Best Ski Adventure Ever: Our Self-Guided Skiiing of the Vallee Blanche, the Legendary Off-Piste Run

The Vallee Blanche is, arguably, the most famous off-piste ski run in the world.  It's a 22 km trip on  the largest glacier i...




The Vallee Blanche is, arguably, the most famous off-piste ski run in the world.  It's a 22 km trip on  the largest glacier in France, right on the shoulder of Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest mountain.  The decent takes you though jaw-dropping scenery and is also chock-full of extreme potential danger.  The valley is full of deep, heavily obscured crevasses.  There is the danger of serac falls, rock falls, and of course, there is always  the risk of avalanche.  Almost everyone who skis the Vallee Blanche does so with a professional guide.  If you are unfamiliar with the run, to venture out into that dangerous terrain without a guide would be extremely risky and foolish.   

One of our primary goals for our season in Chamonix was to ski the Vallee Blanche together as a family, and we did for the first time a few weeks ago; we got a guide and made the trip.  Unfortunately, the company we hired set us up with a terrible guide.  Although we had made it clear well in advance that we were a family with children (expert skier children, no less!), our guide arrived to meet us without having been told that he would be guiding kids that day. And although kids even younger than ours ski the Vallee Blanche every single day, our guide was not, to put it mildly, a kid-person.  He was in a bad mood from the get-go, and without launching into all the details, let's just say it wasn't the best experience.  After that, Travis was adamant that our first, less than ideal experience on the Vallee Blanche would NOT be our last.  He began reading and studying all about the historic ski run, and with his solid mountaineering experience (and also having skied the VB once already), Trav felt ready to guide our family. So we ventured out again.        



Many days before the trip, Trav had been following the weather and the avalanche reports.  Of course, he selected a day when the avalanche risk was extremely low. We began that morning with an extensive family briefing.  We studied the route we'd be taking on the map, discussed the protocol we'd follow throughout the day, and reviewed snow safety procedures.



Here's Vivian ( 8 years old) sporting her harness and avalanche beacon.  All four of us wear one when we ski.



Trav adjusts Viv's gear outside the Aguille du Midi tram station before we go.  The Aguille du Midi tram takes you up to the summit (3842 meters, 12,640 feet) where they have built a castle-like station that is an engineering masterpiece and pretty much defies logic.  Balancing precariously on the very top of a crazily high, narrow peak, the Aguille du Midi is an absolute marvel.  Hundreds of tourists ride this tram every day to experience the thrill and enjoy the summit views. You can also ride the tram back down.  (But not us. We SKIED down!)     




   The tram ride to the summit of the Aguille du Midi is broken into two sections.  This is the mid-way point, where you switch and get into a second tram for the final ascent.



At the summit station, we strapped our skis onto our backpacks and put crampons on our boots, because we had a relatively short but extremely gnarly hike ahead of us.



To access the Valle Blanche pistes (ski trails) you must first hike down a steep, narrow ridge.  We wore harnesses and were tethered together via ropes for the descent.  There is a rope guardrail to hold onto for much (but not all) of the hike down.  The crampons we wore are necessary because of the steep grade and icy/snowy condition of the pitch.  This is considered a "no-fall zone", meaning, you really really, cannot fall, because there is nothing but bottomless cliff beside you.


For our hike down to the piste, Trav designated Hudson (age 12)  to lead us.  Trav took up the rear because as the strongest and heaviest, that is the best position should someone trip or fall.    Hud did an amazing job leading us down. He was very calm and communicated well. (Also, check out the summit station in this photo-- isn't it crazy!?!)   Here are some of Hud's thoughts about leading us down the ridge:

"I was scared at first.  I felt alone for the first few minutes climbing down the ridge, because I was in the front and I couldn't see anyone else behind me.   It was straight down the cliff beside us.  If you fell and started going without a harness, there was nothing you could stick your hands into, because it was all ice.  It gave me a feeling of loneliness.  My heart went up into my throat.  But then I felt, "I'm doing this." I felt good in my leadership.  My pack was heavy.  I had 1.5 liters of water in my pack, my shovel and probe, my lunch, and my skis.  Then there was the leg of the hike where people above us almost skied down an icy goat path from above us.  We called out, "No no no!"  And then they stopped.  You don't ski on blue ice and I was worried that they were going to fall and run into us. Luckily, they stopped.
I felt so good finishing the Vallee Blanche.  You can't do something like that without being a little afraid."     


