When you’re living in Chamonix, every now and then someone will suggest, “let’s go and ski the Valley Blanche”. It’s always presented as a casual idea, a way to pass a sunny afternoon and pitched as a proposition akin to going for coffee.
And so, it is easy to forget how completely epic and mind-blowingly awesome it is!
The “Valley Blanche” is a famous ski decent above Chamonix, which provides 20km of continuous downhill skiing over glaciated terrain. Starting from a height of 3812m at the Aiguille de Midi lift station, you exit the mountain via an 'ice tunnel', propelling you directly onto a knife-edge arête amidst the unthinkably stunning scenery of the Mont Blanc Massif. From here you descend for almost three-thousand continuous meters, floating through powder, weaving between crevasses, gliding beneath granite walls and icy-blue seracs which glitter in the winter sun.
One of my favourite things about mountaineering is the way that it brings people together in the unity of sharing a rich and pure adventure. The first time I skied the Valley Blanche I had recently returned to Chamonix alone and was feeling a little bit lost in myself.I was invited along on a “VB trip” and immersed into a group of eight vibrant, happy and life-loving individuals. We skied fresh tracks all day in the sun, blasting through powder and whooping with joy. We questioned the ridiculousness of such easy and simple fun; how can this beallowed?! The day was a turning point for me, a reminder of what I love most about the mountains; to share good days with good people; to have an adventure and loose ourselves in the moment; not so much to “escape” anything in the real world, but more to “find” something in this new world.
The second time I skied the Valley Blanche was with three skiers a lot more experienced than myself. We took a variant line that covered some steep terrain demanding careful negotiation and accurate turns. Many sections were icy and I opted to do a lot of side slipping. It was a challenging day for me, requiring a lot of focus, but it was brilliant fun and I was very grateful to be “taken along” for the ride by my experienced friends, generally following along while they made decisions on the optimal route. A totally different experience but equally rich in its own way.
A few days later I got chatting to two Americans on a gondola. It turned out they were en-route to the Ice Climbing World Cup in Switzerland, and having previously competed in that event myself, this shared niche passion forged a connection. We stayed in touch and when they returned to Chamonix they asked if I’d join them for a ski descent of the Valley Blanche. I happily agreed and it was only as we arrived at the top station it sank in that this time, I was the experienced one! Down the ridge, skis on, and now it was my turn to make the decisions and pick the lines; cool, I’m the leader! Before long, one of their poles snapped and so I offered up mine, then discovered just how hard it is to ski 20km of powder with one pole! Every few minutes we would regroup, laugh with joy and gaze around in utter amazement. It was so awesome to watch their reactions as they experienced this magical place for the first time, clearly loving every moment of the journey. I felt privileged to be helping them realise this adventure, and all from a random meeting on a gondola.
And for me, that’s what makes playing in the mountains so special. Just knowing that someone loves what you love is enough to feel a connection, and then to actually share that together ties a strong bond around a young friendship. It’s also awesome that you can essentially repeat the same route three times and have an entirely different experience depending on the objective conditions and the people you are with. But why, I often wonder, are these experiences so profound? Why do we remember them so much more than going for a coffee, sharing a movie or enjoying a night out? Is it because of the physical effort we endure as our giant happy smiles bely the screaming muscles in our aching legs? Or Is it because of the intensity of the beauty of our surroundings? Or maybe it’s the vulnerability we feel as little dots amongst giant mountains, adorned with our harnesses, ropes, screws, shovels and transceivers, never yet needed but an omnipresent reminder of the thin line that separates serenity from chaos.I like to believe it’s just the sheer happiness we feel in doing what we love together.