One of the amazing benefits that my job offers is a few months off every 7 years. I’ve put in my time and now I’m fully reaping the rewards. I’ve planed a few adventures to make the most of the time. The first one was about a week riding the Vallée Blanche in Chamonix, France. Just returned and if you truly love epic adventure and fresh light powder then it is a must. I’m very lucky to have my great friend Josh join me in this the first of many sabbatical adventures. We had a great time from start to finish! Here is our brief travel log.
March 9 & 10th
Josh and I flew from PDX to AMS then quick flight down to GVA. Picked up the ChamVan from Geneva to Hotel De La Couronne
in Argentiere. We walked around Argentiere to get our bearing. First order of business was to arrange a guide for our Off-Pistes mountaineering. We stopped by Maison de la Montagne Bureau des Guides to discuss options. They told us to come back at 5:30ish when the guides show up to arrange tours. It seemed like a pretty laid back way of doing things. So we ate a late lunch at Les Rondins Pizzeria and headed back to meet our guide at the designated time.
I guess we weren’t really as prepared as we could have been but we wanted to keep our options open. At 5:30 we met Ben the guide and discussed a full day tour the next day with the morning down the Vallée Blanche from the top of the Aiguille du Midi and then the afternoon down the Glacier d’Argentière from the top of Les Grand Montets. Ben asked if we had avalanche beacons and harnesses for repelling down off of l’Aiguille du Midi. Josh and I looked at each other and smiled. We were in for some serious shit. In hind sight this was about as crazy a plan as we could have come up with and the plan changes so we survived. We would see Ben next 8:30AM at the base of the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi.
We pushed through the jet lag by hoping the free bus down to central Chamonix. Cruised the shops and ate dinner at La Taverne de Chamouny. Ended up staying out a bit to late as the buses only run till 7:30pm. We had to call to get a cab back to Argentiere (~6 miles). Bus free; cabs a bit spendy. Hit the sack a little after 9:00pm.
Les Grand Montets
Got up early to light snow falling in the valley and had a great continental breakfast at the hotel. Needed to fuel up for our epic day. Back in the room getting ready Josh realized that he did not bring his ski pants. Awkward… At about 8:00 the phone rings in the room and it was Ben. We walk down to talk and he tells us that the visibility is not so good and that he would advise waiting until Tuesday to go out with him. Monday was to be our on Piste day on Les Grand Montets lift area. All of the best since Josh needed to go shopping and the shops did not really open till after 9:00. We picked up some great snowboarding pants for Josh; rust color with tons of pockets and a rad wide white belt. We grabbed our gear and walked the shot distance to the Les Grand Montets cable car. We picked up our unlimited three day Chamonix Mont-Blanc pass and rode the tram to mid mountain.
Les Grand Montets
From mid mountain we started by riding Bochard to the top of the on pistes area. The clouds were low and moving in and out so visibility was spotty opening up at times and socked in at others. There were poles marking the way down but since we were way above the tree line the whole area was open for us to explore. We rode Herse lifts and then Bochard again. After lunch we made our way over to ski the glades (which were steep and icy) and rode the Retour Pendant and Plan Rojoun. It was a long day and we were a bit jet lagged but we decided to ride the Grands Montets tram to the top. Standing in line we met John from Tahoe and Patrick from London. Both gave us great information on the trails, terrain and options for heading down. After disembarking we trekked up to the top turret to see what we could given the cloud cover. We watched two guys a bit older than us jump the railing to walk a service trail to some very steep snow. It was mind blowing that there really were not any rules. Ski or ride what ever snow you could find. Going up we thought that if it looked too challenging we could just tram back down but after checking it out we decided to ride it down and cut across under the tram back down to Pylones area and down to the mid mountain lodge. From there we made our way down the Pierre a Ric to the lower mountain tram station and called it a day. Since Après-ski was invented in France we need to embrace where we were and grab a beer. We ran into Patrick and John at the bar and shared some stories. We told Patrick about our guide and he was in for joining in and sharing the cost.
Based on our little bus hic up from the previous evening we decided to hang in Argentiere. Our hotel was attached to La Flambee and offered a modest discount. We rode hard all day. Probably a bit harder than we expected but we were pumped and taking it all in. The whole thing was just amazing and we were only on day ONE!