 We made it down the ridge trail, and here we are at the top of the piste, getting ready to ski!  My hands were shaking.  It was an intense feeling.


With the larger-than-life spire of the Aguille du Midi behind us, we began making our way down the Vallee Blanche. We skied single file with Trav in the lead, Hud 2nd, Viv 3rd, and me as the caboose.




Trav points out some climbers on the rock face above.




    The sparkling blue glacial ice you get to see close up on the Vallee Blanche is just spellbinding. I felt like I was in a fairy tale.



Here' some more glacial ice and one of the many crevasses we encountered on the Vallee Blanche.  This crevasse was super obvious, but many are not at all.  You can be skiing along merrily and then fall right in, because they are so difficult to see.  Falling into a crevasse can end your life, and you have to really know where you are going when you ski this terrain.


When we stopped for lunch, a helicopter buzzed through, briefly landed (who knows why?!) and then took off again.  It was crazy awesome.  We cheered like boy-band fans, especially when they waved to us.


                                                       Sandwiches with a view.


After skiing the about 20 km of the Vallee Blanche, you have to hike up from the bottom of the valley to the top.  The sketchy part of this for us was that it was so late in the day at that point and the day was so warm that huge rocks began falling from high on the cliffs on the opposite side of the tight valley.  They were as big or bigger than basketballs, and you could hear them incessantly crashing down the valley walls.  The rocks were all stopping on the far side of the valley, but when you're watching rocks cascade down a mountain a short distance from you, you start to wonder how big a rock would have to be to make it to the other side of the valley.  So when we got the to boot-packed trail that would lead us away from the valley floor, we were moving fast.  The trail was steep and extremely icy.  Viv , the perpetual mountain goat, led us up this steep hike.  We don't have photos of her doing so because she was so far ahead!  Here are Viv's thoughts about the hike:

 "My favorite part of the Vallee Blanche ski was the hike up at the end.  I was the lead hiker in my family.  It was steep but I didn't care.  I felt free.  I didn't want it to end.  When I saw the top I was really sad because that meant it was the end of the hike.  When I got to the top, you couldn't see my family, you just saw me.  Several people cheered for me.  Everyone else was glad to have a break, but I felt like the break was boring.  I wanted to keep hiking.  I felt so good being in the front and being the leader and being the one who wasn't scared.  And no one else had in my family had done it before, I was the one who was in that spot first."


At one point the trail was so icy I just started forging my own trail up the mountain in the softer snow, digging in my boots with each step, on all fours with my skis on my back.


                                            Here's our sweet Hud on the hike up.


Putting our Moxie sticker on a trail sign at the top made me so happy! 


 This is so, wonderfully typical of the Alps: at the top of this mountain, in the middle of NOWHERE, with no utilities or even a ROAD nearby, there is a charming bar.  When you hike out of the Vallee Blanche, this is where you end up.


                                         Icy-cold sodas were seriously in order.....



                                                          ...and so were these beers!

I am so grateful for my super-star husband for taking it upon himself to make this incredible trip happen.  Having sailed with him though all kinds of  wild and dangerous adventures, not to mention raising a family with him and navigating all of the craziness that goes with that, there's no one I trusted more to take us on this journey.  For those of you considering a Vallee Blanche trip with children, here are my personal recommendations:

1. Evaluate your children's ski ability.  Although the pistes themselves aren't terribly steep, the entirety of the situation calls for, I feel, an expert skier.  Your kids need to be able to stay calm and to listen.

2. Do your research and hire a guide who has a solid reputation for being comfortable guiding kids.  Insist on meeting with him or her before your trip to discuss expectations. 

3. Have a family meeting before you go and talk about what your expectations are as a family.  Discuss communication strategies and anything else you feel may come in handy.

4. Take time on your trip to stop, look around, relish in the joy and the wonder of it all, and to say thank you to the mountains.

Thank you for reading! xoxo

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3 comments

  1. Congratulations on completing this amazing challenge!!! You guys rock!!

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  2. I have tears running down my face. Viv and Hudson, you have met challenges, head-on, and have mastered them. Please know how special your experience and your handling of the eXperience has been. I am so very proud of of your accomplishments and I am so very awed at your abilities. You both are extremely able. I have to give kudos to your father and your mother. They are providing an education that will take you FAR in life. I love you beyond words!

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  3. I love reading about families taking on these kinds of super adventures! Inspiring.

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