Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Vallée Blanche by the slopes of "Le Rognon”

Last Sunday I had one of those outings that stays on your mind for a very long time; the Vallée Blanche. I took the Aiguille du Midi tram that takes you in minutes from 3,000 some feet to 12,600 in an impressively scenic and steep ride that enables you to ski all the way back down to Chamonix on one of those legendary ski routes that drops 9,000 feet an travels some 15 miles through magic glacial terrain.
When you get off the tram you find yourself projected into a completely different and striking world of infinite peaks, needles, snow and ice. Glaciers as far as the eye can see, you feel you could practically reach out and touch the Mont Blanc as well as both Italy and Switzerland. You get to see the Matterhorn in the distance too. This is the place...
When it was time to move, things got serious immediately with our rather chilly conditions of the day (-23 ° C and -50° wind-chill on the ridge line), wind gusts in excess of 60 mph and a near straight drop to the north of 7,000 feet and a 1,000 feet to the south and with the ridge line falling away and really steep in and by itself, whatever side you look its far and steep down - this was quite the aerial experience! We were roped and used crampons (was glad I brought both) with skis on the pack. 
Once you're off the ridge line with its howling winds (my ear got to enjoy a bit of frost bite...) you end up on "Col du Plan" which offers some protection against the wind and that's where you get your skis on at about 12,300 feet.  From there we took towards the Pass of the “Rognon” (kidney in French) continued on to the Rognon slopes and into the valley “du Requin”, the “Salle a manger" (dining Room), the Mottets stand (small boot pack up) and from there back down to Chamonix. 
Avalanch risk (or should I say promise?) for the day was High - 4 and that was definitely confirmed on the ground. As a result of the heavy snowfall in recent days, the overnight large to huge avalanches (they were everywhere and on all aspects) covered several passages on the Vallée Blanche. Picking the route with that  in mind, we tended to end up in spots where the snow was often windblown by the prevalent northeast winds. Snow conditions were quite varied with everything from somewhat dense powder to hard pack windblown, cardboard, crust and outright ice but mostly we still had good to relatively good skiing.
Thanks to our fantastic season, we were able to ski all the way back down to town. It is not rare these days of global warming for skiers to have to stop before the end of the Vallée Blanche and take the cog train from the Montevers station back down to Cham. But this is not that season! So we were fortunate enough to go all the way. To do that you get out on the left bank of the Mer de Glace (past the level of the Montenvers) following a sort of narrow drainage that this day was covered by a sheet of ice. From there you boot-pack up to the Mottets stand (the boot-pack was in great condition and took no more than 15 min up). The snow from the stand to Chamonix was excellent with hardly any rocks, this was a fast and fun ski out.

Here are the pictures (click to enlarge):

"Refuge des Cosmiques" on the Glaciers des Geants is one of the staging
grounds for Mont Blanc summit attempts.
Mont Blanc du Tacul (not "the" Mont Blanc) 4248m - 13,939 feet
In the distance to the left the highest one is Aiguille Verte (4122 - 13,525),
the next are  Les Droites (4000m - 13,125) and Les Courtes (3720m - 12,206).
This is all hallowed ground for climbers. 
Close up of Aiguille Verte with a nice but unusual white layer of windlown
The Dent du Geant (the giant's tooth) with Glacier du Geant in the foreground.
The left most of the two summits is Aiguille du Tacul, the pass (above 
the nice line) is the Col du Tacul and the ridge line going across from 
Aiguille du Tacul and all the way to the right of the picture is Les 
Periades (Ok I'll put arrows in when I get a minute)
Just because...
Tour Ronde offers some gnarly skiing and is a whole day outing in and by itself
Le Petit Rognon defined our route this day
Beware of lurking crevasses..
For that "on the rocks" application
Gotta love those colors...
...and those
Where Glacier du Geant meets Glacier du Tacul
Some will see a crevasse others a natural halfpipe, and yes,
we skied it and it was FUN!
Just for the beauty of it...
...and this one too
On Mer de Glace some crevasses are just sizable, see the people in the
middle for scale.
Closing up on the Montevers (bottom of the "V") with Aiguilles Rouges
sunlit in the background
Gotta love that symmetry...
Ice as far as the eye can see...
To the left the Montevers Hotel and Station and you get off the Mer de Glace
 just a bit past that to start a quick boot pack up to the Montevers trail that
you then ski down to Chamonix (snow cover permitting)

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