Top of the Glacier d’Argentière
Slept like a rock with the window to keep thing cool and woke up refreshed and ready to take on the day. This was my first trip to Europe where I really did not have jet lag. I attribute it to all the fresh air, staying hydrated and very physical activity of blasting down the mountain again and again. Breakfast at the hotel… On Monday I tried to make a soft boiled egg but at our high altitude it took a bit longer. So my try took a bit longer but the egg came out much better. We also enjoyed strong coffee, flaky croissants, juice, fresh fruit and toast and jam. Ben arrived at 8:30. It had been snowing from evening into the morning and there was a fresh coat of snow on the ground. Ben informed us that is was not a good day to do the Vallée Blanche from the top of the Aiguille du Midi and that he would give us two half days for the price of a full day.
Avalanche beacons and repelling harnesses!!
Today would be our day to ride the Glacier d’Argentière. Ben set us up with harnesses and avalanche beacons and we rode to the top of Les Grand Montets. From the top we rode down Point de Vue for our first run. For our second run he took us over to the edge of the Glacier d’Argentière and then for our third run we traversed over and rode down on the top of the Glacier d’Argentière. This was my first true mountaineering off trail back county riding. We were cutting fresh track in tons of light high mountain powder. It was like surfing on my board. I just leaned back and took it all in. It is almost impossible to put into words the magnitude of the mountain. It was like nothing I had every rode. The scale was 100x even the biggest bowl I’ve ridden in UT, CO or BC.
Upon returning to mid mountain I noticed that our guide was chatting with another guide. And then to my shock and surprise I noticed that Glen Plake, yes the mohawk man himself, was standing with the group. Glen was on his way with a small group to ice climb the cliffs around the base of Glacier d’Argentière. It was a very Dude-alcious moment. If you don’t know who he is take a moment to Google him. You will not be disappointed. He was super gracious, we talked about riding Mt. Hood and took a few photos. The whole thing was surreal. It was like we were being welcomed into a very exclusive club by The Man Himself.
Hanging with Glen Plake in Cham!
After lunch we cruised down into Argentiere and dropped off our gear. It had been two days with no break for a shot at Vallée Blanche so we decided to head down to Chamonix to ride the tram up to the top of Aiguille du Midi just to make sure we hit it as part of the trip. From the top we had a intermittent views of the valley below and some of the peeks at what felt like standing on the top of the world. We were at 3,842m (12,605 feet). To give some perspective the top of Mt. Hood is 3,429 m (11,249 feet). It still holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world. And we were standing at the summit 1,356 feet higher than the top of Mt. Hood. We felt it. The air was very thin and the temperature very cold. We explored the top station taking in views of Swiss, French and Italian Alps. Alas we did not get a glimpse of Mont Blanc but we were totally pumped hoping for a break in the weather and the chance to ride from there into the Vallée Blanche. After another epic day we made our way down into the valley and back to the hotel for dinner and a relaxing evening of hope and anticipate for what tomorrow would bring with a break in the weather.
Read to ride the Vallée Blanche from the top of Aiguille du Midi down into Chamonix!!!
We woke early and enjoyed breakfast. At 8:30 Ben arrived at the hotel and said very nonchalantly that “it was good”. He drove down to the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi to make a reservation for the ride up. We let Patrick know that “it was on” and we geared up for the short bus ride down to the tram. We were PUMPED! The bus that normally ran every 10 min did not show up for 40 min. A little bump in our plans but we had learned that when in Cham you need to learn to go with the flow. We arrived at the tram right before it was about to depart, made it on and were at the top before we knew it.
Inside the top station we put on our avalanche beacons & harnesses. I strapped by board to my back pack and Ben roped us all together. As I stated before, we engaged in this whole epic adventure a little more naive than most. I trusted that since so many people ski the Vallée Blanche than surely I should be able to. I knew that it is an unmarked, unmaintained, unpatrolled and unchecked high mountain off-piste route that takes you over multiple glaciers down to the Chamonix Vally. But I did not really understand the gravity of the risk walking the arête, a thin, almost knife-like, ridge edge of ice carved into 40 deg pitch down the face of the mountain. There was a low safety rope that separated us from the cliffs descending down into the pea-sized buildings of Chamonix. We slowly walked white knuckling the rope trying not to gaze down the precipice. There were three switch backs that took about 20min to descend. Towards the end I looked back to see our guide smoking and striding nonchalantly. I was awe struck with everything and it dawned on me that this was simply our guides job and what an amazing job it was!
