With an empty bank account, a boyfriend who doesn’t want or need anything and Bryn’s birthday on the horizon, I was fresh out of ideas.
“What about an experience” my wise and wonderful flatmate says.
“YES” I say back to her. I mean…we live in Chamonix. Home to the most extreme humans ever. Home to skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, rock climbing, paraponting, speed riding, wind suiting and more. Extreme people come here, with intentions of doing extreme things and so now, with Bryn’s birthday right around the corner, we join the extreme bandwagon and set off for an extreme day.
The Vallée Blanche. The most famous off-piste ski run IN THE WORLD. With extreme being my new middle name, I booked a guide (Neil Hitchings if you want to book this legend too), rounded up some mates (without Bryn’s prior knowledge) and got everything sorted. But before we get into the day, lets run through some facts to get you up to date with what the hell the Vallée Blanche is.
So, being the most famous off-piste ski run in the world, the Vallée Blanche has got a hell of a name to live up to. With a 20km run, down and through a glacier and a vertical drop of 2700meters, its safe to say the day will not disappoint. The magnificent scenery and the high mountain environment gives you a real sense of adventure and an experience that you’ll never forget.
Now for the extreme stuff. There are many different routes to take on the Vallée Blanche, requiring extensive knowledge of off-piste terrain, so I would suggest hiring a guide (as we did) to enjoy the experience care-free. The glacier is riddled with crevasses (a deep crack in the glacier ice) and with risk of falling serac and avalanches, its always better to be safe than sorry. For anyone who’s doing this…know where you’re going, know how to perform a rescue if something goes wrong or get yourselves a guide.
Right, lets take a few steps back to the day before. Bryn, at this point, has no knowledge that I’ve not only booked a guide, but also pulled together 4 of our mates to join us too. Throughout the day I ran around getting everything sorted. I got Bryn out of work for the Wednesday, gave our boards a fresh wax (with the help of Wilson thaaaaaaankyou), hired ski poles, got lunch together and organised a meeting time with the guide and our friends for the morning.
With Bryn not being a big birthday lover, I casually told him that night while we were eating dinner that I’d waxed our boards earlier in the day.
“Why’d you do that?” he asks
“Becaaaaaaaaaause we’re doing the Vallée Blanche tomorrow”
“What?…What do you mean?”
“I booked us in with a guide and we’re doing it tomorrow” I try to say enthusiastically but already I’m feeling the room get awkward. (Also note my flatmate slowly slumping into her seat through the awkwardness).
“Leah I have work tomorrow…I can’t do it tomorrow…I have shit to do”
“Noooooo you don’t, I got you out of it…everything’s sorted, we’re doing it…Haaaaaaaaaappy Birthday”
At this point I don’t know if he wants to laugh, cry, or punch me in the face, but I think the emotion he was trying to portray was surprised. I sure as hell gave him one of those.
Up early, bags packed, transceivers on and headed to Bluebird Cafe for some early morning breakfast. Bryn thinks I’ve booked us in a group tour, “I hope theres no noobs in our group” he says to me, while all the while I smile to myself thinking “they’re noobs alright, but they’re our noobs.”
The surprise went down far better than the one I tried to give him a short 12 hours before and with a happy birthday boy, we ate, got excited and headed for the Aiguille Du Midi lift station to meet our guide Neil. You’ve gotta feel for old Neil, he’s stuck guiding us for the next 4 hours. 3 intense New Zealanders and 3 full on Aussies, we were already calling him “dad” within the first 5 minutes. “Yes dad, safety first dad, we won’t, at any point, go lower than you dad.” Poor Neil.
We were booked in bin number 21 and as the time got closer, I could literally feel myself growing more and more nervous. Not to dampen the mood here but people die on the Vallée Blanche every winter…that in itself is so god damn scary. Add that to my standard level of paranoia, you could say I was running to and from the bathroom with the old nervous pee.
The Vallée Blanche sets off from the top of the Aiguille Du Midi. Whats that you ask? In short… it’s a mountain in the French Alps with a viewing platform that gets you as close to Mont Blanc as humanly possible (without the mountaineering experience). A huuuuge tourist attraction in Chamonix, the Aiguille Du Midi sees half a million people visit EVERY YEAR.
