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
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 a yeti.
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 side).
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 Blanche.
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
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
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
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
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
seen. Pure powder, pure manageable powder. "Stick
close to me," says Benoir. "There are some
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
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 the cake!
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 ALIVE!
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!