Tour du Mont Blanc :: Rest day, Traversing the Vallee Blanche

Our last day, and supposed to be a rest day. Janina, Vanessa, Catherine and I were up at the usual 07:00 along with Liz and Charlie as we were all off (not together) to the glaciers for the day. After a quick breakfast, the three girls and I headed off to les Praz where we met Neil McNab who was to be our guide for the day on a glacier walk between Helbronner and the Aiguille du Midi.

We felt we were paying a lot for this day out – €170 all in – so we were pretty relieved when we could sense straight away the caliber of guide we’d managed to find ourselves. Neil struck us immediately as quietly confident, mature, experienced, softly spoken and someone who very much knew what he was about. As he chatted to us about being a “quite well known snowboarder”, his training through french to be a mountain guide, his snowboard training camp business, the six remaining Mont Blac ascents he was booked on as a guide before the end of the season, the many different climbing routes around the area … we were left with no doubt that we were in safe hands.

(Later on, we googled him and came up with a “Neil McNab Saves Life On Mt McKinley” story which further improved our impression of him 🙂

Neil McNab

Neil McNab

Anyway, Neil drove us down to Chamonix where we first bought our cable car tickets and then headed to a nearby sports shop where we hired out proper rigid alpine boots, crampons, climbing harnesses and ski axes. Leaving the shop, we started getting seriously excited because we felt like the real deal in all our gear. We headed straight for the cable car and ascended to the Aiguille du Midi where Neil pointed us out various peaks and climbing routes and then caught the little cable cars across to the Helbronner. The views from the cable car were absolutely amazing – it’s like a different world up there hanging above the Vallee Blanche – but it was especially cool to watch all the little dots picking their way across the glacier and thinking “yep, that’ll be us in a few minutes”.

At Helbronner, we had one last chance for a toilet stop and then headed out onto the snow where Neil showed us how to put on our crampons and then got us to stomp around for a bit. Crampons definitely take a bit of getting used to. You have to do your best to get a firm footing with all spikes in the ground so as to not strain yourself too much and you also have to be careful not to trip over them. Once we felt we’d got the hang of that, he roped us together with him at the front and me at the back and we set off across the glacier.

Intrepid Explorers On The Vallee Blanche

Intrepid Explorers On The Vallee Blanche

Most of the walk was pretty straightforward, but really interesting. We had amazing close up views of the glacier, crevasses and the surrounding mountains. After walking steadily for a couple of hours we started to feel we were really getting the hang of walking in crampons and stopped for a quick lunch. Quickly getting going again, and plodding along the narrow path, I think we all started to wonder whether Neil just wanted to finish the walk as quick as possible and get home again, but it was only later that we realised that he knew we were going to be tight on time given the difficulty of the final stretch. We had no idea what we were in for.

As we approached the Aiguille du Midi, gently ascending, we passed a group of climbers pitching tents and building walls of snow, obviously planning on spending the night. From there, the going got steeper and steeper until we were all struggling to keep going. I guess the high altitude and the trouble we had in using the crampons on such steep an incline was what gave us such difficulty. On and on it went, with no option of stopping for a breather since we were roped together, we eventually made it up to a bit of a plateau. There, Neil roped us much closer together and pointed out where we were going next – an extremely steep ridge, with sheer drop-offs on either side, all the way up to the Aiguille du Midi.

Vallee Blanche

Vallee Blance

Without any further fuss, we got going and as the going got steeper, and we got more exposed to the wind, we all really struggled to keep going. I was breathing hard, exhaling sharply and loudly to get decent breaths, but Janina directly in front of me was almost baying like a mountain goat. I didn’t even consider going after my Fedora baseball cap when it blew off. Catherine, up front, said that Neil was almost dragging her along using the rope and she was just following his footsteps. Eventually, with much encouragement from Neil but no stopping, we got to the top of the ridge but as we walked along the last few metres I found myself shouting at Janina “Watch your feet! You’re going to trip on your crampons!” as I was terrified she was going to trip and send us off the side of the perilous ridge where we’d no doubt plummet to our deaths.

Once we got in out off the ridge, we all fell about the place laughing and gasping for air. What an experience! Catherine was beaming from ear to ear and looked about 15 years younger … I’ll never forget that look. To any experience climber, we must have looked like complete beginners, but we didn’t care … we felt like we’d just climbed Everest …

We didn’t hang about long, but took off our crampons and some layers of clothing before catching the cable car back down. Once we’d returned our gear to the rental shop, Neil dropped us back to les Praz where they four of us had a celebratory beer on the sunny terrace of a hotel.

Back at the campsite I had a quick shower, left Catherine to pack up most of our stuff for the flight home and set off jogging and walking fast with poles towards Chamonix in order to catch the start of the North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont-Blanc which was starting at 18:30.

Ever since learning about this 170km race around the Massif over two days and reading Aisling Coppinger’s account of finishing it, I was absolutely fascinated by it. Trying to get more into distance running myself, I just couldn’t fathom how people could run that distance. I mean, running up mountains in the cold, wet and dark and keeping going for over 40 hours … it just doesn’t make any sense. Looking at the times from the year before it was incredible to see that the winner ran down from the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to Chapieux in about 20 minutes at the dead of night, whereas it took us about three hours to walk up there in daylight.

Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc

Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc

Chamonix was thronged with people when I got there and, after stopping for a second to chat with Brian, Gary, Neil and Valerie, I made my way around to behind the start line where I just soaked up the atmosphere and watched the 2,500 runners preparing to set off. Some were deep in mental preparation staring into space, while other were joking around with their friends as if they were waiting to get into the pub. One runner was sitting very close to me with his wife and young daughter chatting and as the start time approached they hugged, kissed and said their goodbyes. Very sweet. As soon as they started, I went through some side streets a good bit away from the start and cheered them on running along the main street out of Chamonix. Amazing to watch them, and if I ever feel remotely able for a challenge like that I’ll be very tempted to give it a shot.

Snapping out of that daydream, I had my own little race ahead of me. I had to make the 45 minute walk back to the campsite, change for dinner and meet everyone at the restaurant in just over half an hour. That worked out fine, in that I made it on time, but when I got there I was so seriously over-hyped from the glacier walk and watching the start of the race that I just babbled away to people until I caught Catherine’s “calm down!” look.

In the restaurant, we all lashed into our beers and wines and jostled for position in the queue for the buffet starter of cold meats and “stuff”. For main, most people had steak and chips and for dessert we had chocolate pudding or apricot tart.

Atfer dinner, Brian gave an excellent speech thanking Liz and Charlie and Teressa gave them our card with a contribution to their “Mont Blanc Fund”. Charlie, the poor fella, and Liz both had to give a speeches in return thanking us all for being the best group ever (of course!). By the end of it, we had certainly disturbed everyone elses’ dinners in the restaurant …

Leaving the restaurant, we strolled down to the bustling (okay, deadly silent) les Praz main street and convinced an English hotel owner to serve us drinks (thanks Gary!) on the terrace behind his hotel. Nearly everyone had a cognac, and we all toasted a most excellent holiday and had a good laugh chatting in the dark. It was pretty clear that we were all shattered, though, so we only had the one drink before going back to the campsite and turning in.


2 Responses

  1. Sounds like an excellent trip. We’ve all been there in Chamonix town centre up to our eyes in technical equipment. We used the phrase “all the gear and no idea” to describe ourselves.
    How was the camping part?

  2. The camping was good fun … definitely was nice to be out in the fresh air the whole time and we all gelled really well as a team setting up and taking down camp every day. I dunno, I don’t think it would have been quite the same staying in hotels or refuges.

    But, in fairness, we got pretty decent weather … if it had been wet and miserable like it was in Contamines for the whole two weeks … then I think we wouldn’t have been very happy campers 🙂

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