So, up the cable car we went, harnesses on, nervous/excited and ready to go. At the top (after another nervous pee), we all lined up while Neil tied us all together with rope. “oh god oh god safety first” I keep thinking to myself as I squeeze Bryn’s hand a little tighter. Steph first, Lissie second, me third, Bryn fourth, Boot fifth, Wilson sixth and dad seventh, we slowly made our way to the entrance of the Eret. “We are so hardcore” I think to myself.
The Eret, some would say, is the most technical part of the descent. A huge ridge that’s done on foot with your skis/snowboards strapped to your backpack, while holding on (for dear life) to a rope. This really was a new experience and something I can’t quite explain. Heart pumping, step by step, all roped together for safety, we made our way down the Eret. Talk about a mix of emotions – the fear of letting go of the rope and falling was one thing, but the insane horizon of mountain ranges, stretching as far as one could see, just took all that fear away. It was so so sooooooo beautiful.
Thank god for Neil because we made it and were now in unmarked and unsupervised terrain. Didn’t I tell you we were extreme? From now we’re doing what we do best and thats…riding. Untying ourselves from one another (obviously), we put our boards on and had a quick safety briefing from dad.
“Never unstrap yourselves from your snowboards and never go lower than me, we’re on a glacier now kids, with crevasses everywhere, so listen up and be alert.”
Down we went, stopping every hundred meters or so to talk about the glacier, catch our breath and point out what route to take next. Generally speaking, most people take “the classic” route. The most popular, the best views and probably the easiest route to take. This journey usually has hundreds of people on it and although beautiful…it wasn’t extreme enough for us, or dad. Actually, I lie…it wasn’t an extreme thing, more like dad not wanting us snowboarders to get stuck on the massive traverse that needs to be done while doing the classic route.
Instead we hugged left and came down from the opposite side of the glacier than everyone doing the classic. The snow conditions here were great in my opinion, though what do I know? I mean there was no pow pow, but it wasn’t a slush fest either.
The best part about it all? The scenery, hands down. So insane and so mind blowing. We were literally riding a glacier, some of it exposed and breaking out of the surface, surrounded by big serac walls, and crevasses. It honestly looked like waves had peeled up and frozen right there in front of you. Some of the best parts of the day were riding through the exposed bits and over a few snow bridges. Feeling like a marble on a track, trying not to fall off the sides, going one at a time and using ski poles to make sure we didn’t stop, really made me feel like a boss.
“WE ARE SO HARDCORE” I scream as I whizz over a snow bridge towards the safety of dad.
Stopping for lunch, we stood there looking back up towards the huge exposed part of the glacier that we’d just come down. The scenery surrounding you here is out of this world! A huge wide open plain that looked like it could have been the surface of the moon. So rad. With a few snaps later and a pee behind the rock, we strapped back into our boards and set off for the last 5km.
Hooning down, this last section makes for easy riding. Nothing too steep and nothing too dangerous, so it was spent hauling as fast as possible, singing songs and using our poles to either whack each other, turn them into antennas, or use them to go faster.
When we finally reached the end of the descent, after our 4 hour adventure, you’ll never guess what we had to do….HIKE 400 STAIRS…WHAT?! This really got me. The legs were shattered, I was hungry and hot, so the walk back up to the Mer De Glace tram (to take us back down to Chamonix) was just as challenging as the bloody Vallée Blanche itself.
When there’s enough snow, you can actually keep riding the Vallée Blanche all the way down into the Chamonix Valley – making it the longest ski run in the world. But after the dry season we’ve had and no new snow in sight, the 400 stairs up just had to do.
“You’ll be hiking out for 30 minutes if we keep going” says Neil.
Coming down on the tram (a beautiful tram ride btw), we were reflecting on our day and just taking it all in. Sitting there in silence, with smiles on our little red faces, I knew today had given us a huge sense of achievement and a massive rush of happiness.
3 intense New Zealanders, 3 full on Aussies and one dad to lead the pack. What a day it was and happy birthday Bryn.
Leah | free & addicted
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