Arriving at the Aiguille du Midi
“Excuse me mate, where do the pistes start?”…it’s a question I’ve been asked or overheard far too much when it comes to the Vallee Blanche. Scores of unexperienced skiers pour up the Aiguile Du Midi cable car expecting an elevator to take them down to perfectly groomed red runs. The reality, as many know, is very different. A knife edge arête takes you down to the glacial plateau from which you have a multitude of offpistes runs to chose form, form the easy and classic Vallee blanche to the harder and steeper lines of the Cosmiques and Rondes couloirs. As many will be able to testify, one thing that they all have in common is people, and lots of them.
It’s becoming a very rare thing to find solitude in the mountains of Chamonix, as its popularity with access and having some of the highest mountains in Europe means that even on the hardest climbing routes you can find yourself waiting at belays. Compare it to the likes of the Bernese Oberland where you can literally not see a sole for days does make me wonder why I am here in the first place. But then I am here for the same reasons everyone is- for some of the best, easy access, climbing and skiing in Europe.
The Vallee Blanche is probably one of the most scenic ski descents I have ever done in my life. First skied in Febuary 1903 it has quickly become one of the most famous ski runs in the world incorporating over 17kms of breath taking glacial scenery and huge open valleys that allow you to pass by with ease some of the most famous peaks and faces in the Alps all in the eerie lunar light. Traditionally you can ski straight from the Aiguille du Midi (3842m) to Chamonix town itself covering a total of 25kms and nearly 2800m of vertical descent. However in recent years the path has not been ski-able to the town itself due to poor snow fall and so you can take the Montenvers train that conveniently arrives and departs at the end of the glaciated part of the Vallee Blanche. Whilst this winter started off well, as of a week ago the path is no longer ski-able which is worth noting as the train does not run past 5pm so any descent at night will end up in either sleeping at the train station or long walk down in ski boots.
Armed with sandwiches, tea, and the obligatory pack of cards, we arrived at the Midi and awaited the sunset. I’ve spent many nights up at the Aiguille du Midi and it still remains one of the best places to watch the sunset in the French Alps. To your right you have the impressively crevassed and avalanched scarred south faces of the Mont Blanc, Maudit and Tacul whilst on your left you have the sheer rock walls of the Chamonix Aiguilles, with the Verte and Drus rising up in the background. Tying them all together in the middle you have the imposing and historical north face of the Grandes Jorasses- truly an impressive site when bathed in the last dying rays of the sun. That’s when it starts to get cold, very cold. No matter though as the ‘lifties’ at the Aiguille du Midi are kind enough to leave a heated toilet area open for late alpinists so there we sat for the next 4 hours waiting for the moon to rise high enough to set off.
At around 9pm it was time to finish the last of supper and take a few photos of the starkly changed panorama from only a few hours earlier where we were witnessing the last of the day’s colour before we were plunged into a monochrome landscape of bone white and deep blacks.
Throwing Simon out on the Cosmiques for a few shots of the Mont Blanc, we headed over to the Midi tunnel and cramponed up. In the winter they set up a kind of rope banister system down the arête thus avoiding anyone hurtling down the North face of the Midi- so anyone who has had a bad vertigo experience in the summer will not have to go through the same experience again!
With the lights of Chamonix far below and the infamous peaks of the Verte, Courtes and Droites exposing their less imposing but nevertheless impressive shrouded west faces cascading down to the contrastingly illuminated Talefre basin below, we knew we were in for a special night.
As you ski down under the south face of the Midi, you pass in front of the Mont Blanc du Tacul which never ceases to impress; burdened as it is with tumbling seracs that look set to hurl themselves off the mountain at any time to crash down upon the glacier below leaving behind ice blocks the size of cars that sparkle in the moon light. In this odd light you feel even more humbled by its towering presence over you, and even more so by the complete and total silence that is such a rarity in this overcrowded part of the Alps.
Over past the Rognon and you find yourself carving turns beneath the Tacul East face taking in some of the more famous routes such as Supercouloir and the Modica-Noury that seem like rivers of mercury snaking their way down through the darkened rock towering overhead. The ever menacing serac band and cornice that hangs so dangerously over the Gervasutti couloir somehow look less threatening as if they were part of a different dream world entirely. And that’s one of the problems really; having spent 4 hours in the comfort of the heated Midi station and now speeding by on skis you can get carried away into thinking that its all part of some strange other world that wont affect you at all, and its not until you find yourself skiing between large green blocks of ice that have recently torn themselves off the huge serac band by the Petit Capucin that you remind yourself that if anything its just that bit more dangerous.
Down on to the heavily crevassed Geant glacier and my two visiting friends are over the moon (come on I had to say it once!) with what they are seeing. I’ve skied with them ever since we were about 3 and they don’t have much mountaineering experience. In fact the only bit that any of them has is when we were both attempting a winter ascent of the Breithorn from Zermatt on the kind of snow shoes that could just as easily worked as an ‘apres-climb’ aluminium tennis racket. Back then we were your typical pain-in-the-ass pseudo-mountaineers who assumed that just because we had done some hiking and climbing we could easily climb a 4000m peak in February- basically the rescue services’ nightmare. It comes as no surprise to hear then that my mate fell through into a crevasse unroped and we abandoned the whole fiasco on the Briethorn plateau in a full gale. But as we headed down, now roped up, I wondered how many other first experiences in the Alps had ended as pathetically as ours and we decided that it was time to leave Zermatt and our plans for a snow-shoe ascent of the Mont Rosa (what were we thinking?) and have a go at this fabled Vallee Blanche that we had heard so much about. Once in Chamonix however, we baulked at the idea of paying 45 euros just to do a ski run and now here we were years later, hopefully a little wiser, descending what they would later describe of as the most memorable ski run of their lives.
