Stand in Chamonix’s town square, look up and it’s hard not to feel a mix of awe, exhilaration and intimidation. Fearsome peaks crowd around on all sides, their summits a chaotic jumble of jagged spires and tumbling glaciers. And rising serene above it all is Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain.
Little wonder, then, that Chamonix is regarded as the world capital of extreme skiing: such proximity of town and high mountain means the kind of death-defying descents that elsewhere would be the climax of a long expedition can be knocked off before lunch. Climbing up and skiing down Mont Blanc itself normally takes a week, with time for acclimatisation and one or two nights in mountain refuges on the way up. But for those in the know – and with access to a helicopter – there’s a shortcut. My plan was to spend a weekend skiing some off-piste routes for rapid acclimatisation, culminating – hopefully – in a climbing-skiing conquest of Mont Blanc herself.
After a full day’s work, it’s time for take-off. My goal is daunting, but getting to Chamonix is manageable: about an hour’s drive from Geneva airport. I spend the 90-minute flight reading the classic extreme-skiing guide Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles Rouges by Anselme Baud, which, in view of the fate of many of the skiers mentioned, has acquired a sobering nickname: the “book of death”. In Geneva I’m met by Gavin Foster of Ski Weekend, which specialises in bespoke ski trips, and am whisked off to Chalet Les Jumelles.
It’s an early start. The goal is to practise technique, get to know our guide Gilbert Matillat and, crucially, to acclimatise – vital for Mont Blanc. I meet my fellow skiers (both British; I try not to look intimidated when one mentions that he did a fair bit of mountaineering in his army days). We take the area’s highest cable car from Chamonix, at 1,035m, to the Aiguille du Midi, at 3,842m.
We emerge onto a viewing platform, blinking in the bright light. It’s hard to believe that 30 minutes before we were in the middle of a bustling town – up here there is only rock, snow, ice and a bitter wind. In front of us is Mont Blanc; Matillat strains for a view of the summit conditions while we discuss the plan. Once, skiers could be dropped at the top by helicopter, but all heli-skiing in France was banned in 1985 on environmental grounds. The southern side of the mountain, however, is in Italy, where heli-skiing is permitted. The border runs along a high ridge that’s too narrow for a helicopter to land, but about 1,000m below the summit on the Italian side is a little outcrop, the Piton des Italiens. We’d leave town before dawn, take the tunnel under Mont Blanc to the Italian resort of Courmayeur, jump in a helicopter, land at Piton des Italiens, then climb the ridge to the summit – taking around three hours – before skiing off the north face back to Chamonix. Even coming from Matillat, who has been to the top more than 90 times, it seems audacious.
First, though, there is training. Today’s objective is the Aiguille de Toule, a minor peak on the far side of the Glacier du Geant. We put on harnesses and, after a short descent, pause to attach sticky skins to our skis that will enable us to climb up the far side. As we stop, Matillat points out the spot where Anselme Baud waited for his son Edouard, who was descending the Gervasutti Couloir. A wall of ice collapsed; Baud watched his son fall to his death. Such stories haunt the gullies and summits around here.
It’s baking hot, the sun bouncing back off the glacier’s surface. It’s not steep, but the altitude leaves me gasping. Proper acclimatisation takes several days, but I had a secret weapon: the Altitude Centre in London, where for two weeks I’d spent an hour most days. It’s a sealed gym where oxygen levels are artificially lowered to mimic the effects of a 3,000m altitude. Any scepticism vanished when, the day before I left for Chamonix, Mo Farah hopped on the treadmill beside me.
We rope up and take off our skis to climb the final rocky ridge to the summit of Aiguille de Toule. Matillat’s brought us here to check we can cope with what climbers call exposure. It’s certainly airy, with huge drops on all sides. I admire the view into Italy, trying to look relaxed while keeping a white-knuckle grip on a rock with one hand. This time yesterday, I was eating a sandwich at my desk.
Back in town after a long ski down, we have an après-ski drink in the sun. Beer would be the obvious choice, but we stick to wine: a drug called Diamox – another mountaineering shortcut, which combats some of the dangers of altitude – makes all fizzy drinks taste of metal.
Another training day – this time it’s the Col du Passon. We start in Grands Montets, one of Chamonix’s four main areas of pistes, and finish in the village of Le Tour, close to the Swiss border. It’s an enjoyable workout, but by afternoon the clouds are rolling in and we nervously search the next day’s weather forecasts.
A multi-course dinner is waiting back at the chalet – scallops, beef Wellington, cheese and desserts, accompanied by a Côtes du Rhône that quickly dissolves my early-night intentions.
I tiptoe round, trying not to wake the others while packing water bottles, energy gels, crampons, ice axes and so on. At 6am, we hit the road and, half an hour later, pop out of the 12km tunnel into Italy. We kit up on the helipad, but the dawn reveals a worrying scene. The weather can be completely different on the French and Italian sides of the mountain. We left Chamonix under clear skies, but here there are low clouds and ferocious winds. We retreat to a café and drink cappuccino, but an hour later, an updated forecast predicts 100km per hour winds. Long-faced, we abandon Mont Blanc and retreat back to France.
But there’s an almost equally daunting plan B: the Glacier Rond, a classic descent on a wall of ice hanging off the Aiguille du Midi, directly above Chamonix. I’ve been looking up at it with a mix of awe and nerves for years. Matillat and I take a cable car to the top of the Aiguille and make the short traverse to the start of our route. An hour after leaving the town, we clip into our skis and pick our way through some rocks until we reach the top of the glacier.
The flipside of Chamonix’s easy mountain access is you can get into all sorts of trouble before you even know about it. From the cable-car station, conditions up here had looked ideal: what appeared to be deep powder snow. But up close, it’s a different story – a few inches of powder conceal a bullet-proof layer of ice beneath. I swap one of my ski poles for an ice axe. If I fall, I’ll drive it in, hopefully bringing myself to a stop before the end of the slope: an ice cliff, then hundreds of metres of thin air.
This kind of skiing is as much mental as physical. The cliff below me, and the ice beneath my skis, seem to shout for attention, threatening to overwhelm. Allow that to happen, though, and I’ll be unable to make even a simple turn. The trick is to find the line between concentration and calm, drawing strength from the coursing adrenaline but not letting it take me to panic. History adds another potential layer of intimidation. Two-thirds of the way down, we make a left turn, entering a narrow, rocky corridor. In this “exit couloir”, Trevor Petersen, a celebrated Canadian skier, was swept to his death by an avalanche in 1996.
We’re safely back at the Plan de l’Aiguille, the mid-station of the cable car at 2,317m. The rush is fading, replaced by a feeling of sleepy contentment and a wide grin. Earlier in the season it’s possible to keep skiing all the way down to the town, but now there’s not enough snow. Foster, however, has another plan.
I stumble forward through soft powder, three or four steps, then suddenly my boots are pedalling in thin air. Foster is also one of Britain’s most experienced paragliding instructors and we are completing the descent with a tandem flight; I’m strapped to a harness in front of his chest. Swiftly, we are soaring on thermals above the snow. It’s so surreal I forget to be afraid.
By the time we land in a field beside the tennis courts in Chamonix I feel seasick – and how bizarre to swap so abruptly the monochome glacier tones and the sound of skis scraping on ice for the thwack of tennis balls.
Back to the chalet to pack before a 9pm flight to the UK. It has been an unforgettable day: four countries, a descent to be cherished and a first taste of paragliding – the final outing of the ski season for me, but the best, even if Mont Blanc is still on my to-do list.