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Sunday, April 15, 2012

The French Alps: Chamonix, Part One

"If you fall here, you will die."

These words were uttered to me by my guide just before I dropped in on a steep, fifty-something degree section of the Glacier Rond, only a couple hundred meters below the summit of the Aiguille du Midi in the high alpine reaches of Chamonix, France.  I had heard them before, and have certainly found myself in similar situations, where the consequences of a fall could potentially be fatal.  But here, at this moment, on the precipice of a giant 2,000 foot vertical wall of snow and ice that began below my feet and ended in another thousand foot tumble of seracs, cliff bands, and gaping crevasses, the words seem to take on a more urgent, and very real meaning.  After all, it was my guide, Eric Larsen, an IFMGA certified mountain guide and avalanche expert from Telluride, Colorado who had just said this to me.  If anyone knew what they were talking about, it was this guy.  Yet somehow, in the fog of sheer terror that I was experiencing at the moment, the gravity of this warning was lost, having been mitigated by the path I had just completed on the way here. You see, I had already survived a 'you fall, you die' scenario on the approach to this line.  It required an unprotected traverse across a very steep section of hard snow that skirted the edge of a massive 1,000' cliff, and was probably the most terrifying thing I had ever done in my life up to that point.  That I had attempted it without protection defied reason, as I was carrying forty meters of mountaineering rope in my pack at the time, a 60cm snow picket, and several easily accessible carabiners, none of which would see the light of this day.  I also happened to be in the company of a very experienced belayer, who, after having successfully navigated the traverse himself, merely watched as I followed in his tracks, unmoved that each new step or placement of my axe could be my last.  It apparently had not occurred to him that I might need a belay. 

The traverse, not more than fifteen meters across, seemed to stretch both time and space.  I scratched and pawed at the snow for what felt like hours, struggling to suppress the nauseating sensation of vertigo as I inched my way forward.  I pleaded silently with an unknown (and unworshiped) god to allow me to cross just this once without slipping.  Somehow I managed to avoid catastrophe. With my legs still trembling, I took a position next to Eric on a narrow spine of semi-soft snow on the far side of the traverse.  I was rewarded with a loop of rope (which I immediately clipped to my harness), and a jaw-dropping view of our route, which pin-balled its way to the valley floor for nearly 9,000 vertical feet.  I was almost relieved to be here, even as I deliberated with my guide over the perils of what we were about to ski.  Despite his admonitions, and the dizzying geometry of the terrain below me, I resolved not to repeat the approach by turning around and going back to where we started.  Indeed, there was no going back. I had asked to be guided on this line, and had paid a fair sum of money for the privilege.  At least now I was attached to a rope; just a few minutes before, when I felt I needed one most, I was not.  One cannot, especially under these circumstances, underestimate the psychological value of being on belay, however tenuous its security may actually be, and even if it involves a mere 7mm of nylon. Yes, I was going to ski the Glacier Rond today, right now, right at this moment...die or not.

As I skidded down the slope, with an ice axe in one hand and rope in the other, it became very clear that this was not going to be your typical backcountry ski.  The snow conditions were in fact terrible: maybe two inches of old snow on a deep layer of absolutely bullet-proof ice.  A recent and significant deficit of snowfall had begun to expose the surface of the glacier, and our early morning start had not allowed enough time for the sun to soften what little snow remained.  Cloud cover both limited visibility and prevented any potential sunlight from warming the snowpack.  The conditions, combined with the ridiculously steep slope angle, made falling a real possibility.  I knew that holding an edge here, without the assistance of a rope, would require an extraordinary degree of precision, and complete concentration.  I also knew that losing one could result in near certain death.  
Falling here was not an option.  As I neared the end of the 60 meter belay, futilely attempting to set anchor with my axe, it occurred to me that I, or we, had picked the worst possible day, and the worst time of day, to navigate one of the most challenging lines offered in Chamonix, among the most dangerous and technically demanding mountain areas in the ski world.  On average, more people die here, in this valley, in ski related accidents in a single year than in all of the United States.

. . . . . .

This was my third trip to Chamonix in four years.  I had lived and snowboarded in Jackson, Wyoming for the last five and made a promise to myself after my first visit to come here at least once a year*.  This trip however would mark the first time I would hire a guide.  I had hit some serious lines already in Chamonix, riding sometimes with locals but often on my own, and I had reached a point on my risk tolerance curve where pushing the envelope any further, without the assistance of a guide, could be suicidal.  Chamonix is not a place for cliff jumps, big powder turns, or high fives.  In fact, if you’re skiing off-piste, it seldom can be described as fun.  It is really more about pushing the limits of alpine travel, and pushing the limits of human endurance, both physically and mentally.  This is a place where all one's previous training and experience, in steep skiing, glacier travel, avalanche avoidance, rock climbing, ice climbing, and navigation, comes together in one environment.  You don’t come to Chamonix in the winter to ski necessarily, you come here to move through the mountains, anticipating, avoiding, and negotiating hazards, known and unknown.  In fact, you are cheating death almost every time you step off the lift here. The mountains and glaciers that make up the Mont Blanc massif are in such a state of flux, especially in this era of global warming, that something could come crashing down or break apart below you at any time, and oftentimes (too often anyway) it does.  For the off-piste or out-of-bounds skier or snowboarder, any trip to Chamonix is considered a success if you are still in one piece by the time your train or flight departs for home. (*2010/11 had been a very bad season in terms of snowfall for much of the Alps, and I chose to stay in the Tetons for what turned out to be an epic winter.)

Of course there are many who come to Chamonix to ride the valley's 40+ lifts and delight in the typical ski vacation; it is evident in the number of families and tourists who inundate the village every weekend and fill up its many hotels, chalets, and restaurants, and in the maddening hour-long queues formed on the Grand Montets in the height of the season.  But there are better alternatives in the Alps for these type of skiers.  In fact, if you look around, it's hard to believe that anyone could have envisioned building ski lifts here; the terrain is just not conducive to recreational skiing.  Most north-facing aspects are glaciated or too steep to hold snow, and the south-facing aspects rarely see snow to the valley, which at 1,000 meters, is quite low in elevation. The resort offers at least six distinct ski areas, but they are not well connected, and each base area requires a long bus or lift ride to access.  No, it is not the quantity or quality of skiing in Chamonix that attracts such crowds.  They are drawn here mostly by its unqualified beauty, its history, and its ease of access*, but also by its fearsome reputation. (*Geneva's international airport is only an hour's drive away, and rail connections are abundant.)

Chamonix has a long alpine tradition.  It is considered the birthplace of mountaineering.  Climbers come from all over the world to scale its many peaks, make holds in its near perfect granite, and stand atop its jagged spires, and they have been doing so for almost 200 years.  Due to its extensively glaciated typography, relatively low altitude, and mild summer climate, it has become an important training ground for mountaineers attempting the highest summits on earth.  Summer can bring throngs of tourists and day-hikers, including a few who inevitably find themselves in need of rescue.  The PGHM, the local mountain rescue service, is not only the best and fully equipped in the world, but also the busiest.  Indeed, it is a rare moment in Chamonix when the whir of a PGHM rescue helicopter is not heard echoing through the valley.  In winter, ski mountaineers come here to tackle the same craggy peaks that attract warm weather alpinists, climbing sometimes for days just to ski one perilous line.  Often, they share the same routes as alpine climbers, ice climbers, and paragliders.  For these intrepid adventurers, it is reassuring to know that safety, if weather and circumstance permit, is only a phone call away.

Unfortunately, more than a few who have come to Chamonix over the years, to climb, ski, or simply hike, have also perished here, as the dangers are copious and ever-present.  The seasoned professionals of the PGHM are well trained and highly capable, but they are not miracle workers.  While many fatalities are a result of inexperience or neglect, an equal number of them are shared by expert mountaineers and professional guides, including some who were (or have since become) quite famous.  Despite this, and perhaps even because of it, Chamonix has become a mecca not only for recreational skiers and snowboarders, but for those who seek the highest, steepest, and most technical lines available in the alpine world.  Indeed, there are few places on the globe that can compare. The Himalayas, for example, are far too remote and too high in elevation for recreational skiing, even ski mountaineering, and the Andes, if they are snowy at all, are too prone to wind and weather.  Only Alaska or British Columbia can evoke similar comparisons in terms of slope angle, snow depth, and quality of terrain. But alas, there are no ski lifts in the Chugach or Monashees, not enough hours of winter daylight, and very few airports.

Mont Blanc, at 4,810m (15,782ft), western Europe’s highest mountain, has an intense magnetism about it, and thanks to exceptional infrastructure, is easily accessible.  Lifts that were constructed decades ago, in the most inconceivable configurations of engineering and height, allow even novices a chance at summiting in little more than a day.  Mt. Blanc, or Monte Bianco, as the Italians call it, is the highest and most prominent of dozens of peaks that make up the Mont Blanc Massif, a vast mountain range which stretches across three countries.  Its eternally icy summit marks the border between Italy and France, and towers more than 3,536m (11,602ft) over the second longest automobile tunnel in the world, which serves as an important link between the two countries.  It is an incredibly beautiful mountain, and every time I visit, I go to the same cafe patio (although it can be viewed from just about anywhere in town), to sit, sip coffee, and simply stare at it for hours, surveying its endless contours, and contemplating all the potential routes to climb or ski.  That it would require a lifetime to conquer them all has not deterred people from trying.  Indeed, while many have failed, tens of thousands summit Mt. Blanc every year.  A precocious few manage to ski from its highest point.  Only the most daring descend routes that were once considered unskiable.  Yet all who venture in these mountains revel in its grandeur.  If you are a passionate skier or climber at any level, and if the precedent set by millions before you is any indication, you will want to come to Chamonix at least once before you die.

