First thing you notice is the hard core ski gear. There are no frills here. No fashion. No brand new, one piece ski suits. No fur. That would be St Moritz. The ski gear in Chamonix looks slightly worn out. Used to its fullest. There’s duct tape in places. Duct tape on clothing, on equipment. But everything is serious gear. Technical gear. Gear that will keep you warm, dry, alive. If you want to look fashionable on the piste and stop at fancy bijou restaurants for lunch, this resort is not for you. This place is function over fashion. Of all of the seven resorts in the Chamonix Valley, the Grand Montets is the biggest and baddest of them all. Extreme descents. An insane four glaciers on one mountain. Hardly any groomed runs. And this is France, so you are not limited by the rules and regulations so common in other continents. Personal responsibility is paramount here.

So make good decisions.

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Powder run on the Grand Montets with the Argentiere/Vallorcine road snaking in the distance (bottom right). This picture was taken before the days of helmets, but we all wear helmets now. Photo credit: Ian Worrell.

This is a dangerous place. Perhaps due to the caliber of skiers or mountaineers that are attracted to Chamonix and the kind of challenges that inspire them, and perhaps due to the extremity of the terrain. People in Chamonix die on mountains. And at a young age. You should see the graves at the local cemetery, Cimetière du Biolay. Very sobering.  And the attitude was to celebrate that they had lived life to the full. At age 18 or 23 or 28. Astounding. Heartbreaking. I never got used to it.

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View from the top of the Bochard down to the Mer du Glace (the large white triangle pictured on the left of the shot). The town of Chamonix is on the right of the shot. The Poubelle drops out of sight immediately at the bottom of the picture.

From the top of the Bochard on the Grand Montets, there’s a steep chute off the back, the Poubelle. It is roped off. It drops down to the glacier, the Mer du Glace (sea of ice), 1,800 feet directly below. An easier option to this descent is a high touring route, the Pas de Chevre down to the Mer du Glace accessed from higher up, off the top of the Grand Montets cable car. Pas de Chevre is aptly named – the goat’s way or the goat’s steps – like you have to be a mountain creature to tackle this route.

As is so common in Chamonix, steep touring routes can get progressively steeper, and either widen out (if you are lucky) or end in a chute (a narrow pathway of snow between rocks) or a cliff. However, you cannot see the total route of a slope that gets progressively steeper, because by definition you cannot see over the headwall. The slope rounds over and out of sight. For touring routes such as these, hire a guide.

On the other side of the valley of the Mer du Glace is a train station of Montenvers that non-skiing tourists come to view the enormous glacier. But they can also see the Pas de Chevre that skiers as tiny dots are making their way down. From this angle you can watch in real time people’s descents, and see what their ski-lines can be, how they can descend the mountain. It is easier for spectators to see the route, see whether a slope will end in a chute or a cliff. Easier than the skiers themselves.

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Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc taken from the top of the Bochard. The Mer du Glace is unpictured, in the deep valley on the left, and Montenvers Railway station is off this picture to the right.

Rule of thumb in Cham, don’t be following someone else’s tracks. You can always tell something has gone wrong when you see tracks down, and then steps up. So someone has obviously skied as far as they can, realized it is a trap that ends in a cliff or some other impassable ski conditions, and then had to remove their skis and retreat. Hike back up to find an alternate route. Frustrating at best, life-endangering at worst.  People in Chamonix with more balls than sense may end up on a cliff. Take a guide.

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Top of the Grands Montets looking down the valley to Chamonix. The Pendant Glacier drops off to the right; Grand Montets Glacier is straight ahead; and Rognons Glacier falls away behind and to the left.

The cable car at the top of the Grands Montets is a futuristic installation. A steel structure with unnervingly see-through steps installed on a rocky outcrop cliff that drops down 200 ft. A 200 foot staircase at altitude. Since you are at 10,700ft, descending icy steel in ski boots, carrying your equipment leaves you breathless, both physically and mentally.

Try not to slip, many skiers do.

This would be your first test.

The steps lead down to the Col where you can put on your skis and start your descent on the Pointe de Vue run on the Glacier des Rognons. You can see all the way down to the Argentiere glacier, but you wouldn’t ski on the Argentiere glacier itself, unless you were touring to somewhere else.

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Argentiere Glacier (flowing horizontally top right to left) taken from the Aiguille des Grands Montets. This picture was not taken on the day of the avalanche. The ski tracks on bottom left are on the Glacier des Rognons. The avalanche was on the mid right of this picture. Photo credit: Britplom at mapio.net

We had friends out from the UK join us for a week, and their second day on the Grands Montets there had been an avalanche on the Pointe de Vue run on the Glacier des Rognons. A scar on the landscape with a clear cut at the top and a tongue of debris licking down the mountain. 50 ski patrollers were all there with their probes, searching for the two skiers that had got caught in it. Rule of thumb in an avalanche is that if someone gets caught and you are watching, remember two things, where you last saw them go under, and follow the speed of the snow with your eyes until where it stops. Which might be where they ended up.

Which is practically impossible.

It’s like trying to reference a location on a moving target and where you imagine the person would end up. Two locations. So the 50 ski patrollers were all side by side, standing horizontally across the mountain, shoving in their probes. Working their way down. Searching for the skiers. The probe is a narrow, half inch diameter elongated pole, like a tent pole, that you can fold up and put in your backpack. When extended, it reaches six to ten feet in length. You can drop it, shove it straight down into the avalanche debris, making a little hole, and pushing it gently down all the way to the end. And then pull it up again, take a step forward (or a grid search if you are alone) and drop it again. The idea is that if you hit something hard, it might be a ski. Or a person.

The ski patrol thankfully found both people, relatively unhurt.

But crazily enough, that run was so wide that a portion of it was still open. It was very unnerving. Our British friends didn’t want to ski it.

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The Point de Vue off-piste run on the Glacier des Rognons. Still open, even though an avalanche had swept through on one side.

I have nothing glib to add. No smart remarks. It is an amazing resort, a serious place of crevasses and glaciers and steeps and huge vertical. Where people extend themselves and the risks are huge.

So take care, and take a guide. Because the rewards are also.

 

 

 

 

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