I remember it taking 4 hours, which is a ridiculous amount of time by anyone’s standards for a single run. I remember falling asleep in my dinner at a restaurant at the bottom. Momentarily slumped in the soup. And I remember my ski gloves forever tainted with a sickly ‘fear of death’ smell thereafter.
Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this.
I had skied all winter in Chamonix with my buddies, mountaineer Jo and tour guide Alex. Alex was the kind of legendary skier that when the US extreme skiers came to the Valley, they called him to play tour guide on the sickest routes. That day, we had not planned to ski together. I was going to chill out and enjoy an easy-ish high mountain touring route with my buddy Jo.
But Alex looked up.
Nine thousand feet up.
He had been watching the Rond all season. A 45 degree glacier. A hanging glacier that ended in a cliff. A finite piece of ice with a beginning and a deadly end. A pretty sliver of white on that mountain of jagged rocks – the Aiguille du Midi. No bigger than my thumbnail when viewed from the base of the mountain. The only way out was down a 1,600ft couloir (chute) off to one side. There are many jagged “aiguilles” or “needles” above Chamonix, piercing the sky like witches’ long spindly fingernails. The Aiguille du Midi was the tallest of them all. No wonder its clock-like hour spire translated as the “needle of midday”.
That day, Alex looked up at the Rond and saw something none of us ordinary folk could discern. A change in snow conditions making it finally do-able, the descent safer than it had been all season. Or I should say, less deadly. And he called it. There would be no chilling out that day.
Gear check at the bottom.
Crampons, even though we were not expecting to use them. Skins, a nylon or mohair material that attaches to the base of your skis so you don’t slip backwards when walking uphill. Shovel, harness, ropes, carabiners, ice axe, avalanche probes and of course everyone wore an Arva buried far underneath their clothes (since avalanches have been know to rip people’s jackets off). An Arva is an avalanche transceiver that you ski with, turned on to emit a radio signal so you can be found if buried, and if you need to find someone in an avalanche, then you switch your transceiver to the “find” mode and you can locate their signal. My coach used to throw his transceiver out in the snow and make me go find it with a grid search. It’s the colder brother equivalent of a needle in a haystack.
The base of the Aiguille du Midi station is an imposing structure and the enormous cable cars climb up the mountain in two sections. The first is up 4,000ft to the mid station of Plan de l’Aiguille. Then the second span goes the remainder of the way without any supporting towers. In fact, it still has the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world. The closer you get to the top, the more the cable curves to near vertical and you rise, as if in slow motion, like an enormous elevator right beside the rock.
At 9,000 ft above the town, you can make out buildings, but trucks are merely tiny pricks of motion.
There is an ice tunnel out onto the snow, and a laughingly casual rope fence to climb over, marking the difference between tourists and mountaineers. We descended a little way on the Arete (ridge) before cutting around to the south, avoiding the crevasses, to traverse behind the Aiguille and towards Mont Blanc. I was breathing pretty hard, climbing with all the weight of the equipment, but surrendering to the meditative rhythm of skins under my skis.
Shuffle. Grip. Shuffle. Grip. Shuffle. And at an altitude where you are already breathing heavily. And all the while Alex hurried me along, keep moving, faster faster.
And the worst hadn’t come yet.
In mountaineering, speed is your safety. Descents that take too long can become dangerous. People get cold and tired, mistakes happen, conditions change, darkness comes and temperatures drop. You do not want to overnight on this mountain. Any mountain. I have seen people get stuck halfway down chutes in Chamonix where they get too scared or tired to make another jump turn. And so they stand, rigid in one place, skis across the slope, and their muscles eventually go into spasm, “sewing machine legs” until finally giving way. I have also seen a frozen man helicoptered off the mountain. He was frozen in a hunched position with his legs bent. Swinging from a helicopter like that. Time is not your friend.
We headed toward the Cosmiques hut and the old Simond refuge (11,860ft) and then made our way onto the top slope above the glacier. Time to lock down the back binding into a downhill ski position. (In ski touring, your heel has to release so that you can climb). The skiing was euphoric, you could touch the sky, and the snow was light and fluffy. But all the while we needed to get onto the top of the glacier and descend into the couloir.
And you absolutely could not fall.
Everything was laboured, every pole plant, every shift of balance. It was like a dance. A deadly dance between you and the mountain. And then we arrived at the top of the glacier.
And this is where I blank out a little bit. I stop. Because, in all of my 30+ years of skiing and studying snow conditions and what is ice and how skis grip on whatever myriad snow / ice combinations, I needed to traverse onto the top of the glacier and I looked at that ice and EVERYTHING in me told me that my skis would not make that traverse. They would slide out on that ice and I would fall. It was only a traverse of about two metres. Less than the length of a car. And yet, a traverse at a steepness of 45 degrees. On a hanging glacier. With tiny Chamonix beckoning directly below.
It is only one of two times in my life where I have had to submit absolute blind trust in someone else’s expertise, above what my own mind knows to be true.
Quieten your thoughts.
By some miracle, my edges gripped on that ice and I made it across that ridge.
On the glacier, conditions were like the smoothest hardest packed powder, as crisp as a freshly made bed sheet. Alex had called it right. Everything came together, mind and technique and experience and the mountain and nature and the completeness of the movement in the moment.
We did an amazing series of turns, all too short, probably less than 50 turns before we needed to drop into the exit chute. Because the Rond disappeared to nothing.
The exit chute was quite wide although it looked like a thin thread from a distance. After the mental pressure of a 45 degree hanging glacier, skiing a thousand foot chute down a 45 degree slope to the flatter Les Bossons glacier felt like cake. All the time focusing and jumping and turning, by now the lactic acid was burning merrily in the thighs. We had been on the mountain too long.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and we needed to hustle. Although it felt like we had been going forever, we were only halfway down. After avoiding the crevasses on Les Bossons Glacier, the route actually ascended, like a big belly of the mountain poking out that we had to skin up and over to make the last descent (3,600ft) into town.
Finally we were at the tree line, but the light was fading. We were rushing now. It had taken too long. You don’t notice in the daylight, but when your skis hit rocks, they spark. You should have seen us sparking down through the trees, it must have looked like Christmas.
There are a few hiking paths in summer for tourists and we made our way down one of them. Coming out onto the main road to Chamonix, we took our skis off and hiked into town. And headed for a restaurant.
Where I ordered the soup.