Mont Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi, and the Vallee Blanche (photo: David Hewett)

Ski mountaineers come here to ride one lift principally, and that is the Aiguille du Midi, one of the highest and longest cable cars in the world, serving the biggest lift-accessible skiing on earth.  Here, unlike most other ski areas (including Jackson and Telluride, where the terrain can often demand such gear), it is unusual not to have a harness already rigged and secured around your waist, or at least an ice axe strapped to your pack. If you ride the Aiguille du Midi without so much as a backpack, you are looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion or disdain, or you are dismissed as a return-ticket gaper who is just along for the ride.  The Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi, or simply the Midi, as it is called by my American friends, is actually two cable cars.  The first one takes you up to the Plan de l'Aiguille at 2317m, and the second directly, unsupported by towers, up to the final station just below the summit, to an altitude of 3777m.  From there you can take an elevator to the actual summit at 3842m, though I have never done this.  Most everyone I know passes through two tunnels, bored through solid rock some 60 years ago, and over a pedestrian bridge suspended several hundred feet high to access a knife-edged ridge (known as the East Ridge), that, after negotiating its steep and often icy steps, which fall away hundreds and thousands of feet on either side, deposits you finally on a relatively level spot where you can safely put on your ski gear.  Most people, if they are smart, rope up here, or are at least tethered to the hand lines with a sling and carabiner.  It is said that at least one person every year misses a step, and falls, without interruption, almost 5,000 feet to his or her death!

It was here, at the base of this mountain, and at this lift station, that I would meet Eric and the other members of my touring party: guide and trip leader Keith Garvey, and three Australians, Tony, James, and Matthew. All, except Eric, had arrived in Chamonix the previous day, less than 36 hours after completing a big tour in La Grave, France.  Despite their recent travels, they looked healthy and rested.  All were properly geared and eager to begin the tour.  I was surprised and somewhat relieved to learn the background and ages of the group.  Eric and Keith were in their late 30s.  The Australians, two doctors and one lawyer, were in their early to mid 50's.  At 42, I was not the youngest member of the party, but I was happy not to be the oldest.  I had made all the arrangements for this trip over the internet, and feared that I might find myself in the company of more experienced and/or more youthful alpinists, whom I would have difficulty keeping up with.  As it turned out, this concern proved mostly unwarranted, despite my being the only splitboarder in a group of motivated, well-equiped, and efficient skiers.

It was 8:30 am, and the first tram had already departed.  Despite less than optimal conditions, it was filled to capacity with fifty or more passengers getting an early start on the day's objectives. Some had planned more extreme descents, but most of the passengers would ski the standard (and guided) Vallee Blanche tour, following a wide, low-angle track called the 'Normal Route', which attempts to avoid the most dangerous areas as much as possible.  Yet even here, accidents can occur. A Canadian guide who had fallen on this route just two weeks before, as a snow bridge he was standing on collapsed suddenly, died not of injuries sustained in the fall, but of asphyxiation. He was buried in snow after the bridge had collapsed around him and was unable to breathe as a result.  By the time they were able to retrieve him from the depths of the crevasse, only minutes later, he was dead.  (Photo above: The East Ridge, David Hewett)

We were told this story by our guides, Keith and Eric, both IFMGA certified mountain guides, both from Colorado, each with extensive alpine experience in the French Alps and North America, including Alaska. This would be just one of many stories of death and debilitation that they would tell us about during the trip. Discouragingly, most of them had occurred here in Chamonix valley.   Encouragingly, they tended to involve casualties of French or British origin, rather than American or Australian.  Of course, as much as we didn't want to admit it, much of the disparity has to do with our lack of statistical representation here.  Some of the stories we had heard before, and some we would hear again, as they are quite popular among the residents here. Everyone in Chamonix, it seems, shares this morbid fascination with mountain accidents, and takes every opportunity to recount the details of any misfortune visited upon their fellow adventurers.  While disconcerting, it is an important and worthwhile practice, as Keith pointed out, serving to remind us both of the objective dangers lurking about, and also to learn from other people's mistakes.

