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.

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace