High Adventure in
By George Schissler
My January flight with Lufthansa to Frankfurt, Germany
was greeted by many familiar faces of Eastern ski writers. We were all
connecting with another flight to Geneva, Switzerland and a bus ride to some
of Italy's finest wine and cheese country but most importantly the village
of Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley of Italy for a week of fun in the snow.
It had been a half dozen years since I my first visit to Courmayeur and the
memories of great snow and vast terrain were reaffirmed once again. The
number of slopes to be skied had increased, along with new lifts, including
a cable car just a short walk from the hotel. But the snow and clear blue
sunny skies were as I remembered them. No new snow fell during the week but
the first morning welcomed skiers to perfectly groomed terrain. The more
adventurous (and more skilled) in the group jumped off-piste to play in
untouched powder. A great start with something for everyone. The evening
ended with a fine dinner at our Cresta et Duc hotel and we all went to bed
Day Two had us headed to La Thuile for more skiing. This is an area I had
never heard of but like many lesser known resorts in Val d' Aosta it took
more than a full day to explore and appreciate. Again perfectly groomed
surfaces tested tired ski legs but cruising territory, blue skies and
friendly competition created a memorable ski day.
Day Three. The big adventure into the Vallee Blanche. We walked a short
distance in our ski boots through Courmayeur to the bus station for
transport to La Palud. We were outfitted with a harness around the waist and
legs and given a beeper which would allow us to be located in case we skied
into trouble. While being hooked up into the harness, which is designed to
recover skiers from deep crevasses, I asked the guide was "how long is your
rope?" He replied "about 67 meters". Hopefully this would be long enough to
retrieve a wayward skier but he specifically warned to "stay in my track"
and "do not ski in front of me". On arrival to La Palud we rode the cable
car Monte Bianco to Punta Helbronner to the top for our descent into the
"Yea. As I ski through the Vallee of Blanche I will
fear no evil for my guide and beeper comfort me all the hours of my
journey". (It took four hours to exit the Vallee).
I swear I heard the above words uttered in a silent
prayer as our group descended into the Vallee Blanche from Courmayeur,
Italy on our way to Chamonix, France.
For most of the skiers this would be their first venture here and would
most likely prove to become a ski adventure which would be remembered
for a lifetime. This was my third trip through the Vallee but the first
time from the Italian side.
The third time was NOT a charm! I also know that the prayer, or any
prayer, was appropriate. Before we were through many other words were
expressed loudly and could be heard as they echoed down through the
The Vallee Blanch can be likened to trouble--It is easy
to get into and very difficult to get out of.
Unlike skiing the Vallee from the French side, there are not as many open
fields to allow skiers to free themselves from a guide, for a short time at
least to ski, whoop and holler through great expansive powder fields with
nothing to mar their graceful way downhill. From the Italian entrance there
were only a couple of places where we could let the skis run away from our
guide's track and only when he allowed us to take off on our own. Even for a
short time and distance he kept his eye on us. We obeyed his orders and held
close, but I am certain that we amassed much more horizontal footage than
vertical. The guide explained that this route was more a visual experience..
The ragged cliffs, crevasses, sun and blue sky kept cameras clicking
throughout the day.
Four hours of trying to keep a safe distance between yourself and the skier
in frontcan be very tiring, even when the track did lend itself to coasting
instead of poling and snowplowing in the narrow track. (And the scenery only
changes for the lead dog.) Luckily for all of us the weather could not have
been more cooperative for picture taking and ski touring.
The greatest vertical descent occurred on exiting the Vallee. The group
behind ours elected to climb out by negotiating what they said was
approximately 400 steps on a curvy metal ramp clinging to the solid rock
Our group took our guide's advice when he said "We
can ski down further and get out lower". This is the one time I wished I
had not heeded his "advice".
We did not ski 100 feet before we came upon a field
of boulders and rocks and a 100 foot cliff--no skiing at all!
We side-stepped close to the lip until we reached a point where he said
"we get out here". Get out where we were thinking! There was no way to
ski what was in front of us. It was not only impossible but probably
suicidal. But he had this answer:..
"Take off your skis and slide down on your buttocks". My first thought
was “OK, you first.” The second thought was to follow instructions,
because if he went first and we dared not follow, where would we be.
Peering over the edge, we decided to throw our skis and
poles to the bottom and took turns going butt first to safety. I did this,
but not before I wrestled with the question or whether to slide with my
helmet on my head or between my legs. I kept it on my head and took my turn
down the chutey-chute. Now the easy part was over.
From the bottom of this pit there was no lift or anything mechanically
erected to aid and ease our climb, which must have been several hundred
nearly vertical feet to the top-. The only aid was to follow skiers who
proceeded us down the chute. They left a 'ladder" of footprints to step into
going to the top. There had to be 1,000 footsteps (no exaggeration) to
trace, carryng skis and poles and stopping at intervals to catch our breath
and allow following climbers to pass.l. Finally, completely exhausted, we
reached the top and a resting place before stepping back into our skis. We
rode the narrow, snakelike trail to the safety of Chamonix and the waiting
bus for a welcome ride home.
This adventure was for me the high point of the week. But other days were
filled with rhapsodies in the snow, sightseeing among Roman ruins, sharing
stories with fellow writers over multi-course dinners, and seeking
opportunities to think and act Italian.
(For an account of another Vallee Blanche harrowing exit go to
www.Bluebookski.com, click on France, then click on Chamonix and The