The French, it is worth noting, have adopted an attitude towards life most commonly referred to as Joie de Vivre, or 'joy of living' (a French phrase often used in English to express a cheerful enjoyment of life -Wikipedia).  This philosophy, when applied to leisure endeavors, tends to minimize the importance of safety. Basic precautions might be taken to preserve one's welfare, but not so much as to hinder their enjoyment.  In the United States, Americans take a much more conservative approach to managing risk, sometimes choosing to avoid a dangerous activity altogether.  This is a level of caution rarely applied in the French Alps, particularly with regard to the local population. To hear another language spoken in the alpine here that is not either French or Swedish (two populations producing skiers generally regarded as the best in the world) is exception rather than rule.  Because of its universal character, English, even if it is broken, is quite prevalent in this international town.  But rarely does one encounter English-speaking tourists skiing out-of-bounds in Chamonix, certainly not without a guide.  Most Americans who venture off-piste without one, do so by mistake, as it is easy to become disoriented here.

France also lacks the litigious culture that exists in the U.S., where almost any potentially harmful activity is checked by threat of civil or criminal action.  There is a sense of personal responsibility that exists among the populations of Western Europe that is distinct from American sensibilities, but which is particularly evident among the French. It is an attitude that is often characterized as blithe or indolent, even reckless. But it is misinterpreted. The French are simply more concerned with living life to the fullest than they are about self-preservation, and too self-reliant to assign blame when things go wrong.  Both of these phenomenons help to explain the relative absence of ski patrollers, avalanche hazard postings, protective fencing, warning flags, even helmets in Chamonix.  As a French acquantaince once said to me, "When you die, you won't know it and you won't feel it, because you're already dead," and "no one will miss you when you're dead, or if they do, they will only miss you for a few weeks or months, and then they will mostly forget about you."

It is no accident that ski mountaineering legends Patrick Vallencant (FRA), Jean-Marc Boivin (FRA), Anselme Baud (FRA), Xavier de la Rue (FRA), Stefano De Benedetti (Italian), and Andreas Fransson (Swedish), pioneers in the world of extreme sports, all made their homes here at one point or another.  Indeed the vast majority of first descents in the Graian Alps*, and elsewhere can be attributed to just these six individuals. For the resident alpinists and ski mountaineers of Chamonix, almost anything goes.  If there is something that hasn't already been skied or climbed in the mountains surrounding this valley, it may not be humanly possible to do so. (*the Graian Alps include the Mt. Blanc region, the western Valais in Switzerland, and the Aosta Valley in Italy.)

Our original plan was to ascend and ski Mt. Blanc, but the conditions at the time made the project too dangerous to attempt.  Our guides were American, not French.  While Chamonix enjoyed record snowfall early in the season, it had not snowed significantly here in many weeks.  And, because of persistent sun and summer-like temperatures during the day, icy conditions prevailed; not ideal for skiing above and through legions of man-eating crevasses.  The potential for falling rock and ice presented further challenges.  Our alternate plan was to tour the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche, including an ascent of the Glacier des Periades and the Southwest couloir, a rappel down from the Breche Puiseux and onto the Glacier du Mont Mallet, below the towering, near-vertical, 1000m north face of the Grandes Jorasses.  We were to continue on to the unguarded Couvercle hut, spend the night, and make plans for another excursion on the Aguille Verte the following day.  Then, we were to return via the Mer de Glace, take the Mont Envers train back to the village, and end our tour with beers at Chambre Neuf, a bar very near the train station and a favorite meeting place for mountaineers and tourists alike.

I had come to Chamonix to ride bigger, more prominent lines, but the idea of touring amongst some of the highest peaks in Europe, and skiing at least four different glaciers was too appealing to pass on. In any case, most of the other lines were no longer 'in' (meaning in condition, or skiable), and our guide fees were of the nonrefundable variety, weather and snow conditions being the ultimate determinate of any ski tour. With April just around the corner, and a limited number of available ski partners, there was really no other option. Furthermore, the weather was just beautiful, views for miles around; and there is no better place for views in the Alps than in the Vallee Blanche.  By the time the second tram had delivered us to the summit station of the Midi, with Keith pointing across the valley to indicate our intended route, it became clear to everyone, including myself, that while forgoing Mt. Blanc for safer objectives was disappointing, this tour would offer much more than a consolation prize.

Indeed it did not dissapoint. We stuck to our itinerary for the most part, but had to alter our plans for the Aiguille Verte, due to a lack of snow. We hiked and skied several couloirs; climbed in, through, and over a large crevasse. We navigated several glaciers and crevasse fields, enjoyed incredible views, and stayed the night in a climbing hut with no heat or light, where I slept barefoot in a failed attempt to dry my only pair of socks. Keith and Eric made sure we ate well and had plenty of water, as they made themselves responsible for dinner and breakfast, and spent hours melting snow for our Nalgene bottles. We had perfect weather (maybe too perfect considering our various degrees of sunburn), skied some decent snow, shared duty in breaking trail, and enjoyed each other's company.  The Australians, while not very good skiers, were strong climbers, obviously seasoned outdoorsmen, and fearless explorers.  This was their second multi-day tour in less than a week, and yet the smiles on their faces at the end of each day concealed all measure of exhaustion.  We had all agreed: it was an incredible journey in what is surely one of the most beautiful alpine environments on the planet.

Still, I was eager to ski more challenging terrain.  After all, it was the primary reason I had signed on for this trip.  As we contemplated our next adventure over dinner and drinks that evening, it became apparent that if I wanted to ride steeper lines, the group would have to separate.  So while Keith and the Australians optioned for another, relatively low consequence tour (in Le Tour of all places), I tried to convince Eric, with the help of several pints of Belgian Blonde, to guide me on one of Chamonix's more notorious off-piste routes below the Aiguille du Midi.  It was a tough sell, given the subpar conditions.  But, with Keith's approval, he acquiesced, and we agreed to meet in front of the tram first thing in the morning.

. . . . . .

Looking down the Glacier Rond, just past the traverse (photographer unknown)

Which is how I found myself on this frozen, windswept, fifty-something degree face of the Glacier Rond, literally and figuratively at the end of my rope.  I stopped, not sure quite what to do or what direction to go (other than down) and looked for instructions from Eric, who was barely visible tending my belay some sixty meters above.  He yelled them between bursts of spindrift, directing me to set anchor with my axe, unclip from the rope when advised, and wait for him to ski down to me.  I tried vainly to jam the shaft of my ice axe in the snow for an anchor, but was unable to penetrate the ice more than a few inches.  I conceded to using the head and pick of the axe in self-belay mode, trusting that my snowboard edge would hold, if only for a few minutes longer.  Terrified, I waited anxiously for my guide and partner.

I was confused as to why Eric had asked me to wait, since if he were to fall anywhere close to me, it would likely be the end of both of us.  Had he intended to set up another belay?  I couldn't imagine; at least not here. It seemed to me that building a reliable anchor here from which to belay would not only be formidable,  but a dangerous, and time-consuming task (I had forgotten that we were carrying at least three ice screws between us).  Perhaps he had sensed my unease, and assumed his mere proximity might allay my anxieties. Anticipating and adapting to the hidden fears and psychological nuances of your client is one of the biggest challenges in professional guiding. While it can be easy to decipher a client's confidence or skill level, one can never be sure of the true measure of that person's fatigue or panic.  In any case, I don't think Eric was planning to fall.  He was, after all, my guide.  Falling was not in his contract.

Regardless of his intent, I didn't wait long.  I couldn't wait.  My feet and especially my toes, were beginning to numb from the cold, as I had been on my toe edge, in the snow and ice, for nearly half an hour now.  I needed to move, and I needed to make a turn, if anything to get the blood flowing back through the vessels in my extremities.  I signaled my intentions to Eric and began to unclip my carabiner from the rope.  Just as I did this, I slipped.  A gut-wrenching panic immediately enveloped me.  My lungs reflexively gasped for air, and my pulse rate soared, anticipating calamity.  Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, Eric's voice reverberated: If you fall here...  But just as quickly as I had lost my balance, I regained it, as the rope pulled tight against my chest.  I could feel my climbing harness constrict, tightening its life-saving grip around my pelvis.  Mercifully, I was still on belay.  As I was attempting to unlock the screw gate of my carabiner, I neglected to pay attention to the orientation of my feet.  With one slight pivot, the edge of my board became dislodged from the snow and skipped down a meter or so from where I was anchored.  Unnerved and slightly embarrassed, I took a deep breath, repositioned my axe (which was now permanently affixed to my harness) and took a moment to collect myself.  After the surge of adrenaline had passed and I felt securely positioned, I carefully unclipped from the rope, and yelled up to Eric, "Off-belay!"

I etch-a-sketched another sixty meters or so before finally committing to a turn (the first steep turns of my trip really) in some semi-soft snow towards the right flank of the hanging glacier.  I moved with extreme caution, leaning forward into the fall line with knees bent, judiciously initiating each turn, and edging firmly throughout to maintain my speed and balance.  I gripped the ice axe tightly in my right hand, leaving my left hand free but ready to engage the adze in a self-arrest position at any moment.  While avalanche danger is ever present in the French Alps, the melt/freeze cycles of the past few weeks had stabilized the snowpack, and warnings were at their lowest level on the European Danger Scale. And while slides have claimed many lives in Chamonix, including here on the Rond*, the threat of avalanche was the furthest thing from my mind.  My primary focus, besides maintaining my wits, was to keep as much of the thin rail of metal that formed the edge of my board in contact with the snow.  This was critical, since there was almost nothing between me and the glacier's abrupt and imminently lethal terminus (see photo below) that could break my fall. (*In February, 1996, Trevor Petersen, one of the most accomplished skiers in the world at the time, died in an avalanche here in the exit couloir of this line.)

After a few turns, I regained my instincts and felt a little more in control of my destiny.  When I realized my lungs were still converting oxygen, despite my hyperventilating, and that I hadn't actually fallen, I became much more confident in my abilities.  I made about a dozen ‘powder’ turns in some softer snow before I reached the berschrund, where things firmed up again.  A berschrund is a crevasse that forms where moving glacial ice pulls away from the stagnant ice above it, and typically marks the beginning or edge of the actual glacier.  It can sometimes be as shallow and benign as a crack in a sidewalk, requiring a simple hop to clear it.  But more often it is a dark and deadly abyss that, because of its potential to cause catastrophic injury to those who fall into it, and the extreme temperatures that reside constant in its depths, could easily become one's permanent resting place.  Since I didn't have time to determine which variety I was dealing with, I positioned myself above the narrowest gap I could find.  There was only a meter or two separating me from relative safety, but considering the likely consequences of not landing it, it might as well have been a thirty foot air over a pit of fire.  After a harrowing but successful jump, and a short traverse to the left towards the ridge, I met Eric at the entrance to the Cunningham couloir, our next pitch, and a sublime view of the Bossons Glacier and Chamonix valley emerged into my line of site.

Before this moment my vision had been limited to the task at hand, as I focused intently on every move.  This had the effect of blurring the periphery, as if I were severely myopic and peering through a pair of narrow eyeglasses.  I stopped a few meters above Eric, and scanned my surroundings for the first time, awestruck by the view.  I quickly realized where I was, and why I had subjected myself to such extreme exposure. The adrenaline that had threatened to paralyze me just a few minutes ago gave way to a rush of endorphins, and I felt a sense of exhiliration. My sensory perception suddenly became sharper, more acute, and my focus broadened.  Fear had been replaced by wonder.

I looked up to my right to see the footbridge above the Passerelle Couloir more than two thousand feet higher than where we stood, and where we had crossed anxiously little more than an hour ago.  I looked straight down and could see the Glacier Rond fall from the face of the mountain into what seemed like an empty void (the term hanging glacier lost all ambiguity here).  I looked out and beyond, to the far side of the valley towards Lake Geneva, obscured now by the ragged, snow-capped mountains and undulating ridgelines of the Haute Savoie.  I looked further to the left and down the Cunningham, another fifty degree chute anchored on both sides by walls of rock that terminated in a tangle of huge crevasses, endless crevasses, that was the Bossons Glacier.  Yet somehow, this no longer represented eminent danger to me.  After some sideslipping, I paused at the edge of the couloir, securing myself again with my axe, and marveled at the beauty of it all.  (Photo: The Ridge, Cedric Bernardini)

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Eric asked rhetorically.  Eric is a quiet man, but in a strong and self-confident way, with incredible stamina and nerves of steel.  He lives in Telluride, Colorado and works for the resort there, both as a guide and in avalanche control.  He is married, with no kids.  "No time for kids," he had said to me.  He spends his summers living in a cabin at the edge of Jenny Lake in the Grand Teton National Park outside Jackson, where he guides clients up the Grand Teton for Exum Guides, the most prestigious guiding operation in the States.  He also spends time in La Grave and Alaska, guiding clients there as well.  He was no stranger to this type of terrain.  Telluride has lines similar to this, and I have ridden some of them, but none of them approached this scale, nor did they come with this spectacular scenery.  Eric looked up past me at the massif that loomed over us and said, "if I could take one piece of Chamonix back with me, it would be this right here."

Eric dropped in first and reported that conditions had improved only slightly.  We would be skiing 'coral reef' for at least another 2,000 feet (coral reef is a euphemism for re-frozen isothermic snow, or slush, that can be as hard and sharp as its name implies).  He asked if I wanted a belay.  The couloir was as steep as what we had just skied, and there were many hazards that lay ahead.  Yet, in my mind, we had just completed the most dangerous part of the tour, and that recognition, however distorted, served as an important and effective motivator.  " I think I'm good," I said.  I declined and rode on.

