Vallée Blanche: Over the Sea of Ice

The magnificent Vallée Blanche above Chamonix offers a glacial wilderness to skiers and boarders, says James Palmer

Manu was dressed in the reassuring red all-in-one ski suit of a true Alpine mountain guide when he met us in the car park at the base of L'Aiguille du Midi. Less reassuring was the sight of a sackful of crampons, ice-axes, ropes, buckles and emergency transmitters he had brought with him. Were we going skiing, or scaling Mont Blanc? Alas, Manu told us, these were the bare essentials for any group of intermediate skiers and boarders intent on negotiating the deep powder and crevasses of the legendary Vallée Blanche above Chamonix.

The descent from the steeple-like summit of l'Aiguille du Midi drops 2,800m in 22km, and takes you through a stunning array of off-piste pitches and bowls as you negotiate the séracs of the Géant glacier and the Glacier du Tacul on to a block of ice 7km long, 1,200m wide and 200m deep: the aptly named Mer de Glace - the sea of ice.

The oxygen thinned and the apprehension grew as the cable car rose to the 3,842m peak, where our little group of four snowboarders and two skiers disembarked into a tunnel carved out of ice. Here, Manu ensured we were all buckled to a single line of rope, and fitted with crampons and transmitters for the first stage of the descent: a hike along a sharp arrête with vertiginous drops either side. If anyone lost their balance, he told us, we could all play a part in hauling them back onto the straight and narrow, while Manu - who, when he's not babysitting tourists, works as a mountain guide for the French army - would hop over the other side of the arrête to act as a human anchor.

Our trek passed without incident; instead everyone enjoyed what must be the most spectacular views in the Alps. Then the skiing began in earnest. Clean, wide runs untouched by piste-bashers or early-risers stretched out before us, enabling the snowboarders to carve out their wide lines without a peep of complaint from the skiers. My problems began as the slopes steepened and narrowed in the descent to the Mer de Glace. Manu had chosen some powdery routes that were perfect for the boarders, but stalled me in my tracks. As the boarders bounded downwards, my limited off-piste experience left me trailing badly, up to my knees in snow I couldn't hop out of. Every turn burned the thighs. Twice, I was forced to sit shamefaced and exhausted in the powder - but my frustration was quickly erased by the most awesome of sights. Everywhere, sheer and jagged mountain walls rose around us - on one side France, on the other Italy. Above was a bright blue sky and below was the icy route home, where an evening feast awaited. It was to be cooked by Vaughan, a gregarious Kiwi chef who our hosts at BoardnLodge had employed to cater for the chalet. Dragged out of a brief sulk by the magnificence of the place - and the thought of some mighty fodder - I was back on my feet and diving through the powder.

Revenge on the snowboarders was sweet: as the final pitch levelled out around the frozen shores of the Mer de Glace, those without poles were forced to remove their boards and trudge across the slippery terrain. The skiers skated on ahead, thankful for the autonomy of each and every leg. The feeling of freedom of skiing across this vast, icy wilderness was tempered only by the fear of plummeting into one of the many crevasses that lurked beneath the snow bridges: following in the tracks of your guide is vital when traversing the sea of ice.

Depending on the snowfall, you can ski all the way back to Chamonix, but our adventure came to an end in the safety of the funicular railway that departs from just above the snout of the glacier, and which eased us gently back down to earth.

The best way to deal with the fatigue that follows a descent of the Vallée Blanche is to meet it head-on with a meal the size of a small mountain. Vaughan did not disappoint, serving up a goats' cheese salad, an Alpine lake of beef stew, and heaps of chocolate parfait with rasberry coulis. A most satisfying end to one utterly satisfying day.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

The writer stayed with BoardnLodge (020-7419 0722; www.boardnlodge.com) at Le Tour Chalet Lodge. Prices range from £400-£2,000 a week for chalets. Catering costs around £25 per head. BoardnLodge can arrange a variety of holidays, including airport transfers (the writer flew to Geneva with easyJet from Luton) and guides for the Vallée Blanche. Mountain guides can be booked for groups from around £44 per person; for a list of independent guides and guiding bureaux, see www.chamonix.net. For more information on the Vallée Blanche and Chamonix, see www.chamonix.com. To get there by train, visit www.raileurope.com. Take Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) to Paris, and connect for St-Gervais-Les-Bains where you change onto the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn