This blog is dedicated to all of us who spent most of our adult lives nuturing, caring, and inspiring our families. Now that our children are grown and many of us are single again, we are free to pursue our dreams.
Saturday, May 28, 2016
Vallee Blanche Adventure
Bertrand Oustry’s morning routine usually includes meeting clients at the
base of Aiguille Du Midi cable car base station in Chamonix France. Auiguille Du Midi translates to the eye of
the needle, and at 12605 ft, it is the highest peak in the world served by an
aerial tram system. As a high mountain
guide, he spends his days guiding clients through the high peaks in the Mont
Blanc massif of the French Alps.
Oustry says the first time he skied down from Auiguille Du Midi was at
the age of seven with his father. Oustry
described how the level of the glacier has receded over 500 meters (1640 ft)
over the past 30 years. His father was a
mountain rescuer in the French Alps of Chamonix. Bertrand also started his career in mountain
rescue. He and his father now both work
as mountain guides. He said in rescue
you help people at their worse in the mountains, and that he put himself in
many dangerous situations. Oustry said
he prefers guiding. It gives him a much
safer way to share his love of the mountains and glacier.
On March 11, 2016, Oustry guided me and 6 friends up the 2 cable cars up
to the top of Aiguille Du Midi to start our adventure via the Vallee Blancheski route down to the town of Chamonix. At the top of Aiguille Du Midi, Oustry
waved his hand and said “voilàwelcome to my office.” The view was breath taking. It was a bluebird
day with no wind, and it felt like we could see forever. We saw peaks from the Swiss, French and
Italian Alps and looked down to the town of Chamonix in the valley below.
When it was time to gear up, we all put on climbing harnesses and carried
rescue transceivers. Even though we had
crampons, Oustry said the snow was soft packed on the arête, and we
didn’t need them. The arête was a narrow ridge
that connected the top of the Aiguille Du Midi
to the trail where we would begin to ski down.
The hike down the arête was the
most challenging part of our adventure. The path is about three feet wide with steep 50 degree pitches on either
side that dropped into what seemed like the great obis. There were many other groups making the same single
file descent before and after us.
The eight of us were connected by a long rope. We were lucky
that day. There was a thick rope strung
through posts on the side of the trail.
We hung on to the rope to help balance as we made our way down. There were two snowboarders in our group, Mitch and Rachel slowly
led the way followed by Eric an expert backcountry skier. Kathy came next. To say she was nervious is an
understatement. We could hear her
praying as she slipped in her ski boots down the narrow path. I came next, and I tried to keep the rope
taught between us, hoping I would help steady Kathy’s slippery descent. Betsy and Jean were next, with Oustry at the
rear. He had on crampons. If we were to slip or start to fall, it was
up to him to stop us from falling into the abyss. When we finally made it down the arête, we put our skis and
snow boards then followed Oustry down a short moguled pitch toward a big rock
where we regrouped.
From there Oustry led us away from the crowd and to a large
expanse of untracked powder. He would
say “I find the powder, follow me,” and we did.
Initially we were in untracked light powder, but as we continued down
the trail the snow became heavier and eventually it had a crust on top.
He would give us perimeters of where we could ski in
relation to his ski tracks. He would
usually ski down first. In a wide open snow
field he might say, stay within 30 meters (98 ft) of my tracks. At one point we were in an area with many
crevasses. Oustry said stay close to my
tracks. Mitch was the first to follow, then
Rachel, then me. I stopped when I saw
Rachel stopped waving her arms, calling stop.
When I looked ahead, I saw Oustry and Mitch stopped a short distance
from a crevasse. I called to those behind me to stop. Oustry, Mitch and Rachel had to walk back
toward us, snow up to their knees, to a safer path. We skied over a five foot snow bridge to the
other side of the crevasse.
We would take periodic short breaks to look around, enjoy
the scenery and to hear Oustry’s tell us the history of the glacier we were
on. We would look on the remains of
previous avalanches. There were large
chunks of blue glacier ice, ranging from the size of a large SUV to the size of
a tractor-trailer, along the side our trail.
There were also boulders and rocks.
He said water would get in between the layers of rock and ice on warmer
days, than refreeze when it was cold.
This cycle loosened the bond between the layers and caused many of the
avalanches. He pointed up to the top of
one of the peaks in the distance, and boulders along the side of our
trail. He said a few years back a piece
of the peak, the equivalent of a five story building, came loose and fell off. He said the force from it measured 5 on the
Richter Scale. The boulders on the side of the trail were part of the remains
from that avalanche.
Eventually we funneled into to a path that met up with many
other groups. In one area a deep
crevasse went along the left side of our narrow path. After we had passed it, Oustry told us if we
had fallen into that crevasse, it was so deep there would be no way to find
us. When we skied to what we thought was
the end of our trail, we looked left and up and realized that was where the
trail continued. I took my skies off and
strapped them back onto my backpack and started hiking up the hill following in
the footsteps of a long line of skiers.
It went on and up for about 1.25 miles.
Oustry ended up carrying not only his own skis, but Jean and Kathy’s as
At the top of the hill there was a large group of people,
and a small outpost selling food and drink.
We stopped for a well deserved lunch and rest. After lunch we put on our skis for the final
leg of our adventure. We skied on a snow
pack trail that wound around the bottom of the mountain. About a half mile from town the snow turned
to dirt. We took off our skies and
walked the trail until we reached the Les Planards beginner ski area. We skied down the gentle slope and into the
parking lot. Happy and exhausted I took
off my skies and shouted big WooHoo to my friends and guide. We returned the climbing harnesses and
transceivers to Oustry, and then we made our way to the closest bar for beer
and to celebrate.
Oustry ended this day, the way he ended many of his guiding
days with a beer with his guests before he headed back up the mountain. Only this time he planned to climb it. He said he needed to get in shape for his next
season as a mountain guide, and for competing in professional mountain climbing