View of Aguile d'Midi from Les Grand Montets (Leo)

You can see the Aiguille du Midi from Les Grands Montets, the resort where we had been riding on Argentiere glacier. The top of the cablecar is the tiny little castle-like structure in the upper left of the picture; the town of Chamonix is offscreen to the right (click to enlarge).

The Aiguille du Midi and the Vallée Blanche

The treat of riding in Chamonix, though, is to take the Aiguille du Midi cable car from the town of Chamonix and do a backcountry trip across the spectacular Vallée Blanche ("White Valley") and Mare du Glace ("Sea of Ice") glacier. We did three trips up the Aiguille while in Chamonix this time, and they were the highlights of the week!

Riding Up

The Walk of Death

Vallée Blanche

The Mare du Glace

Trip 2: Hardcore

Riding Up

Aguile d'Midi from Valley (Leo) Our view looking up from the village is shown at left. There's a fair crowd by 8:30am when the cable car begins running. By the time you're halfway up, at right, you can see the Aiguille a little more clearly. Waiting for the car (Leo

Aguile d'Midi Ascent Group (Jason)

Our crew: Oren, Justine, Ken, me...

Aguile d'Midi Ascent Group - Kim (Jason)


Aguile d'Midi Ascent - Jason (Kim)

..and Jason.

Below: A view of the Swiss Alps. By the time you get up to 12,500' you're starting to get pretty good views out of the cable car. View back across Chamonix from the top (Ken)
Aguile d'Midi View Down (Ken)

Right: looking back down at the town of Chamonix.

Looking across Chamonix towards the resort Flegere (Leo)

Above: looking the other way, towards the mouth of the Chamonix valley. The valley turns right and head towards the Swiss border, and Geneva.

At right: looking towards the northeast end of the Chamonix valley and the village of Argentiere. Argentiere from the Aguile d'Midi

The first time you ascend the Aiguille, you'll get out and wander around the cable car top station for half an hour, marveling at the views of the Alps.

(unless it's a fog day)

View to North (Leo)

Looking south towards Les Grands Montet. The lenticular cloud formation is parked exactly where it was when we saw it from Argentiere Glacier.

Ken on the Aguile (unknown)

Ken is happy. And well he should be.

Aguile d'Midi View to East (Kim)

And at last... a view of our destination, the Vallée Blanche. But before we can ride out onto the Glacier, we have to endure...

The Walk of Death

Waitin' to take on the line (Leo)

Our first surprise on ascending the Aiguille du Midi is the traffic jam. You might think that because you're at 12,500 feet on a route requiring a professional guide it's going to be quiet. Oh, no.

At left: the line at 4000m elevation at 9am

The reason for the traffic jam is the crampon-requiring walk down from the top station of the Aiguille du Midi to the open snow below. After a few minutes observation, we nicknamed this the Walk of Death. It's hard to get a good photo of the walk because it's a bootpack trail down a knife-edge ridge.

At right: this is the view of the Walk of Death from the Chamonix valley side. Those little figures are professional guides, who are holding a rope line connected to their party, which is roped up and wearing crampons to descend the bootpack trail. If someone in the party slips, the guide will throw themselves off the ridgeline towards us, counterblancing the dangling party member.


View of the Walk from Hell (Ken)
Entrance to the Walk of Death (Jason)

At left: some more victims -- er, skiers -- shuffle towards their appointment with the Walk. We went down with climbing harnesses and ice axes just like they did.

At right: although you're generally busy keeping your footing while actually on the walk, I did snap this photo of the yawning chute awaiting any skier who loses their footing on the bootpack trail.

The View below your right foot (Leo)
Jason at the entrance to the Walk of Death (Leo)

At left: Jason loaded for the walk down.

At right: although it's a long way away, between Oren's ski poles and his helmet you can see the other side of the knife-edge ridge the Walk descends. The cable car top station is perched precariously on the Aiguille du Midi itself, the rock outcropping in the middle of the picture(click on the photo to enlarge).

After you survive the walk down, you've earned your reward. Because now you can ride out into...

The Vallée Blanche

Amidst the Glaciers (Ken) We got here and found the real thing: a huge, spectacular glacier-filled valley, full of smooth, wide-open riding, no crowds (once they get out on the snow that Walk of Death traffic jam turns to nothing), and unbelievable scenery. You're perched on one shoulder of Mont Blanc (the one the pens are named after). The actual riding isn't as spectacular as, say, heli-boarding in Canada; but being in the high alpine like this mid-winter is an unbelievably great feeling. Approaching the Walk of Death (Leo)
View from the bottom of the walk of death (Ken)

Bernie and Leo (Ken?)

Bernie and Leo

High mountain view (Ken) Ice Walls (Leo)

Happy Justine (Ken)

Justine says, "Yes"

Justine heads into the Mare du Glace (Leo)

Justine heads out into the Vallée.

Jason descending into the Mare du Glace (Leo)



Jason and Oren at the base of the Walk of Death (Leo)

Jason and Oren are liking this.

As we moved out towards the Mare du Glace, we stopped for a lunch on the snow.

