The Vallée Blanche starts at the top of the Aiguille du Midi and finishes at Les Planards, though one can finish at the Montenvers station at the foot of the glacier. It is an unmarked, unmaintained, unpatrolled and unchecked high mountain off-piste ski itinerary which offers some of the most spectacular scenery the Mont Blanc range has to offer.
The Vallée Blanche routes start at the top of the Aiguille du Midi (3812m) where after exiting the ice tunnel you are straight on to the ‘arête’. This is potentially one of the most dangerous points of the route as it is essentially a ridge edge you descend which has a 40 degree pitch on both sides. In high season, a safety rope is placed along the descending path but it is still intimidating.
There are four main Vallée Blanche routes which people can choose from. The classic route ‘voie normal’ is fairly straight-forward providing you are following the advice of your guide. The route can be fairly busy during high season and it is not uncommon to see other alpinists ice climbing around the surrounding peaks or on the Toula glacier, or even across to the Helbronner lift station on the Italian side. The other routes are known as Le Vrai Vallée Blanche, the Petit Envers du Plan and the Grand Envers du Plan. These are technically more challenging and involve couloir skiing.
If skiing the ‘voie normal’ after skiing the arête the route follows on to a large rock outcrop, known as Le Gros Rognon (‘the big rock’). Along the descending route you will see large séracs, crevasses and ice falls.
Most people make a day of the trip down the Valley Blanche. For many it is the highlight of a skiing trip to Chamonix, and they want to enjoy it. If you allow for regular breaks and a bit of sightseeing on the way down you will probably take between 4 and 6 hours for the round trip from Chamonix.
The route at the end of the Vallée Blanche really favours skiers as it has a long flat run out which can be tricky for snowboarders to keep moving. During the spring it gets pretty slushy too so it is recommended that snowboarders take a pair of poles to push themselves along else it’s a long push for your back foot. In good snow conditions you can ski all the way back to Chamonix’s town centre, if not then the best way down, unless you want a long walk out to Les Planards, is via the Montenvers train.
Guides are not compulsory on the Vallée Blanche, and experienced skiers often make the descent without them. However, if you are unsure of your knowledge or ability on glaciated terrain, you should hire one of the many guides that work in the area. They know the Vallée Blanche routes, can lead you in bad conditions and will minimise the risks involved.
You should wear a harness when skiing on a glacier. This allows you to be rescued from a crevasse should you fall in. You will need at least one rope per party and the associated equipment required to perform a rescue (slings, karabiners, ice screws, pulleys etc).
Avalanche transceivers should be worn by all members of your party. These not only allow rescuers to find you in the event of an avalanche, but allow you to find others.
Shovels and probes are also vital in case of avalanche. Although many teams descend without them, what use is a transceiver if you are unable to dig a victim out of the snow once you have located them? Most guides will be able to provide this equipment for their clients. Unguided teams can hire equipment from any of the major shops in Chamonix.
There are always dangers when skiing on glaciers in the high mountains. The main dangers on the Vallée Blanche are crevasse falls and avalanches. Either are potential killers and the descent should not be taken lightly.
If you are not sure exactly what you’re doing skiing on glaciers you should hire a mountain guide. Do not attempt to follow guided parties – they may be taking a much more serious route than the one you intend to descend.