Soaring skyward to the magnificent and lonely world which until recently only the best of Alpinists have known, the cable car on the opposite page opens the way to one of the most extraordinary skiing grounds in the world. In two spectacular jumps it spans an altitude of 9,000 feet, from the springtime green of the French valley of Chamonix (see THE FOOTLOOSE SPORTSMAN, page 34) to the frigid, 12,608-foot summit of the Aiguille du Midi, where a white expanse of glaciers and mountains stretches over the horizon into Switzerland on the east and to Italy on the southeast.
Until the cable car was completed three years ago, the top of the Aiguille was a target for expert mountaineers. It was a rugged 10-hour climb up sheer walls of ice-covered rock. But today the Chamonix lift, advertised as the highest aerial tram in the world, can carry 60 people to the summit in 20 minutes. At the top of the lift the passengers enter a tunnel blasted right through the peak from the upper car terminal. Then they strap on their skis to try one of the most breathtaking adventures any skier could hope for. Below them the broad, wrinkled rivers of ice in the Vallée Blanche curve down and away toward the valley of Chamonix. Above and to the south rises the ragged mass of Mont Blanc, tallest peak in Europe.
The best skiers, men who can handle themselves under true Alpine conditions, sometimes try the long day's climb to the top of Mont Blanc. The way across may be pocked with crevasses and swept by storms that can take the temperature down from a sunny 60° to zero in 20 minutes. But the view from the top of Europe, with even the mighty Matterhorn 1,000 feet below, makes the risks seem small.
Most skiers, however, come for the run down the Vallée Blanche, where the going is easier in mountaineering terms, but, as the photographs on the following pages show, the scenery is no less spectacular. In a good snow year the valley offers 13 miles of uninterrupted downhill skiing across steep ridges, over broad glaciers with the great peaks towering above them and over snow bridges that span 150-foot chasms like the Grand Crevasse on pages 32-33.
May 12, 1957
Though the Vallée Blanche may look formidable, a good Alpine skier can make a safe descent in about five hours; and, on any weekend in April or May, when the weather is warm and the snow settled in the crevasses, some 200 visitors, a few of them Americans, may try it.
For the competent intermediate, or even for an expert mountaineer making his first run down the valley, a guide from Chamonix is absolutely necessary. The start of the run is wide and gentle, but the guides will insist that their parties follow close behind, being certain never to turn a foot outside the guide's tracks. For the crevasses lie like a net under the snow, and anyone who gets careless is courting disaster. Two winters ago, for example, Louis Lachenal, veteran of the French conquest of Annapurna and a man who had made more than a hundred runs down the valley, broke through a snow bridge and plunged into a deep crevasse. He died before he could be got out.
Most hidden crevasses, however, are so small that a man who slips in will sink only up to his knees. Besides, the men who skirt the edges of the great gorges are usually breaking trail and hence they are roped to experienced partners. This is a job for the guides. It is a tricky business to ski tied to a rope and to be ready at any moment to jam ski poles into the ground as a brake if the other man should suddenly begin to sink from sight.
On the lower glacier, known as the Mer de Glace, most of the winter snow may have melted by this time of year, leaving the blue innards of the glacier exposed. Here the expert settles without shame into a beginner's snowplow, ready to stop or turn quickly. But by the time he has reached the lower end of the glacier, before the runout into Chamonix, small crevasses are routine stuff, and he hops them with the regularity of a train wheel clacking over the joints in a track. By this time, too, the skier, tired from the long run, begins to rest more often, to look around him at the peaks of the Grandes Jorasses. He begins to understand why mountaineers come back to the glaciers spring after spring, and he begins to feel the unique exhilaration that comes from a day in the Vallée Blanche. It comes from feeling the cold wind that blows out of the crevasses as one inches across a snow bridge, from hearing the distant shudder of a big avalanche, from looking back, when the run is over, at the white and blue rivers of ice, and at the giant peaks so seemingly unconquerable that lay beneath one's ski tips only a few hours before.