4.30 AM is not unusual for an Alpine Start however hanging around in a cemetery car park felt a bit strange.
I had arrived first and there was not a living soul in sight.. I waited 10 minutes.. nothing, maybe I was the wrong side of the cemetery, or even worse at the wrong cemetery! I drove around to the other car park, no one there either so I returned back to the first car park. In the space of 5 minutes a bus had arrived and 54 people had appeared from no where and were eagerly loading their skis in to the hold. Fortunately they had left some space for the only snowboarder on the trip, and it was goodbye Lecco and hello Chamonix.
The bustle of the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique was efficiently navigated under the direction of Joel and our Alpine Guide Marco, before I knew it my number was up and I was being swept up to 3800 metres with the promise of sun, glorious views and wide open slopes.
I had already descended the Vallée Blanche from Point Helbronner on the Italian side but the Aiguille du Midi was altogether a different experience. There are big drops right from the start, we saw some guys abseiling down the gully below the bridge and others jumping from helicopters circling above. A little surreal but once this had been taken in, the first challenge was to descend the knife edge ridge to the shoulder. The téléphérique guys put up ropes to help you descend, but still it is a bit of an exposure shock. On a busy day you will be in a queue, there will be people descending in slippery ski boots, some with skis in their hands, some attached to their guides by ropes. The prudent will have crampons with them!
The weather was perfect, Marco had planned it well and below there was 25km and 2700m of descent waiting for us! Away from the Aig. du Midi the crowds get swallowed up by the immensity of the massif. Even our group of 55 soon split in to sub groups, bumping in to each other, stopping to take in the views and strip off clothing on the way down.
And so we swooshed under Mont Blanc du Tacul, hung a wide turn left around the Gros Rognan and motored down the Glacier de Géant. A picnic on the Salle à Manger plateau beckoned but the Requin icefall stood between us and it. It is a little steeper here, and with a few more crevasses opening their hungry mouths I was rather keen to get to lunch rather than to become lunch.
From the plateau we watched other parties descend the icefall, soaked up the atmosphere, took photos, made a snowman which the birds took as a bird table and got tucked in to our picnics. A full stomach was crucial to build enough momentum to glide across the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France with just enough slope for a snowboarder to make it through unassisted.. much to the surprise of my non believing skiing companions.
I felt pretty smug but the end of the descent holds a little surprise. First of all you have to fall off the end of glacier, a short steep icy section leading to a slope which you must ascend on foot to the refreshments kiosk. Yup, it’s just got a little surreal again. Here you can get a beer and enjoy a good view of what remains of the Dru. The giant ghiro otherwise known as Jason would still be there now if we hadn’t of woken him up from his slumber.
The story should end here, it had been a great day out and we were sitting in the sun by a bar, but Chamonix is still hundreds of metres below. The descent can be a bit hit and miss, the path is narrow and if it has not snowed in a while it can be icy, littered with stones, and can have whole sections where you are obliged to walk. After the thrill of the glacier it is a bit of a chore.
The board has a few more dings but nothing that can’t be patched up. We all arrived safely and celebrated in suitable style with a glass of fizz. A small slideshow of the descent can be found here, and Jon Griffith has written an excellent recount of a moon lit descent of the valley over at UKC