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.

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