Off piste in France

by Clare.Jones

If ski resort runs are proving crowded, why not think about really sloping off this season and heading for the Vallee Blanche in France, Europe's longest ski run?

If you're fed up with lift queues and line-ups, creaking chair lifts and overpriced cups of coffee, then why not try an altogether different skiing experience? Go off piste and tackle Europe’s longest ski run, the 22km Vallée Blanche. Here remote towering alpine summits, including Mont Blanc, crevasse-strewn glaciers like the Mer de Glace, or ‘sea of ice’, and limitless powder snow await the intermediate skier.
 
Tucked away amidst the high mountains of the French Alps, the Vallée Blanche gives unique access to a wild snow-swept and ice-carved landscape. Back down in the Chamonix Valley it may be hard to imagine even penetrating the imposing mountain range above, let alone skiing through it. From the valley floor at 1100m, it can seem a very long way away. The world’s highest cable car, however, effortlessly transports you door to door.
 
Even before you are in the cable car you can tell this is going to be a very different day on the slopes. Crowds mill around the ticket offices waiting for the first uplift, climbing harnesses and transceivers are strapped on, ropes are coiled and helmets attached to rucksacks. It’s not your average attire for a morning on the slopes.
 
Magical mountain views unfold as the world’s longest single span cable car transports you silently upwards. At the top you step into the rarefied air of the north peak of the Aiguille du Midi at 3802m.
 
From here it's definitely worth taking the lift to the viewing platform at 3842m, because this is where you can start to get a feel for what’s about to come. Ski tracks weave off into the sublime snow-filled distance, and a panorama of classic mountaineering peaks sets the backdrop. You can namedrop all you like as you spot Alpine classics like the Grandes Jorasses and, on a clear day, the distant Matterhorn, in Switzerland.
 
Getting onto that soft wonderful snow, however, offers the most hair-raising part of this adventure. Stepping out through an ice tunnel brings you onto a knife-edge arête, which you must pick your way down. This is where you’ll find it's no ordinary day on the slopes. Seasoned mountain guides usher clients into orderly lines, fastening climbing harnesses and then clipping them into a safety rope.
 
This 30-degree snow slope has ropes either side for handrails and is a short walk-stroke-waddle. Getting down is not quite as treacherous as it looks. But with a drop-off on one side of 2700m back to Chamonix and a 50-degree slope on the other, it can understandably seem a pretty intimidating walk, however short, especially in a pair of ski boots.
 
Once you are down safely and able to breath a sigh of relief, the true route unfolds and you can finally step into your skis. The Vrai or the Classic Vallée Blanche is the most popular route but this is off-piste skiing after all, so the slopes are your own. The first downhill sweep across the Glacier du Géant comes to an end at the Séracs du Géant, where broken ice blocks, crevasses and ice caves give a sharp enough warning of the potential dangers.
 
For the less experienced, it is here that you will most appreciate the services of an experienced guide, like those of the Glenmore Lodge Outdoor training centre, who offer week-long off-piste skills courses. Alongside them you will safely plan your line to navigate this frozen landscape of blue and turquoise ice. Carefully pick your way through and you get to the Refuge du Requin at 2516m, or the ‘Shark’s Refuge’, named on account of the protruding fin-shaped mountain behind the hut. 
 
Beneath the hut, the Salle à Manger sérac field, or ‘dining room’, needs to be negotiated. This broad area above the Glacier du Tacul offers the perfect picnic spot beneath the mighty summit of the Grandes Jorasses. For the unwary skier or snowboarder, it can be a minefield, where deep crevasses can also make a dinner of you.
 
The Mer de Glace, a huge body of frozen ice and the second largest glacier in the Alps, stretches a further 7km gently downwards. This is the final stretch of the journey, an easy open slide of a ski that sweeps you gracefully through mighty mountain vistas. 
 
Depending on conditions, you may be able to ski all the way back to Chamonix. Alternatively, you can climb a steepish set of steps past the ice caves to a cable car, which links you to the scenic Montenvers mountain railway. The gentle ride back to Chamonix gives you ample time to relish the fact that getting just a little ‘piste off’ has rewarded you with such a memorable ski day.
 

Recommendations

  • Ski guide: hiring a qualified mountain guide is recommended unless you are an experienced off-piste skier
  • Off-piste ski courses: Glenmore Lodge run a variety of courses that will allow you to develop the skills to head off piste
  • Flights: Geneva is the closest airport to Chamonix, and is serviced by easyJet flights
  • Airport transfers: for minibus transfers from Geneva to Chamonix try ATS 
 

Clare.Jones

Clare Jones is a travel writer and photographer who loves a good adventure and has been lucky enough to make this her work travelling across the globe for a variety of magazines and newspapers. She is co-author and photographer of the international best-selling BBC books Unforgettable Things to do before you die, Unforgettable Journeys to take before you die and the recently published Unforgettable Walks to take before you die. She has also co-authored the AA titles, Extreme Places and the flagship Key Guide to Spain. She has been on assignment in over 50 countries and five continents exploring them on foot, by kayak, under sail, by mountain bike as well as skiing and climbing. One of her most testing adventures was a three-month sea-kayaking expedition from Vancouver to Alaska, as part of the first British all-female team to undertake this 1000-mile epic journey. She is a Winston Churchill Fellow and was honoured with the Mike Jones Award for accomplishing this journey. She is also sponsored by Salomon. Her work has been featured by a variety of publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Mail on Sunday, The Scotsman, and The Herald, USA Today, Geographical, Health & Fitness and Traveller. Clare is also an assistant television producer and has worked on several BBC documentaries.