passed over a snow bridge which collapsed under their weight. The 25 metre fall into the crevasse killed one and left the other seriously injured.
Have you read our top ten Vallee Blanche myths by Charlie Boscoe?