TRAVEL / Spring skiing: Bloodied but unbowed on a knife-edge in the sky: Doug Sager accompanies a novice braving the highest risk of all

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Kim is scared. She has every right to be. It is a hot, sunny morning in April in the Chamonix valley. The aroma of fresh croissants and cafe au lait wafts over from the terrace restaurant as we queue for the Aiguille du Midi cable car. What has put the frighteners on Kim is the sudden realisation that in one short half-hour she is going to be standing on a knife-edge arete 3,800m up in a world of ice. Kim is going to ski the Vallee Blanche, the longest and most scenic lift-serviced ski run in the world - and potentially one of the most lethal.

Posters warning of crevasses, avalanches and danger in the hautes montagnes have contributed to Kim's concern, as has the electronic bulletin zipping across the front of the cable- car building, warning that temperatures at the top will be 20 degrees colder. But it is the matter-of-fact horror tales with which our guide has been entertaining us in the queue that have really sent shivers down Kim's back.

One of the most experienced of Chamonix's Compagnie des Guides, the world's oldest and best association of mountain guides, Jean-Marie Olianti has ferried hundreds of skiers like Kim down the 22-kilometre glacier terrain of the Vallee Blanche. When the crevasses are clearly visible and the snow is well settled and unlikely to avalanche, the Vallee Blanche is easy exercise for any skier with enough skill to stop on command and enough nerve to snow-

plough between two blue-ice drop-offs into the devil's lair. As the above is a fairly generous estimation of Kim's skiing ability, I welcomed Jean-Marie's cautionary anecdotes. Having heard all winter about how exciting it is to ski the Vallee Blanche in April, Kim, a chalet girl in Verbier, has insisted on doing it, as a kind of reward for the work she put in learning to ski.

Jean-Marie jokingly warns Kim not to fall into a crevasse over the lunch-hour, when rescue teams tend to lose incoming radio calls in the noise of popping corks. He tells oft-heard tales of rescue crews lowering ropes into the 'wrong' crevasse, but still coming up with a body. He describes stopping for a picnic lunch and hearing thin, plaintive wails coming from an indeterminable direction, then dying off.

Anybody can slip down a crevasse, even with a guide. Jean-Marie has watched his own wife sliding helplessly past him and down a hole. She survived, but broke her back. I myself have tugged a more frightened than fractured British ski writer out of a yawning crevasse above Chamonix - and skied over many a hole which appeared only in the passing.

Late in spring, high-pressure systems are usually stable enough to ensure a clear run down the Vallee Blanche. But Mont Blanc, which rises 1,000m above it, attracts clouds like a magnet. And Jean-Marie remembers days when hundreds of tourists have ridden up the Aiguille du Midi in bright sunshine, only to be met with stinging snow and total white- out conditions once they start down the glaciers. In zero visibility even a guide is lost.

At rescue headquarters in Chamonix - a branch of the French Gendarmerie - the large wall map of the Mont Blanc massif is dotted with coloured pins. Lost bodies, found bodies, death by avalanche, death while climbing, death from exposure . . . every colour pin marks a different incident. Fifty people a year lose their lives on Mont Blanc.

Now that we've given her a bit of background, Kim still defiantly declines to cash in her ticket. Up we go, the Plexiglas windows of the cable car seeming to scrape vertical rock walls only a metre away, frost appearing as we get over 3,000m.

At the top, across the concrete bridge connecting two aiguilles (needles of rock), through the ice cave, and we are out in the sun, faced immediately with the most unforgiving aspect of the Vallee Blanche. We must walk, on slippery-soled ski boots, down a long spine of ice only a metre in width. A fall off either vertical edge is certain death.

Off the arete, the Vallee Blanche is an endless cruise down fairly flat terrain. We ski down into carefully selected snow-filled crevasses and lunch in a stand of seracs, towering ice cubes jutting 15 metres out of the snow. Jet- black choukas, alpine crows, compete for sandwich crusts. Conditions are heavenly: boot- deep powder at the top and easy-to-ski spring snow all the way to where the glaciers begin tossing stones up into our path.

This is where it happens, just as we cross over to get the telecabine running from the glacier floor up to the train station at Montenvers. Snow is sparse, and Kim catches a rock. She slides towards a crevasse, screaming. As the crevasse is just two feet wide, we ignore her.

No matter how many times I ski the Vallee Blanche it never fails to fill me with a sense of accomplishment. Sweating in the hot sun as we load our skis on to the train down to Chamonix, Kim tugs off her bloodstained and ripped polar fleece and asks me excitedly: 'Can we do it again, tomorrow?'

TRAVEL NOTES

Excursions down the Vallee Blanche can be booked through the Compagnie des Guides UK agents, Collineige (0276 24262): options include difficult alternative routes and an overnight at the new Cosmiques refuge near the top of the Aiguille du Midi.

A guide costs pounds 128 for a party of four skiers, with each additional skier, up to eight, charged at pounds 11. Insurance and helicopter rescue is included but a one- way lift ticket, at pounds 15, is not.

(Photograph omitted)

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