Griffin tackles the Vallee Blanche
was I really nearly 50 - seems only yesterday that I was a
young bloke without a care in the world, racing around on
motorbikes. I decided I had to do something special to mark
this major (somewhat depressing) landmark in my life.
anyone who knows me or who has met me at a party and they
will probably tell you I am a real ski bore. Not exactly Franz
Klammer, but pretty nifty (for 50!!) on reds and the occasional
black, provided there's no ice and I
do not have a bad head from the night before. Off-piste is
not my real forte, but somehow over the years I have earned
the name of Powder Phil - probably partly due to the number
of times I have head-planted in the stuff and ended up resembling
years I had read and heard about this magical place called
the Valley Blanche. At 18k long, it's the longest off-piste
in Europe that your average red run skier can do without serious
risk to life and limb (hmm, I'll tell you about that later!!).
A bit of ringing round the guys and it was booked. We were
going to Chamonix in the French Alps - home of some of the
world's greatest mountaineers and that incredible piece of
nature called Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco, if you're on the Italian
more research I did on the web, the more I realised that the
Valley Blanche was going to be something we would never forget.
First of all, I had to pre-book a mountain/ski guide - it's
the sort of place where you should not venture without a guide!!
Ice falls, crevasses and the minor (in my case, not so minor)
walk across an arête to the start of the valley. If
you are not aware of mountaineering phrases, an arête
in this case is like walking along a knife-edge with massive
drops at each side... I sourced a guide through Icicle Mountaineering
based in Chamonix - and it was all systems go.
actual 50th was at the start of December, but the valley cannot
be skied with any reliability until February-March - it's
best to take advice before booking your holidays. We plumped
for the first week in March 2007. The four of use flew into
Chamonix from different parts of England and met for the first
beer (or two or three) in the Park Hotel Suisse, which would
be our base for the week. We had been advised that it was
not sensible to ski the Valley Blanche in your first days
in the Alps because of the thin air. So we decided to ski
the valley on the Thursday, giving us plenty of time to get
our ski legs and acclimatise.
who has been Chamonix will tell you that the ski resort is
rather spread out and not exactly user friendly compared to
some purpose-built resorts, but, hey, this is a special place.
It's beautiful and dominated on all sides by incredible mountains
- topped off, of course, by Mont Blanc. Before we knew it,
it was Wednesday night. We had to go to the Icicle HQ that
night for a briefing and run through of safety techniques
- hmm, I now started to realise that it was not going to be
a straightforward ski through the valley - it really was going
to be something very special. Thursday morning arrived - but
so did the strong winds. The mobile bleeped - message: "Valley
closed today due to strong winds - not possible to stand up
- will try again tomorrow." God, what if the weather
was bad tomorrow? We would not be able to achieve our goal
- my goal!
need not have worried. Friday morning arrived. The alarm rang,
I pulled back the curtains - wall-to-wall sunshine with clear
skies and no wind. Perfect! At Icicle HQ, we were greeted
by the owners and met our guide, Benoir. They ran through
the safety procedures again, we logged the mountain rescue
numbers into our mobiles (hmm) and Benoir helped us into our
harnesses! A short stroll and we were in the queue for the
lift to the top of the Aig du Midi - the entrance to the Valley
ride up was amazing. As well as being the longest single span
cable car in Europe, it floats over incredible scenery: ice
falls, snow fields... When you arrive at the top of the cable,
there's a walk across an enclosed iron
bridge from one peak to the next - the start of the real adventure.
You walk through a maze of tunnels within the mountain and
can take a lift to the very top of the peak, which has a weather
station/tele mast. When you first
walk out of the lift onto the top of the peak, you find yourself
on a circular gantry offering incredible views - you are at
the TOP OF THE WORLD. There in front of you is Mont Blanc.
You feel as though you could almost touch it. It's the mountain
which made some mountaineers famous but also ended some lives,
too. It's the mountain my mate Greg Gough climbed with the
Royal Marines - and where his glove blew away as they took
pictures to celebrate a successful summit.
started to get serious when we descended into the warren of
tunnels below. Guide Benior suddenly took on a professional
air. This is where he started to earn his money. Alan, Andy,
Colin and I lined up while Benior slotted a rope into our
harnesses to join us all together. "We work as team,
now," said Benoir. "All for one and one for all,"
someone joked. Benoir kept his business head on. "Anyone
afraid of heights?" he asked. It was here that I decided
to come clean - and put up my hand. I love skiing, but I hate
heights. "You'd best be next to me," says Benoir,
offering some reassurance. I couldn't help but think that
there were three guys in front me - all weighing more than
me. And certainly weighing more than Benoir and me put together.
Sod it, you only live once!!
outside, I realised why we were roped. Yes, there was the
arête in front of us. Wide enough to take one person.
A set of iron posts linked together with heavy rope. A drop
of thousands of metres at one side and a
vertical drop straight back down to Chamonix at the other
(hmm). There was a second route across the arête. Steps
had been cut into one of the faces of the arête and
this was the route we took. We inched our way down the steps,
with me clinging tightly to the thick rope attached to the
ice face. I tried not to look down, but there was one point
where you turn and so I had no option. Sharp intake of breath...
After what seemed like any eternity, Benoir smiles and says:
"You can relax now." We had made it.
were on a wide piste at the entrance to the valley - a descent
of 2,700m and around 18 k long. Off came the rope and suddenly
the real pleasure was to start. Wow! In front of us was the
widest expanse of snow I had ever
seen. Pure powder, pure manageable powder. "Stick close
to me," says Benoir. "There are some hidden crevasses..."
didn't take Benoir long to work out we were a mixed ability
group and he guided at the speed of the slowest. Perfect.
He'd stop at ice blocks the size houses, show us crevasses
with ice blue colours, point out ice falls.
He was ever so patient. He wanted us to take everything in
- he knew we were in a special ice wilderness. Various tracks
disappeared into the distance. Occasionally, we came across
another small group of skiers with a guide.
Everyone of them had a beaming smile. Benoir knew the names
of the mountains and took great delight in telling us which
ones he had climbed. A man of the mountains, he had hands
like shovels. They had had a hard life and he was still young!
lunchtime, Benior steered us towards a track cut by skiers
across the face of steep slope. We could see in the distance
a small rock outcrop and, as we got closer, we picked out
it was a mountain restaurant - what a place
to get to in the morning to start work, I thought. After a
hearty meal of traditional Savoie food, Benoir picked up his
rucksack and produced a birthday cake. Truly the icing on
a well-earned rest and having taken in gluggs of water, we
set off for the final part of the run. Down we dropped on
perfect snow towards the valley end. Legs started to tire,
but this was fantastic. Suddenly, Benoir stopped and perched
on his ski poles. Out came a pair of binoculars. For ages
he studied a mountain face and then he explained there was
an unclimbed route - and he was planning it as soon as there
was a weather window. We looked through the binoculars. Perhaps
he was mad, but we were starting to understand he was in fact
too soon the valley end arrived. It was then we realised the
effects of global warming. The glacier we had been skiing
on had eroded to such an extent that the cable car out of
the valley was now four or five long staircases away - higher!
As we trudged wearily up the steps, we were all tired but
smiling. Those smiles lasted for hours. We climbed aboard
a train back to the nearest village - where we quickly down
a few well-earned beers. Unless you have been to the Valley
Blanche, you will never understand the thrills and excitement
of being in a truly magnificent place. Huge pictures now hang
proudly on my walls at home - along with a cap. We all bought
one. The caps are emblazoned with a picture of Mont Blanc.
No, we hadn't conquered Europe's highest peak, but we felt
we knew how it must feel - in our own way! So go there, ski
it, enjoy it. Prove to yourself that you are ALIVE!