Spring had come to Chamonix. The skiers' favorite restaurant, the Choucas, where one could scarcely get a table at Easter, was closed, and so was the jumping Bivouac discoth√®que. The only sounds coming from the casino were the whispers of spinning wheels, spun idly by croupiers with no one to bet. The ski instructors (moniteurs) in knickers and hobnailed boots gathered on the corner by the school to talk of summer climbs or the tragic avalanche on the Zugspitze. Only a handful of die-hards remained at the Hotel de Paris, the seedily comfortable skiers' hotel. Most had come to ski the Vallée Blanche, Europe's highest run, after snow had gone from lower places. I had come to fly with Michel Ziegler to some remote mountain to ski a glacier with Yves Blatgé, a friend who gave up a career as a petroleum engineer to combine the best of two worlds, working in winter as a moniteur and mountain guide in Courchevel and in summer at his own beach establishment, down the coast from Saint-Tropez.
At a little before 6 the morning after we arrived in Chamonix, Blatgé knocked at my door, and we went to my window to look at the day. The river gurgled below, filled with the brown silt of May's melted glacier snows. The sky was opalescent and the majestic bulk of Mont Blanc loomed pink in a cloudless sunrise. "We'll fly," said Yves.
We dressed and went across the street to the H√¥tel Suisse for coffee and a croissant. All along the road to Le Fayet, Chamonix's airport, the glaciers on each side seemed poised to crash into the valley below. We stopped at a roadside épicerie for provisions—Savoie sausage, a round of Reblochon, a liter of red wine, some Tobler chocolate bars. Janine Bloch, of Air-Alpes, was waiting at the field, her "office" the fender of her Renault station wagon. While we were pouring the wine into Yves' wineskin, the Air-Alpes Pilatus dived down, power off, whining shrilly, at head height over the field. It swooped into a chandelle before landing and stopped within 300 yards of touchdown.
Michel Ziegler jumped out to help us secure our skis and Yves' pack, the 25 pounds of gear carried by every glacier guide: ice ax, crampons, ropes, tarpaulin, a metal tip for a broken ski, and a device that joins two skis into a sled which could carry an injured skier off a mountain.
February 7, 1966
"There's too much wind on the D√¥me du Go√ªter," Ziegler said. "At least 40 knots." He had checked it on his flight over from Courchevel. For most glacier landings, 10 knots is the maximum wind. This was disappointing news. The D√¥me du Go√ªter is a broad shoulder, only 1,600 feet beneath Mont Blanc's magnificent head and, at 14,100 feet, the highest point to which Ziegler flies his clients. From there you can climb Mont Blanc in an hour and a half—if you have never smoked in your life and have done your deep knee bends—and then ski all the way down through valleys of green-blue serac ice to the top of the Aiguille du Plan téléférique.
My disappointment was tempered, I will confess, by what I had learned of the D√¥me du Go√ªter the day I first met Michel Ziegler at Courchevel. The D√¥me is not only the highest place he lands, but the toughest ski down. And one of Ziegler's airplanes is buried in its snows. Blatgé and I had stopped after a morning's ski on the Saulire to join Ziegler for lunch at Courchevel's altiport. Planes on skis were taking off and landing on the sharply inclined packed-snow runway, bringing new arrivals up from Geneva, taking children on tours around Mont Blanc or skiers over to La Plagne or Meg√®ve for the day. In the April sun girls were lunching outdoors in ski pants and bikini tops. The chef sang along with Renata Tebaldi's Tosca, playing on the kitchen radio. Martine Ziegler, Michel's beautiful blonde wife, brought us steak, pommes frites and a carafe of Beaujolais, and the whole scene was so pleasantly, cosily comfortable that climbing into a single-engine airplane and flying up to some crevassing and perhaps avalanching billion-year-old river of ice seemed not only a perfectly sensible but, indeed, the only thing to do.
