Escape from hell mountain

Mont Blanc tempts the skier - but beware. Richard Holledge tells the tale
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The Independent Travel
One sight dominates Courmayeur. Whether you are breezing down the bosky little runs or pausing for breath on the bumpy black, there it is. Stop for a sweet, hot chocolate in Rifugio Monte Bianco, or sit in the town's Caffe della Posta watching be-furred signoras patrolling the cobbled Via Roma with their dogs in matching fur coats: you never escape Mont Blanc.

Its great mass looms out from the mist in bad weather and appears like a giant snowdrift in the sunshine. In its lee there is one of the great skiing adventures in the Alps - the Vallee Blanche, 16 miles down a glacier between Italy and France, where you can taste freedom, far from the madding remontees mechaniques, on glorious miles of off-piste skiing. Well, that's what it says in the books.

Having gazed at the mountain's bulk from the various cafes of the resort, you find the thought of skiing down it becoming irresistible even though your enthusiasm for the adventure is tempered by the news that it takes three sets of antiquated cable cars to get to the top. The last stage is the shortest and the most daunting, linking two peaks with a terrifying drop between them. When you take a nervous peek over the edge of the railings of the penultimate station it is disturbingly evident that there is very little between you and the village a long, long way down in the valley.

Six of us - a newly-wed couple, a pale Finn, and two middle-aged German women - clamber into the alarmingly small, rather tinny, car. Midway it stops. It swings violently. We go quiet. Next stop the village? The guide pipes up encouragingly: "Look over there. Marvellous view of the Matterhorn."

No one looks.The Finn gets paler. The newly-weds cling together. I shut my eyes. Who cares about the Matterhorn when the only view that haunts is the huge drop to the village?

Ten minutes later we lurch into life. The tension lifts. We're there. The great adventure can start. Not quite. The next car carrying the rest of our party reaches midway, swings violently and stops. And there it stays. It transpires that the cable is twisted. Buttons are pressed, levers pulled, phones ring, pisteurs pace. The car remains stuck. A helicopter whirrs up out of the valley. The Pierce Brosnan of Courmayeur drops from a rope clutching a large spanner. The cable is untwisted. Forty-five minutes later the car moves and six shaken skiers emerge.

We're ready for off. The Germans are reunited with their husbands after their ordeal. One of them proudly tells us that they have no need for a guide, because her man made the trip a year or so back. Our guide looks contemptuous and we look a little doubtful. The one golden rule is to ski with a guide. Although the skiing may not be arduous, the glacier is strewn with crevasses and sudden falls.

It is easy enough at the start. There is a long schuss across the bowl from the Courmayeur side to that of Chamonix, where scores of skiers are making their way from the Aiguille du Midi. Italy and France meet in a huge ski jam 10 minutes from the top.

The jam gets worse. There is no chance to marvel at the wild, grey mountains that bracket the valley. We find ourselves in a succession of side-steps down steep, narrow couloirs with Koreans blocking the way, Germans elbowing in, and Brits who have not been skiing long enough to get a mark on their new Nevicas frozen with terror at the commotion. There is confusion, bad temper and constant exhortations from the guides for the throng to stay in line.

Their concern seems exaggerated, until a purposeful trio of pisteurs with ropes and shovels add to the chaos by bursting through our ranks and disappearing down a hole a few feet away. They drag out the German who was so confidently expecting to lead his womenfolk to untold delights, and he is whisked off in a helicopter. The place is so crowded, it does not so much capture the mystique of off-piste skiing, as a down elevator during the Harrods sale. This feeling is reinforced when after another 30 minutes' slithering, scores of us hunker down with our packed lunches in the same small plain, like picnickers in a motorway lay-by.

It does get better. The skiing through the great chunks of blue ice of the glacier is easy, rolling and surreal but just when you start enjoying the glide, it comes abruptly to an end and you are faced with a long trudge up a vertiginous stairway, an expensive lift to the top of the valley and a crowded train trip to Chamonix.

You wonder why you went away. Courmayeur is a delight, not so much for the skiing, which is pleasant and easy on the edges, but for the mountain restaurants which vie for your attention with infinite varieties of pasta, good cheer, and a very passable local red. And there is one outing more rewarding than the Vallee Blanche. It is to take one of the many day trips organised by the tour companies (or indeed catch the local bus) to Aosta.

From a car park on the fringes of the town, near the bus park and the motorway, you can take a gondola to the small resort of Pila. The day I visited the sun was up and the pistes livened by a fresh fall of spring snow - and there were no crowds.

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