02 March 2009
On the Borderline
Through the kindness of a couple Telemarktips luminaries I had the opportunity to head to Chamonix for my first taste of European ski-touring in the French and Italian Alps. I haven't had much time to do research about this area and the overwhelming selection of peaks, couloirs, chutes, and routes. This one, however, seems a classic. The idea was to take the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car up to the summit of the Aiguille. From there any specific names of places garbled together and all sounded the same. I knew the plan was to skin across a giant glacier into Italy, ski some slopes down to a mid-mountain chalet and eat lunch, then head back up to France and ski the giant glacier back down to Chamonix. I didn't ask questions; I was a passenger so I followed.
The first thing I noticed about touring in this part of the world was Mont Blanc.
The second thing I noticed about touring in this part of the world were all the other people that basically had the same idea for the day. The third thing I noticed was all the cables and ropes--that were set up to insure that all the people and buildings that should have never been there in the first place didn't fall off the mountain--kept interfering with my picture taking experiences.
So this nice, safe cable car takes you to the precipitous summit of the Aiguille du Midi where space is a serious premium. The summit station includes not only a walking bridge and tunnels between the two parts of the station but also a café and a souvenir shop. Then, for further exploration, you and a thousand other people are released onto the main ridge off the Aiguille to slip and slide your way down to the first real flat area in about 3000 meters above Chamonix. It's a carnival of sorts and, like driving, I was more fearful of the other people slipping and sliding and bumping me off the side of the mountain than I was for my own abilities and self control.
Other than the possibility of falling through a snow bridge and into a crevasse, the second stage is considerably less exciting. You skin across the wide Vallée Blanche (or, Glacier du Géant?) and up toward the Hellbrunner, basically the Italian border. Benvenuti in Italia! The Aosta Valley and the town of Courmayeur some 3000 meters below:
Skinning across the Vallée Blanche, staring up at the peaks, I thought to myself, "Wow, this is a lot like the Andes." Then we reached the ridgeline that separates Italy from the rest of civilization. I looked down and the forth thing I noticed about touring in this part of the world was the giant staircase that helped you off the ridge and onto the more gentle 40-degree slopes. "Wow, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the Andes!"
No, this is entirely different.
Liters of Moretti, Ragù alla Bolognese, antipasti and cheese plates (before and after the meal respectively), and espresso replaced for lunch my more familiar bags of peanuts and raisins, water, and any leftover scraps from the meal the night before.
Alas, the day was waning so we had to forgo the grappa digestivo and think about getting back to France. The "climb" out was a series of two more cable cars with a quick stop at the 3800 meter top for another espresso. More views of Mont Blanc, er Monte Bianco, more cables and ropes, then back to France for another 2000 meters or so of skiing.
The end of the day was a bit of a circus. If you miss the last train (we did) that comes all the way to the foot of the glacier and takes you back to town, you and the thousand other people who also missed the train have to take the long way on skis. This means skiing down the valley as it becomes increasingly more narrow, bumpy, and icy. Then you carry or fasten your skis to your pack and hike it out of the gully toward a piste-side ridgeline. There is no other choice and this mule train includes alpinists, backcountry skiers, tourists, locals, snowboarders, children, seniors, men with one piece purple suits, and women with white rear-entry Nordicas and fur hats. Have you ever tried to kick-step your way up an icy 30-degree slope with rear-entry white Nordicas? Me either. Luckily at the top of the ridgeline a bar was conveniently placed where you could restore yourself with espresso or a vin chaud before heading back down.
Then it was another 400 meter bobsled run down to the valley floor complete with more ice, rocks, and the same mule train we tried to pass on the way up. We resisted the urge for a vin chaud and so were able to beat many of the mules down.
An interesting and fabulously entertaining day. It's hard, though, for me to call this a ski tour, at least in the same sense that heretofore I knew ski tours in Chile, Kazakhstan, and parts of the Great Basin. In fact, this was the 180-degree exact opposite of what I knew. Instead of spending six hours climbing up a mountain to earn yourself an hour of descending, this was about an hour of climbing (cable cars and skinning included) and somewhere in the neighborhood of six hours of descents. And it wasn't cheap. And the snow? Horrible. Wet and heavy on the Italian side, hardpacked sastrugi on the French side. But, oh, that Italian coffee. I imagine I'll be back for more very soon.
Edited on 04 March: And now, you too can follow and even participate in the silly controversy generated from the silly report on Telemarktips! Enjoy.
(*Thanks, Lea, for some of the first new music I've heard in a couple months.)
(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)