One of the most remarkable aspects about the sport of skiing is its ability to take you to some incredible places. This past March, during spring break for grad school, I was fortunate enough to explore one of skiing’s most sought-after destinations, Chamonix, France. A bucket list location for any downhill plank enthusiast. I am so grateful that I had the means to experience this wonderful place with some great company.
My wife Melissa and I packed our bags, departed our home in Seattle, WA, and flew across the Atlantic Ocean to Geneva, Switzerland, where we then drove an hour south to arrive in the picturesque Chamonix Valley in France. We met my long-time buddy Liam and his girlfriend Emily at a group chalet where we’d spend the week. Gourmet cuisine and bottomless red wine would be the primary theme while at our wonderful and cozy chalet. However, once we stepped foot out the door it was all about skiing. Chamonix boasts a handful of ski resorts that are all easily accessible via a hop on the valley bus system followed by a steep gondola ride to the high alpine. Most of the week entailed some fun group shredding within the bountiful ski resorts of Chamonix, but one day was devoted to a very special objective. This special objective was a day-long off-piste ski tour of the classic Vallée Blanche descent.
An early morning wake-up brought us to the Aiguille du Midi tram terminal in the heart of downtown Chamonix. Here, we met our guide Ben from Vertical Frontiers Guiding who would be our lead for the day. An equipment check, beacon test, and one last itinerary run-through all gave the green light to load the tram and ascend roughly 2800 meters to arrive at the Aiguille du Midi, which serves as the entrance point to the Vallée Blanche. We met the high elevation with beautiful sunshine, blue skies, and about 18 cm of fresh snow from overnight; hard to imagine asking for anything quite nicer than that! This outdoor playground amongst the shadows of Mont Blanc is an alpine multisport heaven. Backcountry skiers & split-boarders, ice climbers, and mountaineers made up most of the crowd out on the glacier enjoying the breathtaking day.
Proper entrance to the glacier requires a steep boot-pack descent along a very exposed ridge. Our team strapped on crampons, roped up, and utilized a permanently fixed guideline to safely make our way to the starting point of the Vallée Blanche. Once there, I finally stepped into my VICE Tours as we transitioned to downhill and got to enjoy some wonderful turns while looking directly out onto Mont Blanc in the distance. The aesthetic of the Alps was absolutely mind-boggling. Never before have I seen a mountain range with such magnitude and expansiveness. One massive, craggy, snow-covered peak after the next; all superimposed on each other as far as the eye could see. This is one of those sights that can’t truly be captured by words or pictures but rather something that needs to be experienced.
After enjoying some turns and pinching myself a few times to ensure I wasn’t dreaming, we made it to the base of Vallée Noir, a glacier just adjacent to Vallée Blanche. From here we would transition into climbing skins and begin the first uphill travel of the day. Having Ben with us was great, as it allowed for more exploration off the standard classic descent. We managed a couple of laps harvesting some fresh powder eights before making our last ascent along the base of the Dent du Géant (translated means “Tooth of the Giant”), a prominent peak whose shadow falls on the Géant Glacier and Vallée Noir. A ridge that marks the border between Italy and France would be where we stopped for lunch. Having my toes in Italy and my tooshie in France while overlooking the grandness of the European Alps certainly stands out as one of the best lunches of all time.
One last transition would bring our final descent down the Vallée Noir which then met up with the classic Vallée Blanche. Each new aspect brought fresh lines, more beautiful views, and plenty of hootin’ and hollerin’. The last notable pitch of the Vallée Blanche is followed by a long slightly graded traverse, which provides the perfect vantage point to look back at all the vertical you just covered. The end of the traverse brought us to the base of the glacier, where we were met with an elaborate fixed step and catwalk system to reach a gondola terminal that would take us out of the glacier valley. At one point in time, these steps and the gondola weren’t necessary but extreme glacier recession has made this a new necessity to properly access the glacier. A subtle reminder of the very prevalent impacts that climate change is having on the environment.
From the exit of the gondola sits a 100-year-old station for a mountainside train that brings tired Vallée Blanche skiers and tourists alike from the base of the glacier back to the center of town. The ride down provided a great time to reflect on just how special this once-in-a-lifetime experience was. So much planning goes into any big ski objective, and when weather, avalanche conditions, and logistics pan out and everything goes off safely without a hitch, man is it easy to crack an ear-to-ear grin. I’ll remember my Vallée Blanche ski for the rest of my life, and I’m so fortunate I was able to experience it. For those looking for that next great adventure on either one or two planks, go to Chamonix, France and shred the Vallée Blanche. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
About Kevin: Kevin's skiing began at the age of 3 on the "ice" coast of New England. Now in the Pacific Northwest, Kevin's ski playground resides in the technical terrain & aesthetic beauty that is the Cascade Mountains. Whether it's big mountain freeriding, backcountry touring, or clocking in as a part-time patroller, he's always finding ways to spread the stoke! When not on the hill, Kevin can be found in the classroom studying for his Doctorate in Physical Therapy. Follow him on Instagram at@kdohreg_16.
Gregory Louie, Doctor of Physical Therapy (aka @the_ski_pt on Insta) discusses some simple ski exercises and workouts you can do to help prevent knee injuries this season! Greg specializes in building ski-specific strength & conditioning programs and helping injured skiers with their rehab. His unique niche has given opportunities for him to work with the U.S. Ski Team as a volunteer medical provider.