Nearly Losing His Breakfast
Brian stands at the top of a steep slope, legs becoming jelly partly from the sudden altitude gain but mostly from fear. A short chat ensues with the only other person anywhere nearby, his partner Joe, about how to set up some photos. A quick last gulp of oxegen, a plant of a ski pole, and he's off. The snow is amazingly good, he thinks, as he links turns, traversing ever leftward to escape a constant sluff avalanche, always teetering just on the edge of balance.
"Now this is what I call 'mountaineering'," thinks Brian, as he finishes the last turn, sets up his camera, and waves for Joe to follow on down.
A Very Different Midi-Plan
On sunny summer mornings, Aiguille du Midi cablecars unload mountaineer after mountaineer, a large portion of which head for the popular "Midi-Plan Traverse" route. This dizzying ridgeline connects the Aiguille du Midi and cablecar station directly to the highest of the Chamonix Aiguilles with minimal elevation gain or loss.
On sunny winter mornings, Aiguille du Midi cablecars unload skier after skier, a large portion of which travel, by ski, more or less the same route. Called the 'Grand Envers du Plan', this steep variation of the Vallee Blanche traces the same route that mountaineers take in the summer, then drops left, into a steep glaciar that would be unthinkable if not for the snow bridges that build up in the early winter.
We decided to build our own "Midi-Plan on Skis" route by linking together this great ski decent with a ski tour to rejoin the summer route and tag the Aiguille du Plan summit.
Earning His Lunch
The turns are so good, he nearly misses the turnoff. There is a fantastic whoomping sound of powder snow pushed by skis as Joe comes to a halt just next to him. The two pause for a moment, contemplating the silence that only exists where life is sleeping or rarely present - caves, deserts, glaciars...
"I think we can make it through," says Brian, tracing a possible line under a serac band to an avalanche swept couloir that seems to lead past the obstruction. "I think it may be too steep to ski up," he adds, frowning. The couloir appears steep and icy. It terminates in a nasty vertical icefall which would not be fun to fall over. "We can try it," he says.
They set to the task of putting skins on their skis, trading thick gloves for thin ones, and so on. Within five minutes they are breaking a trail up into the unknown.
The Steep Ladder of Success
Brian and Joe have stopped taking photos. For the moment they are too preoccupied with attempting not to fall over a cliff of ice. Having traversed into the couloir, they are finding the going steep and the consequences of a slip quite disheartening.
"Do you think it's safer with the rope on or off here?" Joe asks.
"Off," Brian responds without a second's hesitation. He pauses to consider that while it's beneficial to belay Joe through some of the tougher sections and the many kick turns required to get up the narrow couloir, a small unexpected slip by his partner would send him tumbling down some pretty nasty stuff. And of course a slip by him would be even worse for Joe.
The snow is, surprisingly, ideal for touring. There is just enough soft snow on the surface to make the track quite easily. However Joe is not having an easy go at it. "Perhaps a bit overambitous," thinks Brian as he watches Joe fight the fear and expand far too much energy stomping, kicking, and planting poles in an effort not to slip.
Finally they reach the top of the couloir to a nearly flat plateau, littered with avalanche debris. After a brief lunch, they continue now making rapid progress, to the base of a steep bowl. They climb this bowl without incident, both of them now far more happy with the lack of any exposure, although the word "avalanche" hovers disturbingly in their minds.
The Express Elevator Down
Finally they reach the ridgeline, where a fantastic view presents itself and the summit of the Aiguille du Plan seems close enough to touch. "Three o'clock," says Joe. Brian notes a touch of concern and agrees. There won't be a summit today if they are meant to avoid a very long walk back to town. Barely taking time to enjoy such an incredible spot, he begins stripping his skis and setting up for the descent.
"I think we can make it," Brian says, "but we've got to haul ass." The two take a moment to think about the consequences of missing the last Montenvers train - it would add perhaps five hours of walking down a steep and snowless mountain trail, shleping their heavy ski gear, missing apres ski and indeed likely missing the last call at most of the restraunts. Brian has done that walk before and is not keen to have to do it again.
The two race nonstop down slope after slope of what should be enjoyable skiing but has turned into a manic race against the clock. "This snow is fantastic," thinks Brian, fleetingly, as he pushes on and on, ignoring the need to take a rest. Making the last turn and straightlining a dip, he arrives finally at the beginning of the flat Mer de Glace and without a pause, starts pushing with his poles across this sea of ice.
Joe glances at his watch and relaxes as he realizes there is fifteen minutes to spare, but Brian, without the luxury of this knowledge, containes hell-bent, negotiating the final set of crevasses where another cablecar comes into view. He relaxes somewhat to see several groups of people making their way up the stairs. He clicks out of his skis and ascends the stairs, finally relaxing as he arrives at a waiting telecabine.
"I think about fourteen more steps and I would have thrown up," remarks Joe. "And I mean spewing everywhere," he adds, tastefully.
Twenty minutes they are enjoying a bacon avacado burger and an enormous basket of French Fries, rehashing every minute of the adventure and enjoying the afterglow that only a ridiculous push of exercise and a shot of high mountain fear can provide.
The BetaThe Grand Envers:
Needs a lot of snow and wind to fill in the crevasses. Usually starts getting skied in January and then en masse
around mid-February once the fixed lines are set up on the Aiguille du Midi arete.
Walk down the Midi arete, ski the short steep slope that is usually a muppet show of shaky guided parties. Traverse high left in the direction of the Aiguille du Plan. A small uphill hike and you arrive at the beginning of the ski proper, staring down a slope which begins at 45 degrees and is usually icy, getting slightly less steep to around 40 degrees for around 200m.
A nearly flat traverse brings you to a second, slightly less steep slope also around 200m, followed by another nearly flat bit to reach the junction with the Glaciar d'Envers du Plan which gives the route its name. Mellow but highly crevassed slopes continue to a final, steep sector. First glaciated, then on the moraine, navigation through this final, complex phase involves some tricky route-finding, especially early and late in the season when slick, exposed moraine slabs can make a wrong turn quite costly. Traverse right to reach the Requin refuge and containe down the Vallee Blanche 'Voie Normale' or head straight down the system of couloirs to reach the Mer de Glace more directly. Five nearly flat kilometers gets you to the Montenvers train station or the beginning of the piste down to town, snow coverage permitting.
Aiguille du Plan South Face:
To repeat our tour, break off from the Grand Envers just after the second steep section. Navigate the imposing ice wall to reach a plateau (after around 200m of ascent). A final steep bowl at around 40 degrees takes you to the 'Col Superiour du Plan.' A final ~150m of mixed climbing to UIAA III gets you to the summit.
Dangers and Notes:
This tour isn't very popular and we think it's probably because you tour in red light avalanche zones for most of the way up. You need a stable snowpack, or perhaps a very early start from the Requin Hut on a spring morning to mitigate the danger.
Time and Distance:
30 minutes if you're quick for the downhill ski, add perhaps 4 1/2 hours for the ascent and another 1 1/2 hours of further descent to get down to Montenvers.