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 “voilà welcome 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 well.

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 competitions.