Vallée Blanche: Superb off-piste adventures

The Chamonix ski resort offers off-piste adventures for the intermediate skier. Just make sure you get a guide...

The Vallée Blanche at Chamonix is one of the world's great ski-runs, arguably the best in the Alps that is accessible by ski lift. But it is something more than that: it is the most challenging off-piste run in the Alps that a decent intermediate skier can safely and sensibly tackle. As such, it makes a brilliant climax to a week in Chamonix; indeed, it's one of the prime reasons to go there in the first place. Even without the Vallée Blanche, Chamonix would be one of the top dozen resorts in the Alps; with it, it's in a league of its own.

So what is so special? For the normal on-piste skier, as most of us are, doing something tricky usually consists of finding a more difficult way of going down the same mountain. Nothing wrong with that. You make the choice between the red or the black run depending on the conditions, how you are skiing that day, the number of people on the slope, your general level of competence and so on. You have a nice time and maybe you do a different run down next time.

Going off-piste is different. You have to know what you are doing and if things go wrong, they can go very wrong. If you are really competent, you can have a wonderful time. A friend still waxes lyrical about heli-skiing at Whistler, and I don't doubt it's splendid. But for those of us on a family holiday, most off-piste is not realistic: it is either too difficult to organise, too dangerous or (if you are into helicopters) too expensive. The risk/reward ratio does not stack up.

The Vallée Blanche is special in that it is both accessible and thrilling. There are risks, but the rewards are huge. It is one of Europe's longest ski runs. The skiing is not that difficult: a mixture of red and blue runs on the classic route, or blacks of varying intensity if you cut across the side. But you get a run of 22km (more in a good year), with a vertical descent of more than 2,000 metres, in a grand valley with Mont Blanc towering over you. Even on a busy day you find yourself making your own tracks through the powder. Bliss.

This is what to do. First, get a guide (the hotel or ski school can fix it up). You don't have to get a guide but there are two powerful reasons for doing so. One is interest, the other safety. It is vastly more interesting to have someone who knows the nuances of the routes, can assess the quality of your skiing and then judge how many of the awkward bits you should have a crack at.

People die on the Vallée Blanche every year. On both occasions that we skied it, the helicopters were out. On the first, we were told that a middle-aged Belgian woman had fallen off on the climb down at the start, and I am afraid that was that. On the second occasion, there was an emergency further down the mountain; the news there was not good either.

There are two dangerous aspects. The first is this initial climb down to get to the start of the run. You take the Aiguille du Midi cable car – which is pretty spectacular in itself – to above 3,800 metres. Then you rope up.

You emerge from the Aiguille du Midi station through a tunnel and suddenly you see why you are roped. You have to climb down a ridge, skis and poles in one hand, hanging on to a guide rope with the other, for about 100 metres, with sheer drops on either side. Fall off to the left and you head down 1,500 metres to the valley floor. Fall to the right (as the Belgian lady did) and it is only 200 metres – still enough to kill you.

Further down you have to cross a number of crevasses, and there are points where you are vulnerable to an avalanche. It is fairly obvious where that might be, yet we saw people stopping to take photos exactly where an avalanche would sweep them away. We were told: the next five minutes are dangerous; we cannot out-run an avalanche, so we have to keep moving. We kept moving.

There is a short, bumpy traverse at the top, awkward if conditions are poor. Once through that, you head off across a great, open snowfield. The classic route, "La Vraie", is the longest and easiest. You head south, then swing round to the east and finally north. Head right and you come under some spectacular rock climbs round the base of Mont Blanc; swing to the left and you have descents of varying steepness ahead.

After making fresh tracks across the snowfield you reach the top of the Glacier du Géant. Coming down that is a long and bumpy ride, with the guide picking the safest way to avoid the crevasses. Then it's likely to be lunchtime. You have two options; to stop off at the Refuge du Requin, or to picnic in the snow, as we did.

By then the skiing should be straightforward. You cross the Mer de Glace, one of Europe's longest glaciers, which is a gentle slope with just enough drop to keep you moving. There is a scruffy part at the end where you descend to the glacier's base, but it's not difficult. Finally, conditions permitting, it may be possible to ski down to Chamonix, but more probably you'll need to take a cable-car and then the train from Montenvers back to the town.

The only physically tough thing here is that you have to climb the equivalent of several storeys to reach the bottom of the cable car, which is a long pull at the end of a strenuous ski-run. Why did they not build it so that it went from the glacier itself? Well, they did. Old prints show it ran past the railway station, higher still. But global warming has receded the glacier by several hundred metres. So a wonderful day ends with an uncomfortable reminder of the changes taking place on our planet. I find that curiously fitting. We can marvel at the glory of the Alps and know that we are privileged to share and enjoy them. But if the Vallée Blanche also reminds us of the fragility of nature, then that is no bad thing too.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

Geneva airport, about an hour's drive from Chamonix, is served by several airlines, including easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) and Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com).

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

You can take the Eurostar from St Pancras to Paris and connect for St-Gervais-Les-Bains, where you change to the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix (Rail Europe: 0870 830 4932; www.raileurope.co.uk/snowtrains).

STAYING THERE

Packages to Chamonix can be arranged via tour operators such as Crystal Ski (0870 405 5047; www.crystalski.co.uk) and Erna Low (0845 863 0525; www.ernalow.co.uk).

SKIING THERE

Guided group descents of the Vallée Blanche can be arranged through companies such as The Chamonix Experience (00 33 4 50 54 09 36; www.chamex.com) for ¿€70 (£50) per person based on a group of eight; or Alpine Adventures (00 33 4 50 547 344; www.alpineadventures.co.uk) for £255 per group of five to eight people. Smaller group descents can also be arranged.

MORE INFORMATION

Chamonix Tourism: 00 33 4 50 53 00 24; www.chamonix.net

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone