NPSC members ski the Vallee Blanche
On Monday the "A" team consisting of Jeff Moore and David Conrad skied the VB while Alan Jackowitcz rode his board. They confirmed what I had been led to believe: technical difficulty was about four (on a scale of 1 to 10) but the Pucker Factor could go to as high as nine depending on your susceptibly to vertigo and other disconcerting reactions to steep places. We got a report of the run from Jeff that evening and I decided to go with Janet Almacher the next day. Not that I didn't believe what the guides had to say about the run, but getting reassurances from my son that this 61 year old body could make the trip convinced me to go. Janet already knew she wanted to go and she should have been on the "A" team anyway.
By Tuesday Morning I was psyched and ready to go. The big question was would the weather permit? By 9 AM it was decided it would be a go. Our guide, Francois, picked Janet and myself up at the hotel and we went off to collect some more clients. First stop was to pick up Jean and get her longer, fatter rental skis since the guide didn't think her 150's were appropriate. This should have been a clue as to which route we were going to take!
The next stop was to pick up another guy and I asked if his name was Tom. You see we had met Tom the day before at le Contamines. He had crashed into my daughter-in-law, Anne, and I was pretty sure I didn't want to ski within 100m of him let alone be roped up with him for the climb down the ridge from the Aiguille du Midi! We were picking up Warren so that was ok until we got to the base of the cable car and there was Tom! As it turned out he wasn't roped up with me and I was the one who stumbled. However, it wasn't a major incident which would have left the guide, Janet and Jean suspending me on the side of an icy slope!
Before we had even got our crampons on another major incident occurred. I headed out to the toilet while waiting for Jean and the guide to come up on the second car. Remember that we had gotten all trussed up with climbing harness before coming up the cable car and this added to the challenge of accomplishing my mission. As I leaned over to get my thing out my glove fell out of my jacket! After the obscenity I had screamed died out I peered down and noted that it was not a flush toilet! This realization evoked an even louder obscenity but fortunately it was -20C and the chemical toilet was unheated. It was almost full - and frozen! I was able to reach in and retrieve my glove. After a tentative sniff I realized no harm done!
I hoped that was my only panic moment and indeed it was except for a few minor embarrassments which I will relate. After climbing down the arÍte (I think that's French for high pucker factor) we arrived at a relatively flat area where we could don our skis. It was captivating scenery which I was busy capturing with my camera. Francois had told me to put my camera away during the decent - I think he had had considerable experience with clients like me. One does need to stay focused when climbing down in the icy conditions we were faced with.
Having got my photos I realized everyone else was in their skis and I had better get mine on. Put the camera away and stepped into my bindings. My boot didn't fit! What the Hell - I had almost lost my glove to an ugly fate and now this!
Oops, the guide didn't tell us we had to remove our crampons before getting on skis! That problem was quickly resolved and we headed down the slope. Best snow I had seen all week and was really getting into it but in my rapture I glided right past the lead guide whom I didn't see but did stop by the next group I saw. Honest I was fully aware of the importance of staying behind the guide. I had already seen a number of very deep crevasses which didn't not look very inviting to say the least. Francois's response to my feeble excuse was "don't BS a BS'er!". So I settled on a simple apology and promised not to do it again. I figured by now I had committed enough faux pas and now it was Tom's turn!
Further down the run we got to some fairly steep un-groomed slopes that I managed to get down without falling. Not pretty, but I made it down ok. Tom on the other hand had about 3 energy sapping dumps in the deep snow. Given his out of control performance the previous day I quietly thought "that's one's for Anne" as I made one of my better turns on that slope around him as he was floundering around trying to retrieve his skis. I quickly got some distance between him and me letting Francois deal with the situation as I skied down to the second guide, Jean-Louis, and the rest of the group. No, I did not ski past him!
I was quite relieved to be waiting with the group while Francois worked at getting Tom down the slope. It did gave me a chance to catch my breath! So Tom if you read this don't take it too personally as it gave me a chance to rest and get some pictures of you struggling on that slope. However, I really wish you had elected to sit down on your last traverse where you narrowly missed Tony and me. At the speed you were going a hit could have easily necessitated a call for the chopper! I think at this point Francois asked Tom to stick with him.
On to a much needed lunch stop. Since some didn't bring food the guides elected to go to the Refuge du Requin perched on a rock above the glacier. To get there we needed to traverse along a steep side hill. Around a bend there was some rope to grab to negotiate that turn. Janet was ahead when Francois passed me to inform her that we had a change of plans. One of the group had missed the traverse and rather than back track told Janet to make a sharp right and join the others. At the time the back half of her skis were hanging out in mid air and she was hanging on to the rope. After a nfw, or some such response to the guides request he did get her turned around. My hard right off the traverse looked intimidating but I did manage to get to the lower track without incident. Actually we had plenty of food for lunch so it all worked out for the best. Just wish we had a little more time to kick back and relax!
In retrospect we were pushed much harder than the "A" team the day before. They left two hours earlier and got back to town later than us and had a whole hour for lunch. For us it seemed like ten minutes. Our run was probably in about half the time. We took the shorter (steeper) route with a shorter layover and I was pretty beat by the time we got to the final insult to our bodies - a 75m climb up steps in ski boots to catch a small gondola to the Montevers cog railway going back to Chamonix.
Would I do it again? You bet! Especially since I now know all about protecting my gloves and taking off my crampons before putting on skis.
Jim Moore, Feb 28, 2002
Some Vallee Blanche links:
Travel article by Rob Penn
Panoramic shots that you drive