The ceiling of the airport restaurant was papered with precisely detailed relief maps, showing all the glaciers from the Mont Blanc massif to Alpe d'Huez. "Here is the D√¥me de Chassefor√™t," Michel told me. "I could land a Boeing up there." Then Blatgé took over. "You walk for about half an hour up to the Refuge Félix-Faure, then there is a beautiful tour for two hours ending at Pralognan for lunch." There were 12 different Xs on the charts, marking spots where Ziegler has landed his turbo-powered Pilatus Porter, and leading from them, snaking down the ice-blue contour lines, there were ski tours of from 12 to 18 miles.
"And here's the D√¥me du Go√ªter," said Michel, "my highest landing place. My first Pilatus is still up there. It was in 1960 and my first solo glacier landing." Until this point I had not thought it polite to ask about accidents.
At 31, Ziegler has been a licensed pilot for half his lifetime. His father, Henri Ziegler, is a pioneer of French aviation, formerly a director of Air France and now head of Breguet, the company that has made France's fighting planes since World War I. Henri Ziegler instilled his own love for flying and for mountains in his son. The family climbed and skied the Saulire in Courchevel long before the first lifts were built there. Michel was a paratrooper in the Algerian war and, to learn English, worked for Air France in London afterward.
Convinced that the new frontier for aviation is in the mountains, where surface transportation is so arduous even for short distances, he then went to learn the secrets of mountain flying from Hermann Geiger, the famous Swiss glacier pilot. "Geiger made it seem easy," Michel said. "He picked the snow and the piste, and he knew the wind. It seemed so simple that I suppose I became wildly overconfident. After 40 landings with Geiger, I was ready to land on my own. It had to be on the D√¥me. Robert Merloz, my partner, and I took off from Geneva one morning and headed straight for Mont Blanc. The wind was gentle, the snow smooth and our landing perfect. We had a Lycoming piston engine on that first Pilatus, and I was afraid to shut off power in that high, thin air. We got out and walked around, throwing snowballs in our elation, then climbed back in and started downhill for the takeoff. The engine quit before we were airborne. The right ski went on the first crevasse, the left on the next and the whole damned undercarriage on the third. Merloz and I skied our way down to Chamonix, leaving a $100,000 airplane on the D√¥me du Go√ªter. Since Mont Blanc glaciers move about a foot and a half a day, it will arrive in Chamonix in about 95 years. I have never been cocky about glacier flying since."
In the four years since Ziegler founded Air-Alpes, he has made more than 5,000 Alpine landings carrying more than 12,000 skiers to remote glaciers. He will take a party only with a licensed mountain guide, one who has been through the national climbing school, the world's toughest, in Chamonix. Ziegler himself spent a summer at the school and wears the badge of "aspirant guide." There has been only one fatality among Air-Alpes passengers—on the ski down a man fell into a stream and died of pneumonia.
Ziegler takes skiers to a glacier only when the snow is sure and the weather so good that there is little doubt that the party will get out before it changes. Téléfériques in the Alps, on the other hand, spill skiers onto the high mountains without guides, with no testing of competence, in any weather and with haphazard markings of the piste. A Chamonix guide told me that last season eight skiers were killed in crevasse accidents or slides in the Mont Blanc area.
Now both Blatgé and I had made a special trip to Chamonix to fly with Ziegler, three weeks after our lunch with him in Courchevel, only to learn that our objective was unapproachable. "What about the Chassefor√™t?" asked Blatgé.
"I think we'll find one closer," Michel said. "The Col Infranchissable, and if it doesn't work we'll go on to the Rutor." We took off and headed right for the mountain. The Pilatus is a STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) airplane, with a carton-shaped fuselage, squared-off tail and high, outsize wings. The long nose of the turboprop model makes it look like a duck in flight. There is nothing ugly-duckling about its flying characteristics. It carries seven passengers and is as free of vibration as a Caravelle. Its ceiling is 28,000 feet, and it has such a low stalling speed that it can land and take off at 50 mph.
We rose rapidly and were soon circling in what seemed a ridiculously narrow place to bring an airplane, the mountains right off the wingtips on all sides. The gnatlike shadow of the plane on the snow put me at ease—the enormous scale of the mountains had made them look perilously close. We checked the Col Infranchissable below the D√¥me du Go√ªter. It leads into three long, smooth, easy glaciers on the western slope of the Mont Blanc massif. But the wind was too strong here also. Five minutes later we landed on the big plateau of the Testa del Rutor. We were quickly out and unloaded. Then we pushed the tail of the plane around so that it headed into the wind, and, with a wave, Ziegler was gone in a swirl of snow, and I was at last on my glacier.
Spread out under a sky of cobalt blue—the special province of balloonists, alpinists and astronauts—was the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the whole massif from the D√¥me du Go√ªter to the Grandes Jorasses etched in cartographic relief. Yves and I walked across the hard, wind-rippled snow to an ar√™te that marks the border. Two glaciers descended from here—on the left the steep l'Avernet and to the right, the way indicated by a cairn, the Grand Glacier. From the top of the Grand Glacier, Yves pointed out to me the Matterhorn, its crested-wave peak visible through a pass—Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn both on the horizon at once. I remembered what Janine had told me: "When you ski a glacier, the scenery is the thing. If you get good snow as well, that is an extra gift of God."
Yves led the way down, and I followed timorously at first, our skis chattering on the ruffled wind pack. We had hardly begun our descent when we came upon five young skiers, climbing toward us, their skis on their shoulders. They had left the village of Le Miroir at 2 that morning, and it was now nearly 8.
I envied them a bit the feeling of triumph they would have when they skied back down. Among many mountain folk and the older guides the plane is looked on not only as a cheat but a danger. When you climb a glacier before you ski it, you know exactly where the crevasses are and the condition of the snow. But a guide like Blatgé can read the snow the way a Bahama native can read the water—by color. The snow over crevasses is gray and sags in the sun.
We were soon out of the hard pack into a glorious surface of dry powder on packed snow. The slope was steep, perhaps 30°, but it was a promenade twice as wide as the Champs-Elysées. At first I followed in Yves' tracks. We made clean, sweeping arcs, eight to 10 turns in a row. There was now a layer of light powder, so dry that it squeaked with every turn. The only clue to the fact that we were going very fast in that immense landscape was the flapping of my parka in the wind. After a while I felt my legs under me and began to make my own way, turning Yves' S's into figure eights in the virgin snow. Two impulses warred within me—one to ski nonstop in those effortless turns to the bottom of the glacier, the other to stop and hold onto the day and that mountain wilderness.
We drew up at a knoll to look back up the glacier, and we could follow our tracks, like cable stitching, going out of sight. A high jet left a contrail in the sky, the only other visible mark of man. It was now 8:30 and the sun was higher, the altitude lower and the snow would be changing fast. "Allons," said Yves, and down he went.
We were suddenly in "gros sel" or "big salt," the French term for spring corn snow. It looked like grains of white caviar and made a swishing sound under our skis. It takes a week of warm, melting days and cloudless freezing nights of spring to set up such perfect corn conditions, and when the night pack turns to corn in the sun's first brightness it is good for only an hour or so before the caviar becomes mashed potatoes. I had seen such perfect corn only once before, in Cervinia one April when a group of us had crossed over from Zermatt, after taking a Sno-Cat up to the Italian border, along the shoulder of the Matterhorn. We had been so enraptured with it that, without toothbrushes or passports, we had stayed overnight to catch another morning like the first.
Yves and I skied out of corn in half an hour and were brought to earth by coming to soft crust that tended to break through whenever one ski was overweighted. I had had for an hour the best skiing of my life and I was content to slow down. In the shadows on the right side of the pack we found some hard snow and we let our skis go once more. But soon we were in a crevassing area and it was necessary to go back to work in the sun-softened glue. After 20 minutes the terrain flattened out and we were in a narrow mountain meadow.
We had to push with our poles to keep the skis moving. It was very warm. We stopped in the shade of a great, square boulder to take off our parkas and push up our sleeves. A stream gurgled at the base of the rock, and a winged insect, fragile as a mayfly, was crawling on the snow, a miracle of the high mountain spring. We sat on our parkas and ate chunks of the sausage and the cheese and drank from the wineskin, holding it high and squirting the wine into our mouths like Spanish bullfight fans.
With new wax on our skis, we walked down the valley, past the roofless remains of La Sassi√®re, an abandoned village of stone huts once used in summer by herdsmen who brought cattle up to graze in the lush snow-fed meadow. Lower down we came to other summer villages, still in use but boarded up—La Vacherie (the cow shed) and La Savonne. Yellow crocuses were pushing through the snow around the sun-warmed stone foundations of the houses. Soon the snow was only a muddy path, between rocks, streams and grass. We came to a road and took off our skis for a 20-minute walk to Le Miroir. A Citro√´n taxi was waiting. It was 11 o'clock. We finished off the wine as we drove through pasturelands and orchards in bloom, and I slept for most of the two-hour drive back to Chamonix.
GLACIER-SKIING TRAVEL FACTS
This winter Air-Alpes has expanded its operation, adding an altiport, or high-mountain landing strip, at Val d'Is√®re to those already existing at Méribel, Courchevel and La Plagne. There are airports at Le Fayet, serving Chamonix, and at Meg√®ve. Airports and altiports are indicated by circled planes on the map opposite. Ziegler has moved his headquarters and mechanics to Meg√®ve and will keep one Pilatus there to serve the Mont Blanc region. Another still will operate from Courchevel. The price of a glacier flight ranges, depending on flying time, from $72 to $180 for six passengers—or from $12 to $30 per person. Air-Alpes also ferries skiers between ski stations and from Geneva to the resorts for an average of $20 one way. The company also does a big business in flights around Mont Blanc.
The visionary Ziegler is thinking in terms of scheduled flights from the capitals of Europe direct to the ski areas by 1970, with STOL planes carrying up to 60 passengers. His safety record is built on his skill and his caution. The glacier landing places, marked by the uncircled planes on the map, have all been carefully checked, first by guides who climbed to them, then by Ziegler without passengers and, finally, at his request, by the French national civil aviation service. It takes a year or two to certify a landing place. The run taken by the writer is indicated by the black line descending from Testa del Rutor.
The guides one skis with are familiar with all runs to which they are assigned. A glacier guide such as Blatgé gets $32 for his day's work, whether the party is one or six. Air-Alpes makes up the parties and endeavors to keep skiers of the same ability together. The skiing itself is not difficult—Ziegler does not fly when the snow is chancy—and an average recreational skier with the stamina for the altitude, the long run and the walk at the bottom will find the day one of the best he ever spent on skis.
The "season" for glacier skiing in the French Alps is from late March until June. Flights sometimes go as early as 5 a.m. to get to the snow before the sun is too high. Special eye protection is needed by anyone attempting the glaciers. Ziegler and all the guides use glasses, designed by Jean Vuarnet, that have gradient lenses of a smoky yellow. They are specially made to screen the intense high-altitude rays but are also good in overcast or white-out conditions. The skier also should use a mountaineer's skin-protection cream and should carry a rucksack with chocolate and fruit (oranges are a good thirst-quenching idea), an extra pair of socks and gloves and a scarf. As for ski clothes, the critical matter is warmth—it is better to take off a parka and tie it around one's waist than not to have it.
In France the glory of glacier skiing does not always end at the bottom of the snow line. Most of the glacier runs end in a mountain village such as Pralognan, at the end of the Chassefor√™t, where, in a rustic restaurant full of copper pots and blooming geraniums, the exultant skier will be served a lunch of the splendid ham of Savoie and an omelet or a fondue with a bottle of Crépy, the green-white wine of these mountains, while the patronne summons the taxi that will drive him back to the place where he started.
GLACIER DES AMETHYSTES
GLACIER DU TOUR NOIR
AIGUILLE DE TRIOLET
DOME DU GOUTER
TESTA DEL RUTOR
DOME DE BELLECOTE
DOME DE CHASSEFORET
DOME DE POLSET