Riding dry freshies!!
There was a bluff at the end of the arête where we could gear up and begin to ride the glacier. The snow was soft, dry and the route so wide that fresh powder was ensure for every turn. We were at the beginning of a single ski run that was ~15km and would have us descend ~5k vertical feet over the next three hours. We rode between crags of jagged rocks reaching into the heavens and exposed shelfs of deep blue ice thousands of years old stoping frequently to breath the air, feel the sun on our face and be simply amazed by the enormity of it all. Looking at the many photos I took I see the color, texture and delight on our faces but they do not do justice to the scale. I only took a few shots that give a an idea of the scale by showing skiers that looks like specks of dust on billowing pillows of velvet smooth white snow. We rode from glacier to glacier starting with Glacier Du Geant Valle Blance, then down to Salle a Manger, and ending on the Mer De Glace.
Riding down into a power filled crevice!
The route at the end of the Vallee Blanche really favors the skiers as it has a long flat run out which was a little tricky on my snowboarder but with fresh wax and some initial speed I was able to keep moving. On the Mer De Glace Ben took us down into a power filled crevice that seemed about 20 feet deep that allowed for a few well spaced out blind turns that ended with a small climb back up on to the glacier.
At this point we were near the end of the run and the snow was hard pack and starting to soften from the sun. We rode down to the snout of the Mer de Glace to arrive at a steel stair case that led down to Grotte de glace (Ice Caves) that had been burrowed into the Glacier and up to a gondola that led to the Montenvers train. We walked a few stories down to the ice caves and discovered inside a few objects and dioramas that depicted early 19th century mountain life. The whole cave was lit up with strange blue lights that made the ice seem to glow. It was very surreal after our long run down the glacier.
Grotte de glace (Ice Caves) in the Mer De Glace.
We hiked up the 300 stairs to the Gondola. This was probably the most physically exhausted I’ve been the whole week. I had to stop more than a few times to catch my breath. At the top of the Gondola we “discovered” a bar at the train station and enjoyed a pint to celebrate our epic run and wait for the train to haul us down to the Chamonix valley floor.
Upon disembarking from the train we said our good-byes to Ben and Patrick and made our way back to the hotel. We did a quick change of clothes, repacked our gear and finished up just in time for the shuttle van to pick us up for the ride back to Geneva. We had kept our options open with the van and did some last minute rejiggering of reservations which in the end took us to GVA. From GVA we took the train downtown to a very centrally located hotel. Check in to the Hotel Admiral, cleaned up, walked down to the lake and enjoyed a great dinner at Au Petit-Chalet. The whole week we had been considering gifts for our wives and found that most gift shops sold alps memorabilia which was fitting for us but not idea for our wives. The inspiration for the prefect gift came from all the watch stores in Genava. We were in the heart of fine watch making and we settled on fashionable Swatches that were colorful and quite practical which made for the perfect gift.
Celebrating our epic ride at the Montenvers train station!
After dinner and shopping we made our way to Cite Centre to see St. Pierre Cathedral and a few other historic buildings. It was very late at that point be we were still pumped from our amazing day and in a mood to celebrate. We found a little bar off the Place de Bourg-de-Four and shared a pint. The bar tender did not speak any english and we only knew enough French to order, pay and say thanks for the beer, but that did not stop us from sharing a few shots of Jägermeister including one with the bartender. We learned that Jäger-bomb is the same in all languages.
Upon returning to our hotel we heard live music coming down the street and we walked into the bar to enjoy a few more drinks. It was our last night in Europe and we needed to make sure that we were prepared to sleep on the plane. A few more drinks definitely helped prepare us for the plane but not exactly for the 4:30am alarm the next day.
We woke, trekked to the train station, arrived at GVA to enjoy a light breakfast. Quick flight back to AMS where we reflected on our adventure and agreed that our brief stay in Chamonix ranks up there with some of the best days of our lives. Looking back at the photos its hard to believe that we did so much in so little time. We simple must go back and bring more friends to share in the adventure!
With that we parted ways. Josh headed back to PDX to obsess over back country touring gear and ski Timberline and I off to BOS to spend a long weekend at Mt Snow with buddies from Syracuse before heading back to PDX.