End of the flat spot (Ken)


O&J chowing down (Leo)

Justine and Oren

Ken and Jason at lunch on the glacier (Leo)

Ken and Jason, plus some feathered friends who flew a long way into the alpine to join us for lunch.

The Mare du Glace

As you come down out of the Vallée Blanche, you enter a seemingly endless, fairly flat river of ice called the Mare du Glace. Mostly, this is just an endless narrow-track traverse punctuated by flats -- especially for snowboarders! But in the meantime you're picking your way through gorgeous alpine scenery and impressive glacial ice.

Lens Flare!  Look out! (Leo)

We just came down THAT? (Ken)

Every so often, you turn around and say, "We just descended through that?"

At right: Kim, up close with some of that. Kim on the glacier (Jason)

Group with Retardo (Jason)

Above: the clueless skier goes right around Bernie. We wondered whether Bernie was going to deck him (needless to say, Bernie's impeccable European manners prevented this).

Traversing out through the Mare du Glace means holding a snowboard edge for a long time, and dealing with flat slopes. We tried (hopefully succesfully) to keep in mind that we might be holding up skiers on the traverse and regularly let them by (definitely one situation where skis are handier than a snowboard). However, that tripped us up with this one skier, who kept passing us, then stopping in the middle of the trail or better yet, weaving through us while we were moving. Some superb skiers did that and of course, you only saw them once and then they were on their way. This individual
(traveling alone) went back and forth through our group any number of times, to where it become almost funny (unfortunately, it wasn't funny for the intermediate riders in our group who were trying to hold their edge on the traverse).
Below: Kim and Jason frame this guy as he comes in for another pass at us.   Kim and Bernie frame our fine glacial friend (Jason)
Kim Jason and our friend (Ken) At right: we finally decided to travel faster than him to end the episode. Kim's coming down, Bernie's running interference, and our 'friend' is the smallest dot on the trail.
In The Flats (Leo)

Then it's time to cross the flat sea of ice. Snowboarders carry poles (usually collapsable) for this trip. There are two styles of snowboard poling: one is to twist forward and pole like a skier, the other is to use a single pole like a Venetian gondolier. It varies by individual style and the speed you're going.

At right: poling our way towards the neck of the valley.

Looking across the flat part of the Mare du Glace (Leo)
Towards the end (Ken) Above: Oren and Justine waiting for a little more gravity.
At left: Leo in front of the ever-receding exit from the valley. At right: The group has finally reached the edge of the smooth ice. Gathered for the final walk (Leo)
Mare du Glace (Ken) At the bottom of the Mare du Glace, the slope of the valley itself steepens a little, resulting in the smooth surface changing to a fantastic jumble of gargantuan iceblocks. The trail carefully picks its way through them to get to the base of a short cable car leading to Montenvers, a building of uncertain purpose up in the mountains. From Montenvers, a cog railway (seriously) takes you back to the town of Chamonix. Mare du Glace (Ken)
Mare du Glace (Ken) the Icy exit from the Mare du Glace (Leo)
Hiking up to the train (Ken) At left: Leo, Oren, and Bernie climb up to the train station.   At right: a last view of the bottom of the Mare du Glace while we wait for the train. Exit of Mare du Glace (Leo)

Day #2: The Col du Plan

The Col du Plan is another route through the Vallée Blanche which is more advanced. Bernie led Oren, myself, and Ken on this route, which branches off to the left after the Walk of Death. On the second day, the traffic jam waiting for the walk was even worse than the first day, including a backwoodsy type from Oregon who took the Walk of Death without either crampons, an ice axe, or a partner (note to self: don't be him). The first portion of the Col du Plan route is a ridgetop hike leading off the main routes. We don't have any pictures of that, we were too busy staying warm (and balanced).

Time for our "Powers of 10" demo.

Here's the entrance into the largest drop on the Col du Plan route. You can see the icy entrance, but don't really get a sense of the drop. Trust us, though, the camera is pointing steeper than 45 degrees up to take this picture.

A little slick (Ken) Now we've pulled partway back (Ken and I were riding together ahead of Oren and Bernie). This has a better sense of the vert. The rock in the extreme right of the previous photo is the one straight ahread in this shot. There's also a crevasse running from off-camera left most of the way across the entrance. Not the most open descent (Ken)
Those dots are Oren and Bernie... really (Ken)

At left: you'll have to click on the image to see it, but there are two tiny black dots up on the slope. The tiny black dot on the left is Oren, and the one over to the right is Bernie. Ken and I had already traversed this slope. The area of the first and second pictures is entirely contained in the left-to-right drop in the upper left of this photo. Oren is just about to cross the icy area in the first photo.

View from the col du plan (Ken) Although the main route has better views, the ones from the Col du Plan aren't shabby either.

Ken, Bernie, and Pizza (Leo)

We had planned to make a second roundtrip on the Aguile that day, but due to the morning traffic jam, we didn't quite get down in time to go around again. So, naturally, we ate greasy pizza at our local French "Pizza Salsa" instead.

Have you noticed yet that Bernie's expression is the same in every picture?

Bernie and Oren at "Pizza Salsa" (Leo)

We took one more trip up the Aiguille during our week in order to snowboard to Italy. But that has its own page, coming up soon!

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  © 2002 Leo Hourvitz
except where noted