We still had several thousand verticle feet of steep terrain to go, another berschrund, and a huge and heavily crevassed glacier to cross.  And there would be a long, grueling hike back to the mid-station, since the snow at the lower elevations was melted out.  But here, on this ridge, with my new best friend Eric Larsen five meters below me, his blue jacket and pale green pack juxtaposed against an all-white backdrop of Mt. Blanc, the Dome du Gouter, the Aiguille du Gouter, and the Bossons Glacier, contrasted again by the snow-free village of Chamonix thousands of feet below, it didn’t matter.  Indeed, nothing else in the world mattered.  With my attention focused entirely on the present, everything else, past and future, seemed remote, incidental. Worries fell away.  Life gained new perspective.  The ordinary distractions of routine and obligation became sidelined, spectators to the moment.  Finances, debts, troubled relationships, personal anxieties, illness, career; they all took a back seat on this ride.  All the sacrifice, in time, expense, and effort, required to arrive at this very spot seemed inconsequential to the magnitude of the view before me.  I could not think of any other place I would rather be.

Glacier Rond, including berschrund, in summer (photographer unknown)

We would complete the tour without incident, arriving at the mid-station some four hours after we had started. Since it was too early to quit, we both agreed that a quick lap on the Vallee Blanche would be a fitting end to a beautiful day.  After negotiating the East Ridge once again, we decided to ski the Gran Envers du Plan, the most difficult of the Vallee's descent variations, and perhaps the most scenic.  Eric led the way.  By late afternoon we were in town sipping beers on the patio at Chambre Neuf, packs off and boots up, utterly exhausted.  We had only managed to ski two named runs, yet it took us the entire day.  Such is the nature of skiing and snowboarding off-piste in Chamonix.

. . . . . .

No one is solving the world's problems up here, but neither are we contributing to them.  Still, there is much to learn in this environment, and much we can share with the rest of the world.  Nature reigns supreme, for one. The earth is small, but vast.  Humans, while prodigious in number, are infinitesimal in this landscape.  The shapes in this rock, and the ice surrounding it, represent millions of years of geologic history.  In the grand scheme, we are merely overnight guests.  However, our short stay has had tremendous impact, as the effects of industry and trade wreak havoc on the climate and pollute our wild spaces.  The Bossons Glacier, for example, has retreated more than 1200m since climbers began exploring this area.  It also serves as a graveyard for not one, but two airliners that crashed here in 1950 and again in 1966.  The Mer du Glace, the largest of several glaciers that make up the Vallee Blanche, has lost nearly 30% of its volume just in the last century.  Avalanches occur here with alarming frequency.  Urban sprawl in the valley is having devastating effects on water supply, on traffic, on infrastructure, and on historic and scenic preservation.

The threat is real, the effects are palpable.  But the view is still grand.  I can't predict what fate awaits places like Chamonix, but I can assure you, no amount of money in the world, no drug, no retirement portfolio, no peer review, no shiny new car, no consumer product can replicate the feeling one gets from being here, on a line like this, where few have been before, where only a pair of skis or a snowboard and a bit of rope provides access. It is a feeling, a mental state, that cannot be sufficiently described in words.  It can only be achieved through personal experience.  And that experience can only be achieved by accepting a certain amount of risk, sometimes more than you bargained for.  As Bill Briggs, the ski-mountaineering legend from Jackson likes to say, "without risk, there is no adventure."

Photo: The Aguille du Midi,  Luca Pandolfi
At left is a photo of the upper section of the Aguille du Midi.  The red line follows the Passerelle and West couloirs below the tram station, which I did not ski. The Glacier Rond is the face just to the right of that, and the Cunningham is directly below. The traverse is the thin line of snow to the right and above the entry.  You can see the Cosmiques couloir to the right on the same face, with the narrow entry, eventually merging into the lower Cunningham. Another variation of this couloir drops you directly onto a more crevassed section of the Bossons Glacier.  This is the route I would take several days later.  The Cosmiques hut is barely visible as a black dot just a few hundred meters right of the entrance to its namesake couloir.

EPILOGUE: On every trip in the backcountry, you learn something new or reinforce existing protocols.  One hopes that is the case, anyway.  I thought I had learned some good lessons about ambition and timing, or at least weather prediction; and yet, despite my best intentions on this trip, this would not be my last, nor my closest dance with death. (Cover photo: Ascending the Southwest Couloir, on belay, Breche Puiseux, David Hewett)

(To be continued...)


The 'traverse', on the approach the Glacier Rond, lower right (Cosmiques, Bossons Glacier in the background)

On the entry, Cosmiques Couloir, adjacent to the Glacier Rond

Brevent Cable Car, from the top, Chamonix

Old cable car station, Aguille du Plan, Chamonix, still almost 5,000' from the valley, at dusk! (story forthcoming...)


Cosmiques Couloir, Chamonix, two days after I dropped it (Bossons Glacier, 5000' below, Chamonix village, at least 9000' below!) 

Below the Aguille du Midi, Cosmiques hut in the distance; hiker in foreground, tent just visible below rock outcropping, Mt.Blanc, another 5000' higher, obscured by clouds

Looking into the Passerelle Couloir, Glacier Rond is visible just behind the last bit of rock on the left wall, Aguille du Midi, Chamonix

The entrance to the Passerelle, 300' below the platform!

Another day, another view, this time with a couple of skiers

Another view of the East Ridge

Myself, Vallee Blanche in the background (cable car barely visible on the far right)

Sunset, Les Bossons Glacier and Chamonix Valley (Abri Simond climbing hut far right), as seen from the Cosmiques hut

The Aguille du Midi, Dawn


 Mt. Blanc du Tacul (Mt. Blanc is several thousand feet higher, but not visible this picture)

Cosmiques hut, 11,854 ft

Lucas Cowart, my first client

David Hewett, Guide de Haute Montagne

Cosmiques hut


Michael and Ellen, local climbers

Cosmiques hut, Mt. Blanc du Tacul, North ridge of Mt. Blanc

Italian side of Vallee Blanche, Tour du Ronde on the right, helicopter and two skiing parties just visible

Seracs, Glacier du Geant

Uber mountaineer Lucas Cowart looking over the menu at the Requin hut, 11,227 ft

Touring party, Glacier du Geant, Tour du Ronde (for scale: note the gondolas in the background; the north face of the Tour du Ronde, a popular climbing route, is 400m high!)

same dude, same spot

The rookie guide, surveying the route

Glacier du Geant

Glacier du Geant

Glacier du Geant

Glacier du Geant

Glacier du Geant, Dent du Geant in the distance

Glacier du Geant, Glacier des Periades in background (I climbed this glacier and the ridge behind it two weeks prior)

Lucas, right before he fell in

Lucas, post rescue

Lucas, waking from his nightmare

Crevasse field, Mer du Glace, with Glacier du Lechaud in the distance

Lucas, with the Aguille Verte massif in the distance

 (still working on my editing skills):

 Paragliders, Grand Envers du Plan just behind the ridge

Eric Larsen

Vallee Blanche; Dent du Geant in the background

Vallee Blanche; Aguille Verte, Petit Dru in the background

Glacier des Periades

Glacier des Periades

Glacier des Periades

Glacier des Periades, Glacier du Geant, Aguille du Midi, Vallee Blanche


Southwest Couloir, Glacier des Periades

The Aussies, short-roping, on belay




View from the other side (we rapped the wall on the far right)

The northeast face of the Grandes Jorasses, 1000 meters high!


Keith Garvey, with the Dru and the Aguille Verte in the background



Eric Larsen, Keith Garvey

Keith (striking a pose) and the Grandes Jorasses


cool photo


Grandes Jorasses

The Grandes Jorasses and the Glacier du Lechaud


Balanced erratic (boulder), and the Glacier du Lechaud (after we skied it)

Refuge de Couvercle


from inside




Our objective for the following day

Refuge de Couvercle, dawn

En route

En route



Climbing into a crevasse

Snow bridge, inside the crevasse

inside the crevasse

Ridge above crevasse

Vallee Blanche, Dent du Geant, Mt. Blanc du Tacul in the background



Close up


cool photo

same, but with glider in the background

Close up of Grand Envers du Plan, which Eric and I skied the day before (route is directly below the Aguille du Midi, straight down the middle of the frame, exiting in the extra large couloir bottom of photo)

cant get enough of this view, obviously

Our exit route

again, but with small plane parked on the glacier below

close-up of plane

Glacier travel




Our equipment on the other side of the crevasse

Keith in the background providing belay

Glacier corn skiing

The crew, with the ridge we summited, upper right


Grandes Jorasses




Eric, taking a break

Eric en route, Mer du Glace in the distance

Another view, notice huge smooth rock faces on right

Exit from Mer du Glace (tourist access inside glacier, below)



Gondola station

Platform, below train station, another 3000' of vertical remaining

It's beer-thirty, our tour nearly complete (obviously too conservative with the sunscreen...and maybe a little heavy on the flash setting too)