Monday, 7 April 2014

Vallee Blanche - Twice in a day

"Dude, we have to stop, I've lost the tracks and I can't see where the crevasses are." The weather had taken over us, no matter how hard or fast we skied. It was now snowing and combined with the wind and low cloud, we had lost the tracks. Up ahead, the buried tracks passed over a snow bridge, open crevasses either side. Without the tracks or visability, we had no idea which crevasse would swallow us up. Too scared to carry on, we waited, forced to spend the night on the glacier. Just the 2 of us, alone in bad weather, on the Vallee Blanche...

The forecast looked good for Wednesday 26th, but better for Friday. However, in our eagerness and psyche, we opted to do the famous Vallee Blanche on Wednesday. I was skiing well, and had an idea of not just doing it once, but twice. So me and Kev grabbed our skis, and headed for the first bin up the midi. On arrival, we were greeted by a vast number of others who had the same idea. And so, we booked our place and went for a coffee. The midi ridge was pretty crowded. People skating down in just ski boots, clutching at the ropes to avoid the inevitable plummet back to Chamonix. The more sensible and well equipped of us, gracefully meandering around these hazards, with the safety of our crampons giving traction in the hard packed snow. Once down off the ridge, the wind was picking up and throwing spindrift down any opening in our jackets. A quick glance up from putting on skis and I could see the cloud rolling over the Italian border, engulfing the mountains and creeping towards us. Maybe they were right about Friday being the better day.

Waiting for the top bin

Not far off...

Just take another selfie...

SO off we went, skiing the icy moguls off the ridge and down to the well tracked Col du Midi and toward Pointe Lachenal. We opted for a harder variation than the Normal Route, so skied off towards the Gros Rognan and kept close to it's right side. 40 degree powder and fresh untracked snow (in places), perfect. Between dodging the crevasses and steep drops, the skiing was great. No as hard as everyone makes out, and not as scary as I was led to believe. Not yet any way. We joined back onto the Normal route, through the Seracs and finally onto the Mer de Glace. The long, flat run back to the station got a little bit boring after a while, but the scenery was amazing. And Kev had failed to mention the 500 odd steps back up to the gondola! My legs were Knackered by the time we got onto the Montenvers train, but the psyche of doing it again, my 2nd time, spurred me on.
Point Lachenal and the N.face of Tacul

looking back to the Midi

Clouds rolling in from Italy

Just past the Seracs du Geant

Kev on the VB

Top part of the VB
Back down in Cham, skis back on the pack, and now for the walk back to the Midi. This time, it was different. We were the only ones waiting for a while, so time for another coffee. A few more joined us on the bin but most of them got off at the Plan du L'Aiguille. So it was just me, Kev and a few others on the top bin. The Midi was quiet, too quiet. We met no one else whilst walking through the tunnels. We had the ridge to ourselves. Although, before we headed down the ridge, we were contemplating whether to go for a second run or not. The cloud had obscured our view of the Col du Midi but for brief moments, we caught sight of the Rognon before it then vanished again. So we decided to walk down the ridge to 'observe' the conditions, with the intention to walk back up again if they were bad. However, once down the ridge, it didn't seem too bad. The wind had got stronger, the temperature had dropped, but that didn't matter, visability was ok. And so, skis on for a second time and off we went. This time though, the tracks had started to fill with spindrift. Once we got to the Rognon, we could see the clouds starting to grow and tumble our way. We had to ski faster and stick together as best we can and try to out run the weather. My legs were screaming at me to stop and I could only throw in 4 or 5 turns before I had to stop to rest them for a second, before repeating the process. 2 weeks of skiing had started to show its wear on me. By the time we had reached the Seracs du Geant the weather had engulfed us, like a wave breaking over a surfer. It started to snow. The most dangerous part of the Vallee Blanche; Seracs, Crevasses, Icy moguls and steep slopes. And we were skiing it in a white out. The fun had gone, and it was now survival skiing. Eyes on each other, turn and stop, look ahead, crevasse behind, side slip slowly. By this point the tracks had gone. I followed Kev for a short while and then took over. Skiing by feel. Feeling for where the hard, compacted snow was from previous skiers and us this morning. At points I'd venture into soft, fresh powder, knowing I had skied off track. Eyes on my ski tips, bad practice but that was the limit of my visibility, I was picking out previous pole plants on this flat section and feeling like before, the hard pack underneath. But the pole plants where dissapearing, the snow now fresh powder and no way of finding my way back on track. We were now skiing too close to the seracs and crevasses, and I knew from the morning that we were approaching a small snow bridge, the crevasse open either side. But not knowing whether I'd hit the snow bridge and rejoin the tracks, or whether I'd ski into the crevasse, I stopped.

"Too scared to carry on, we waited, forced to spend the night on the glacier. Just the 2 of us, alone in bad weather, on the Vallee Blanche..."

For a few minutes we contemplated our options: Carry on and risk a fall into the heart of the glacier? Sit and wait for the weather to clear enough to carry on? Sit and wait till morning? Neither of us had gear to spend the night on the glacier in any comfort. Neither of us had a cooker, spare food or any form of shelter. Kev had left his bothy bag back at the Gite. It would have been a very cold and uncomfortable night...

...But through some stroke of luck, a French guide and his party came skiing past, just off of our tracks. And as if by magic, the cloud lifted slightly. Ahead of us, the small snow bridge. If we had just carried on for a few more metres we would have crossed it. It all started to seem a little bit silly now. The 'epic' we nearly encountered seems pathetic compared to the great alpinists who have spent days storm bound on North Faces. 2 amateur skiers, benighted on a glacier in a light breeze, scared to move because of what 'could' happen. Any way, it WAS a little scary, but also quite exciting. We left some space between us and the guided party, and followed in their tracks. Although, at one point, I managed to hit a rock and took a tumble. I slid a little way, head first, and below me was the hollow darkness of a crevasse. Not gunna lie, I panicked a little. Not only would I slide a little closer every time I tried to get up, but I had lost the group and Kev to the cloud and snow. Now i really was alone. I skied as fast and carefully as I could until I saw Kev's silhouette just ahead of me, and then the group a little further ahead. We had broken through the base of the cloud and were now heading back down the Mer de Glace. Finally, the home straight, and safety was in sight. Lets just get off this glacier and go for a beer. I think we deserve it!

Ahh shit, those bloody steps again!!

I think this is when we broke through the cloud on the Mer de Glace, i can't remember

On the Mer de Glace as the visibility improved!

A well deserved pint after an 'epic' of a day

1 comment:

  1. 1hr 6mins to ski the Vallee Blanche...
    Not bad for a couple of 'amateurs'!!!