Smiles all round and we find ourselves approaching the crevassed area by the Requin Hut. This has always been maybe the most objectively dangerous part of the Vallee Blanche as not only do you have a very tumbled glacier on your right but up on your left you have a whole series of smaller seracs that fall also quite regularly- essentially you find yourself in a bit of a tight squeeze with ‘death’ on your left and yes, ‘death’ on your right. Whilst they aren’t huge they can certainly cause some damage so it’s advisable to ski past this section as fast as possible. Unfortunately I’m hooked on photography like it’s a filthy crack habit so I cant stop myself from standing under a few interestingly poised seracs to take some photos of the glacier and my mates below the convoluted Geant Glacier with the Dent Du Geant looming up over head.
A couple of creaks and groans from the glacier underfoot and it’s a good sign to get the hell out of there which is just what we do and before you know it you are speeding down across the enormously flat and wide expanse of the lower part of the Mer De Glace. A snowboarders nightmare yes, but even they cant stop themselves from looking up at the appropriately named Chamonix ‘Needles’ and then, further along, back up at the north face of the Grandes Jorasses that looks even more daunting than usual as this season’s black ice on the Shroud and other routes seem to absorb rather than reflect the light living up to the route’s name.
After a very memorable 17kms of glacier we arrive at the snout and start the short 15 min walk up to join the route back down to Chamonix. This proved to be the thorn in the snowboarders side as having to push themselves along the better part of 4 kms of flat glacier it all adds up; to the extent that on the first day we walked up this, Alex was found collapsed on the floor clutching his snowboard for dear life in the foetal position…after only a couple of minutes. However tonight things are different and as we clamber up the ridge and see the lights of Chamonix below us for the first time since we left the Midi 2 hours ago I realise that we aren’t really a little bit ‘wiser’ as we are two headtorches short and this side of the valley is in pitch black. Coupled with the now sheet ice that has formed in parts it makes for an interesting descent. With sparks flying off the skis as we hit now unseen rocks, trying not to fly off the trail, we find ourselves suddenly on pure ice. The heat form the last few days has melted all the snow and in its wake has left a perfectly smooth ice layer at night. The kind of smoothness that would normally be termed ‘beautiful’ and ‘amazing’, unless that is you were trying to get down it without breaking an arm. As Nic whizzed by on his snowboard unable to stop on only one edge and Alex simultaneously flipped over on his backside for the third time in the last 5 minutes I was pretty glad to have skis on. Nic was later found flat on his back groaning by the railway tracks about some kind of combination of ‘ice…steep...on foot’ not working.
Two battered and bruised snowboarders later and you arrive on the Planards slope which is the first time in 24kms that you can just point your skis down and really pick up speed and as the last rush of adrenaline surges through your body and you ski down past ‘apres-ski’ revellers returning home on the iced up roads, you realise that at least you will remember this night.
For those interested in taking night time shots it’s a bit more of an effort but definitely worth it. Unless you have the kind of on demand rigamortis of a Queen’s Guard then you are going to need a sturdy tripod. Bearing in mind that your shutter will be open for upwards of 20 seconds its worth getting a heavy one as even the slightest gust of wind can ruin your image, and lets face it its quite rare for the mountains to be wind free.
Another tip is try and shoot with a low ISO on digital cameras. I have found that I get really bad noise levels in the darker areas when using a digital SLR. So I always try and shoot at the lowest ISO I can and just compensate by leaving the shutter open for longer (something like ISO125). Also if in doubt always overexpose your shot. If you have an underexposed night shot then trying to lighten it in a photo editing software will make the noise in the darker areas even more accentuated. If you overexpose its much easier just to darken the image slightly and you wont have any noise issues.
If you want to include people in your photo then they will have to try and stay as still as possible for the duration that the shutter is up. Unfortunately your figures tend to come out rather dark so I get one of them to simply hold out a normal standard compact and take shots of themselves (ie the flash on the camera helps bring them out)
Don’t expect perfect photos the first time you try it out too. It’s a different type of photography as you have to realise that there are going to be very lit up areas and very darkened areas, so whilst it may look good to the naked eye, getting in too much ‘shade’ will actually not look so good when on screen- and even worse in print.
My final tip is be patient! Not only does it take longer for the shot to capture on film/sensor but you also will have to manually focus in as well as set up the tripod on each occasion. As opposed to normal-lit scenes which can take a few seconds to take a shot, I often take a few minutes at night. Since it takes a while to capture each shot its also worth getting the right shot first time, take time to compose it properly.
Also feel free to check out a new site that we have just launched. It's loaded with great mountain photography for when you are bored! "Alpine Exposures"