Tackling the Vallée Blanche

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Phil Griffin tackles the Vallee Blanche

God, was I really nearly 50 - seems only yesterday that I was a young bloke without a care in the world, racing around on motorbikes. I decided I had to do something special to mark this major (somewhat depressing) landmark in my life.

Ask anyone who knows me or who has met me at a party and they will probably tell you I am a real ski bore. Not exactly Franz Klammer, but pretty nifty (for 50!!) on reds and the occasional black, provided there's no ice and I
do not have a bad head from the night before. Off-piste is not my real forte, but somehow over the years I have earned the name of Powder Phil - probably partly due to the number of times I have head-planted in the stuff and ended up resembling a yeti.

For years I had read and heard about this magical place called the Valley Blanche. At 18k long, it's the longest off-piste in Europe that your average red run skier can do without serious risk to life and limb (hmm, I'll tell you about that later!!). A bit of ringing round the guys and it was booked. We were going to Chamonix in the French Alps - home of some of the world's greatest mountaineers and that incredible piece of nature called Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco, if you're on the Italian side).

The more research I did on the web, the more I realised that the Valley Blanche was going to be something we would never forget. First of all, I had to pre-book a mountain/ski guide - it's the sort of place where you should not venture without a guide!! Ice falls, crevasses and the minor (in my case, not so minor) walk across an arête to the start of the valley. If you are not aware of mountaineering phrases, an arête in this case is like walking along a knife-edge with massive drops at each side... I sourced a guide through Icicle Mountaineering based in Chamonix - and it was all systems go.

My actual 50th was at the start of December, but the valley cannot be skied with any reliability until February-March - it's best to take advice before booking your holidays. We plumped for the first week in March 2007. The four of use flew into Chamonix from different parts of England and met for the first beer (or two or three) in the Park Hotel Suisse, which would be our base for the week. We had been advised that it was not sensible to ski the Valley Blanche in your first days in the Alps because of the thin air. So we decided to ski the valley on the Thursday, giving us plenty of time to get our ski legs and acclimatise.

Anyone who has been Chamonix will tell you that the ski resort is rather spread out and not exactly user friendly compared to some purpose-built resorts, but, hey, this is a special place. It's beautiful and dominated on all sides by incredible mountains - topped off, of course, by Mont Blanc. Before we knew it, it was Wednesday night. We had to go to the Icicle HQ that night for a briefing and run through of safety techniques - hmm, I now started to realise that it was not going to be a straightforward ski through the valley - it really was going to be something very special. Thursday morning arrived - but so did the strong winds. The mobile bleeped - message: "Valley closed today due to strong winds - not possible to stand up - will try again tomorrow." God, what if the weather was bad tomorrow? We would not be able to achieve our goal - my goal!

We need not have worried. Friday morning arrived. The alarm rang, I pulled back the curtains - wall-to-wall sunshine with clear skies and no wind. Perfect! At Icicle HQ, we were greeted by the owners and met our guide, Benoir. They ran through the safety procedures again, we logged the mountain rescue numbers into our mobiles (hmm) and Benoir helped us into our harnesses! A short stroll and we were in the queue for the lift to the top of the Aig du Midi - the entrance to the Valley Blanche.

The ride up was amazing. As well as being the longest single span cable car in Europe, it floats over incredible scenery: ice falls, snow fields... When you arrive at the top of the cable, there's a walk across an enclosed iron
bridge from one peak to the next - the start of the real adventure. You walk through a maze of tunnels within the mountain and can take a lift to the very top of the peak, which has a weather station/tele mast. When you first
walk out of the lift onto the top of the peak, you find yourself on a circular gantry offering incredible views - you are at the TOP OF THE WORLD. There in front of you is Mont Blanc. You feel as though you could almost touch it. It's the mountain which made some mountaineers famous but also ended some lives, too. It's the mountain my mate Greg Gough climbed with the Royal Marines - and where his glove blew away as they took pictures to celebrate a successful summit.

Things started to get serious when we descended into the warren of tunnels below. Guide Benior suddenly took on a professional air. This is where he started to earn his money. Alan, Andy, Colin and I lined up while Benior slotted a rope into our harnesses to join us all together. "We work as team, now," said Benoir. "All for one and one for all," someone joked. Benoir kept his business head on. "Anyone afraid of heights?" he asked. It was here that I decided to come clean - and put up my hand. I love skiing, but I hate heights. "You'd best be next to me," says Benoir, offering some reassurance. I couldn't help but think that there were three guys in front me - all weighing more than me. And certainly weighing more than Benoir and me put together. Sod it, you only live once!!

Once outside, I realised why we were roped. Yes, there was the arête in front of us. Wide enough to take one person. A set of iron posts linked together with heavy rope. A drop of thousands of metres at one side and a
vertical drop straight back down to Chamonix at the other (hmm). There was a second route across the arête. Steps had been cut into one of the faces of the arête and this was the route we took. We inched our way down the steps,
with me clinging tightly to the thick rope attached to the ice face. I tried not to look down, but there was one point where you turn and so I had no option. Sharp intake of breath... After what seemed like any eternity, Benoir smiles and says: "You can relax now." We had made it.

We were on a wide piste at the entrance to the valley - a descent of 2,700m and around 18 k long. Off came the rope and suddenly the real pleasure was to start. Wow! In front of us was the widest expanse of snow I had ever
seen. Pure powder, pure manageable powder. "Stick close to me," says Benoir. "There are some hidden crevasses..."

It didn't take Benoir long to work out we were a mixed ability group and he guided at the speed of the slowest. Perfect. He'd stop at ice blocks the size houses, show us crevasses with ice blue colours, point out ice falls.
He was ever so patient. He wanted us to take everything in - he knew we were in a special ice wilderness. Various tracks disappeared into the distance. Occasionally, we came across another small group of skiers with a guide.
Everyone of them had a beaming smile. Benoir knew the names of the mountains and took great delight in telling us which ones he had climbed. A man of the mountains, he had hands like shovels. They had had a hard life and he was still young!

Around lunchtime, Benior steered us towards a track cut by skiers across the face of steep slope. We could see in the distance a small rock outcrop and, as we got closer, we picked out it was a mountain restaurant - what a place
to get to in the morning to start work, I thought. After a hearty meal of traditional Savoie food, Benoir picked up his rucksack and produced a birthday cake. Truly the icing on the cake!

After a well-earned rest and having taken in gluggs of water, we set off for the final part of the run. Down we dropped on perfect snow towards the valley end. Legs started to tire, but this was fantastic. Suddenly, Benoir stopped and perched on his ski poles. Out came a pair of binoculars. For ages he studied a mountain face and then he explained there was an unclimbed route - and he was planning it as soon as there was a weather window. We looked through the binoculars. Perhaps he was mad, but we were starting to understand he was in fact ALIVE!

All too soon the valley end arrived. It was then we realised the effects of global warming. The glacier we had been skiing on had eroded to such an extent that the cable car out of the valley was now four or five long staircases away - higher! As we trudged wearily up the steps, we were all tired but smiling. Those smiles lasted for hours. We climbed aboard a train back to the nearest village - where we quickly down a few well-earned beers. Unless you have been to the Valley Blanche, you will never understand the thrills and excitement of being in a truly magnificent place. Huge pictures now hang proudly on my walls at home - along with a cap. We all bought one. The caps are emblazoned with a picture of Mont Blanc. No, we hadn't conquered Europe's highest peak, but we felt we knew how it must feel - in our own way! So go there, ski it, enjoy it. Prove to yourself that you are ALIVE!

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