Chamonix downhill and touring

Mary, myself and Sarah drove out to France in early March with a bit of trepidation about whether it was sensible in what was clearly turning into a global pandemic. But as no-one was saying we couldn’t do so, we were unlikely to get any money back from insurers if we wimped. Since Mary hasn’t toured for a long time, and Sarah very little at all, and my skills are also probably as old as my kit, Sarah had insisted we have a guide for a bit of instruction to get us up to speed. We’d all got new kit, Sarah because she had none, Mary because she had always intended to replace her kit if she started touring again, and myself because the Emery bindings I’d expect to keep repairing for a few more years yet really had died as the various spares proved inadequate. So I’d now got some Fritschi bindings that would take my old boots, and some new (-ish) boots that would fit the pin bindings (but a size bigger than the unpleasantly tight ones from Val d’Isère). I’d also concluded that my skins had not been reglued for so many years that they were a lost cause as well as being a right faff to adjust to fit the new skis. So an expensive bit of reprovisioning. Chamonix, however, is always the best place to buy a load of kit, so Mary and Sarah had decided to do a bit of hire first, buy later, apart from the essentials of new transceivers and other accessories.

We had three good days of instruction, and some good downhill days on our own, but hadn’t managed our ambition of getting up to the Vallée Blanche (we’d set out once, but the uplift was delayed opening by the wind and we reckoned we would be too late in the day). Our guide was fully booked for the rest of the time we were out, so it looked as if we’d missed it for this year. However, coronavirus would have it otherwise, and it became aparent that people leaving the UK later than us were having second thoughts, and some ski resorts were closing, so suddenly, we looked like being the only available paying customers left, for a season that would clearly become a financial disaster for guies. So we were off !

Visibility at the exit on the Midi was rather poor, and there was still enough wind to be a bit on the chilly side as we sidled down the zig-zag path in crampons, but it did give the benefit of much reduced exposure. We soon found ourselves enough flat space to shift into skis and as we skied down, we started to drop out of the cloud. Mary and I had been this way before of course, on foot on the way to the Pyramide de Tacul and the Dent du Géant, but that was a long time ago. We didn’t need to be roped up this early in the season (well, not for downhill) and fairly soon we were out in the middle with rapidly improving visibility. It was meant to be a touring trip, not just an off-piste run, so we roped up and set off to cross a crevassy area to reach less-tracked snow than the downhill-only skiers had access to.


Passing a crevasse on our way to the Italian side of the Vallée Blanche.

I’m not great at acclimatisation, and even after a week skiing, this was close to my ceiling, so we didn’t climb to any great height before stopping for a rest and setting off for the long, mostly powder run down, overlooked by the Géant, now coming clear of cloud.


Skiing below the Géant, a tick dunnit from 1991 (in the summer)

We had got an early enough start this time that we were not time pressured, so skied down in short stretches, trying to find untracked powder. Mary had managed to pick up a bit of a knee injury in poor visibility and lumpy terrain earlier in the week, so was being quite careful, but with now excellent visibilty and high contrast lighting, there were few, if any, hidden haggis traps. We were well away from crevasses by now, so weren’t roped up, but were skiing one at a time, so everyone was being watched by the whole group the whole way. You wouldn’t want it to be all over in a flash anyway !


Now well out into the main valley – and it is by no means as flat as it looks in photographs, so keeping speed up in the powder was not too hard.

Passing the Requins Hut there is a steep ice fall, with the ski route down its left hand side, before a long and rather flatter run out down the Mer de Glace. No powder down here, but a bit of care required not to lose speed and have to skate or pole. The glacier snout is now much farther back (and depressingly much lower) than a few decades ago so there is a long, long climb up steps to reach the lift back to the Montenvers railway. A bit of queuing, but then rapidly down to Chamonix. Talking to the ski shop later in the evening, they were condfident there were no cases in the Chamonix valley and expected skiing to continue for at least the next week, but by 8 p.m. the French had announced that all ski resorts were to be closed from next day (a real bummer for a load of Brits who had flown out that very day to find no ski holiday and no food service in their hotels on arrival). In the morning, we hastily packed up, cleaned the apartment and started driving home. We’ve been caught out before by ferries not running at night in the winter, so stopped off at a very socially distanced cheap hotel en route, and were surprised to find no surcharge to get on an eerily empty ferry next morning. That’s looking like the end of trips to the alps, at least for this year.