John Norris / Corbis File
Groups of peak season skiers and guides descend a portion of La Vallee Blanche (The White Valley). At 9,200 feet vertical descent, and 13.7 miles long, this is the longest ski run in Europe.
By Skisnowboardeurope.com
updated 3/7/2006 7:12:39 PM ET 2006-03-08T00:12:39

One of the legendary spring skiing adventures is a trip down the Vallée Blanche along the rugged shoulders of Mont Blanc down into the mountaineering town of Chamonix, France. It is a life-long dream for many serious skiers and was a life-long dream of mine.

Almost two decades ago I attempted to ski down the 12-mile-long glacier Vallée Blanche above Chamonix, France, but conditions wouldn’t permit it. Last, year, I finally had another opportunity to complete the journey.

During my first attempt, the weather had not cooperated. A steady morning drizzle in town meant snow and clouds on the mountains. With crevasses as deep as skyscrapers, ice chunks as big as cars and variable snow, visibility on the glacier is as crucial as having a guide when skiing it. Further, the forecast was for more of the same. Without enough time in Chamonix to wait, I had to abandon the Vallee Blanche.

This time, as before, I reported to the Maison de la Montagne, a stately building housing the guide offices and ski-school offices. It sits, appropriately, next to the church in the center of town. Here in Chamonix, the birthplace of Alpine guiding, mountain guides are next to gods. Until the end of the 19th-century they were the main economic power in Chamonix.

Inside, I talked with the head guide to assure him that my friend and I were capable skiers and in good physical condition for the all-day excursion. They collected about 140 Euros for our group guide fee and instructed us to meet at the base of the Aiguille de Midi cable car early the next morning ready for an adventure.

In the crisp morning, the jagged peaks rose sharply toward a brilliant blue sky, casting shadows across the town, and the wind was restrained. An affable thirty-year-old Parisian named Vincent Lameyre was our official Guide de Haute Montagne. He leads climbers in the summer and skiers in winter through these mountains that he knows intimately. "It's my passion," he said.

Though my heart was racing, I never wavered in my decision when I boarded the cable car to the breathtaking 12,604-foot Aiguille du Midi, a rock outcropping on the flank of Mount Blanc topped with a rocket-looking spire.

I didn't hesitate walking through the tunnel of ice, nor did I flinch when Vincent tightened the harness around my hips that would connect me by rope to eight others in our group for the treacherous journey to the glacier.

Slideshow: A European tour But nothing quite prepared me for what followed: a slow, meticulous descent down a knife-edged ridge with a 6,500-foot drop-off to oblivion. On an icy path as wide as my ski boots, I inched my way down, trying hard to ignore the sheer drop. Tenuously gripping my skis with one hand and a rope guideline with the other, I sidestepped down as slow as the slowest member of my tethered group. I prayed if anything fell, it would be the skis and not one of us.

"Don't look down, don't look down," I repeated to myself, gingerly taking one small step at a time on the slippery slope.

Thankfully, the narrow path dipped below the ridgeline to a plateau where the group gathered to click into skis and begin the all-day journey.

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Here reality kicked in: there was no turning back -- no lifts, no ski patrol, no villages. Anyone not able to continue due to injury or sheer fear was extricated via helicopter. (We saw and heard about five choppers throughout the day.)

But the raw beauty of enormous serrated peaks calmed me. I had never been enveloped in such an expanse of nature on this scale. It was exhilarating, knowing we would spend the day exploring this magnificent glacier valley. 

Seracs and snowbridges

Before we started, Vincent carefully checked our group’s harnesses, in the event one of us should fall into a crevasse and need to be hoisted out. He was serious as he went through a final safety briefing.

"Follow right behind me; do not ski outside my path," he warned with great impact.

Then he showed us a hole he claimed was, "deep enough for the Eiffel Tower to fit in," and skied us over a snow bridge -- a solid path of snow spanning the gaping jaws of a fissure. It was only the first of many that we crossed.

The actual skiing part of the venture was not difficult. In those spots we couldn't ski, like the field of seracs (big blocks of ice fractured from the glacier) we sideslipped, carefully. One or two areas of the entire glacier were steep; the rest was barely pitched. The strong morning sun provided a clear view.

After about three hours, we welcomed the sight of the Refuge du Requin - an old stone hut built into the rock. Here we had a picnic lunch of French cheesy regional dishes, pate and wine. A helicopter flew overhead, making us think that must be how cooks and food got to this place in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe someone needed rescuing.

From the refuge, we skied into a wide-open area called the Salle à Manger (dining room). Towering above it was the Aiguille de Dru, Europe's longest mountaineering vertical where Vincent pointed out various routes he regularly climbs.

After a smooth and relaxing ski, we encountered the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), where shadows cast an eerie glow onto the long glassy valley we crossed. At the end of the glacier, we met the first group of skiers we'd encountered since lunch and joined them climbing slowly on a steep metal stairway up to the cog railway at Montenvers for the evening ride back to Chamonix.

Exhausted and exhilarated, that night we celebrated our feat with a wonderful dinner downtown and dancing into the night.

And no one had to call a helicopter.

Details:

The Chamonix area is called the "Cradle of Mountaineering" with a two-hundred-year history of mountain climbing. Two men made the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786. Skiing was introduced in the late 19th century, and by 1924 the first Olympic Games were held here. Favorite areas to ski are Le Brévent, Vallée Blanche and Grand Montets. The town is not a see-and-be-seen resort. An international crowd comes here to ski Europe's most challenging mountains. There are as many mountaineering shops as ski shops, great restaurants and fun après-ski places.

Tourist Office: Place du Triangle de l'Amitié, F-74400 Chamonix, France; 33 (0) 450 53 23 33; http://www.chamonix.com/

For more information and subjective reviews of restaurants, nightlife and accommodations in Chamonix, consult the 15th edition of the guidebook Ski Snowboard Europe (World Leisure, $21.95) or skisnowboardeurope.com.

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