Chamonix sits in the lower reaches of the Arve Valley. The river rises in the hills near the border with Switzerland, gathering strength from the meltwater off the mountains and glaciers, most particularly the Mer de Glace—the sea of ice. All the way down the valley it has a grey, mineral quality, but when it finally joins the Rhône in Geneva, the Rhône perks up the combined river by adding its astonishing powdery blue to the Arve’s workmanlike grey. In this debonair company, the plebeian Arve flows past Rousseau island, where Rousseau sits in his bronze chair contemplating the origin of inequality. Back in the 18th century, very few of the Protestant Genevois ever visited Chamonix. It was a non-place.
But in the 19th century, things changed in Chamonix. The catalyst was a mountain—and that mountain was Mont Blanc, the next peak along from where I am standing. I am at the exit from the ice tunnel on the top of the Aiguille du Midi, which is 3,842 metres high, only a little lower than its neighbour, Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe. I am about to ski the Vallée Blanche.
I can see the Matterhorn from here; the views are sublime—and terrifying. I am wondering how I am going to proceed down a ridge, aptly known as the arête—the fishbone—which is about 60cm wide, with a 3,000-metre drop to Chamonix on one side and a calamitous fall into the Vallée Blanche on the other. I remember reading that the act of terrifying yourself deliberately on a mountain is character-forming and admirable. But right now, I am wondering why I am here. What did I imagine I could achieve by skiing the longest ski run in the world, all off-piste? Perhaps I was hoping to demonstrate, if only to myself, that I was fit and brave enough to do it; at a more sombre level perhaps I wanted to reassure myself that I was not approaching my end. And I had skied it twice before, 15 years ago; in my memory I coped effortlessly with the deep snow for which the Vallée Blanche is famous.
You have to walk down the arête in your ski boots, and crampons if you have them. I don’t. As soon as I start down the 150 metres of the arête, the boots I hired an hour earlier—we were barely introduced—go on their own skating adventure. My guide, Steve Hartland, is carrying my skis and has roped me to him, but despite that, I feel nervous. He is a small man, very wiry. I have never been 100% behind the custom of roping: surely if you have many people on the rope, you are much more likely to die together in one catastrophe? A fat man in crampons at the back would be advisable. On a more positive note, it would be a lovely day to die; the sky clear and clean, Italy straight ahead, and scores of spectacular aiguilles (needles) to admire, pointing up from peaks which look as if they were designed by Gaudi. Mountains are always in a process of change, and these pinnacles are a tribute to the erosive powers of aeons of wind, rain and snow.
After about 20 minutes of descending this couloir of death, we arrive at a launching area where I am unleashed. I am nervous and clumsy and have difficulty getting into my unfamiliar skis; I can read Steve’s thoughts as I try to remove the ice from under my boots. In the clarity of this ice-world, a vapour seems to be hanging above his head like a speech bubble.
When you haven't skied for years, it’s a good idea to do some training in advance. I had prepared for a few weeks by trotting up the stairs of the London Underground every day while ignoring the warning on the tannoy of the dangers of running in the station. My thighs were firming up nicely. But how prescient the announcement proved to be: on my way to lunch one day, I slipped in Sloane Square tube station as I was bounding up the escalator and impaled my nose on its sharp claws. Blood flowed freely. A helpful man emerged from his office and gave me sheaves of paper towels. That is another story, relevant only because it hampered my programme of high-altitude training. Incidentally, my nose healed very well, apart from a slight deviation to the left.
We are way above the valley floor, and only 406 metres lower than Mont Blanc itself. It is here that the Vallée Blanche starts its majestic 18km (11-mile) sweep down some of the wildest and most beautiful Alpine landscapes you can imagine. Scores of aiguilles line the ridges of the valley—each has a name—and deceptive bosoms of snow hide deep crevasses which can open and close like a clam, depending on the weather. And it is here that any thoughts of covering myself in glory have given way to serious doubts, and already I am a little peeved that my son and the photographer have gone off so carelessly. This is absurd: I was the one who suggested skiing the valley again; I thought it would prove something about my ageless courage. Now I have lost my nerve. It’s a degrading state of mind, one which I have always scorned in others, not improved by the sight of Steve waiting and the photographer, Charlie, pirouetting on his board impatiently. He is carrying a large camera at the same time. No doubt Steve is remembering that I had assured him that my son and I could tackle more or less anything.
My son, a doctor—a gynaecologist, where an A&E specialist might have been more useful—is waiting somewhere in the general direction of Italy. Even from 200 metres away, I can see the resigned look on his face. This makes me even more anxious. I remember vividly the plight of an Italian that I witnessed the last time I skied this run: he fell into a deep crevasse when a “snow bridge” crumbled as he was crossing and he had to be rescued from the depths by the helicopter team. The guides say that there are fish in the glaciers; if you fall into a crevasse, they ask: “La pêche est bonne?” I think it is a local joke.
In the morning after his rescue, I looked at the local newspaper to see how the Italian had got on; he was more or less fine but plein d’émotion, which did not surprise me. In fact, as I haver, I am plein d’émotion myself. But I am keenly aware that I can’t stand here much longer while simultaneously feeling shamed by my absence of nerve. At this frozen moment I hate and fear Chamonix and the bloody Vallée Blanche.
From time immemorial Chamonix was regarded as a kind of homeland for the rustic and the ignorant. Early travellers were not impressed; they concluded that the Good Lord had visited on these hapless yokels a grotesque land of glaciers—which were called glissiers in those days—and poor agricultural land, as a punishment for their ignorance. All year round the sun was late to reach the valley floor, which was where criminals were incarcerated, presumably on the premise that it would have been very difficult for them to escape undetected down the only road, and it would have been even more difficult to wade through deep snow up the flanks of the mountains. In those days no one climbed mountains except to kill the chamois. Why would you? Mountains were not considered beautiful, merely dreadful and inconvenient masses of rock and ice. In summer the eternal snow persisted, to remind the people just how benighted their valley was, enclosed by the mighty and groaning glaciers which were apt to descend in an unstoppable rush to the valley floor. Sometimes they took whole villages, livestock and trees with them.
Avalanches were seen as malevolent and unstoppable forces, with something of the supernatural about them. And they haven’t gone away: on February 9th 1999, a little way up the Chamonix valley from Argentière, the tiny village of Montroc was overwhelmed by an avalanche which killed 12 people in their houses. I saw the devastation: it was, as they say, as if the chalets had been tossed about by giants. Local lore decreed that no avalanche could have enough power for the snow and ice to leave the deep gully beneath the mountain, cross a stream and a road and travel on 50 metres up the other side. It was also stated confidently that avalanches could never reach the village, which was in a white zone, a safe area. But this avalanche raced down the mountain, over the river, across the road and up the hill towards Montroc like a rolling tsunami, producing lethal waves of snow, ice, trees and rocks.
From the mid-18th century, there was a slow change of attitude towards mountains; over the next 100 years the English and some Germans decided that they were glorious, sublime and interesting and that climbing them would provide both aesthetic delights and an understanding of scientific theories. They came to believe that climbing mountains or visiting the sights like the Mer de Glace would be spiritually rewarding, an idea that persists. Being frightened but morally improved by the awful power of the glaciers and avalanches became a vogue. On August 8th 1786 two Frenchmen, Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, climbed Mont Blanc and returned alive. It is hard to imagine how they were able to reach the summit clutching a long flagpole and carrying heavy scientific equipment. This great, emblematic mountain became the ur-mountain of Europe, and there was no end to the streams of people who wanted to follow in their footsteps. The mountains were loud with Englishmen and women.
In the mid-19th century John Ruskin painted hundreds of pictures of the Alps, many of them in Chamonix. There is something of a re-estimation of Ruskin’s paintings going on now; they were unappreciated for years, certainly underestimated, perhaps because his reputation as the sexually repressed and inhibited Victorian has overshadowed his talents as a painter. But Volume IV of his “Modern Painters” contains 50 detailed paintings done in Chamonix, all in the space of a few weeks. They are masterpieces of close observation of natural phenomena. Ruskin understood that mountains, measured in deep time, were always changing, always in flux; the notion of a landscape had changed. As Robert Macfarlane wrote in “Mountains of the Mind”, “We read landscapes, in other words, we interpret their forms in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory.” By Ruskin’s time the Alps were not just “considerable protuberances”, as Dr Johnson had called them, but objects of wonder, containing many elemental truths, both scientific and sublime.
Since those days, fear and risk-taking and dangerous sports have become highly valued in the Chamonix Valley, not necessarily for insight but for the adrenaline rush. Although not everybody owns up to it, the real possibility of death can be glamorous; on average someone dies every day in the climbing season and close to 100 people die every year. I have a friend in Chamonix whose husband was killed 20 years ago when a slab of ice detached itself from the wall he was climbing. His wife was an outstanding climber herself; she and he both knew the risks.
Many climbers understand their urge to climb as a kind of addiction, and Chamonix supplies the drugs. It is the capital of Alpine dangerous sports, including ice-climbing, parascending, white-water rafting, wing-flying, extreme off-piste powder-skiing and a sport called hydroglisse, which involves getting dressed in a waterproof suit and helmet and rushing down the Arve. My sons signed up one summer, when they were about 10 and 13. (One of these boys is now standing impatiently on his board some distance away as all this rushes through my head.) We watched with trepidation as our children disappeared immediately under a bridge and headed in the direction of Geneva. We couldn’t catch up with them and only saw them again when the leader of the group brought them back to the start point, ruddy and a little alarmed.
My moments of paralysis at the head of the Vallée Blanche are brought on—I am desperate for a self-serving theory—by the flashback to the Italian skier being rescued and whisked away to hospital. But right now I can see myself stuck here until the helicopter comes to get me. I am wondering if my insurance covers me for a helicopter rescue because of loss of nerve. Eventually I launch myself down what should be a gentle slope, but I am committing all the beginners’ mistakes, mistakes that I thought I’d left behind years ago: ski points flapping, weight behind the boots, forcing the heels of the skis round, and so on. I barely make it down a longish but straightforward slope, and there are 12km to go. Above us the Gaudi pinnacles are caught in sunlight and the snow is becoming softer, which should make it easier. There isn’t much of the powder for which the Vallée Blanche is famous, and I begin to lose faith in my broad, deep-snow, hired skis. I ski down past the Gros Rognon, beneath the cliffs of Mont Blanc du Tacul, heading in the direction of the Requin, the Shark, where we are to stop for lunch.
But as we sweep down the Glacier du Géant, my skis more or less working to order now, the valley narrows and becomes more difficult where the moguls have formed. I have a tremendous fall, and roll down a steep slope for what seems like hundreds of metres. I am sure that I am about to break a leg or even my neck. As I roll, I try to dig in my skis or poles, but I am moving too fast; I become strangely detached as I feel myself flying over a high ridge. When I land below, I begin to slow down, and finally I stop. Miraculously, I have no injuries at all, not even a bruise, and my skis are still attached. Later, Charlie says he thought I was a goner, not a word I have heard for a while.
Steve comes to point the way to the Requin. It stands on a promontory, some way above the valley floor; the glacier has shrunk recently and it is much lower in the valley than it was. All I have to do now is to follow him, but I am paralysed; as he sets off along a fairly gentle traverse, I simply cannot launch myself after him. The result is that I have to pick my way down through moguls and I end up too low to get up to the Requin. I have been there twice and it is very seductive, the sort of improbable place I like; when you get there, you feel you have been admitted to an elect coterie of mountain people. It’s nothing like the restaurants of the manicured pistes, more a kind of refuge from the wildness all around. Now my son and Charlie have to forgo their lunch. I feel bad and a little ridiculous—I have been looking forward to a tarte aux myrtilles myself. Steve has his own lunch in his rucksack. He is becoming anxious about the time we are spending in a zone where huge blocks of ice can fall as the day warms up.
From this point on, the skiing is easy, and I regain some of my self-belief as we flow down the long lower section of the valley, the Salle à Manger, so named, says Steve, because it is where people stop for their lunch. I think it is probably because it is relatively flat. My joy at the absence of fear is exhilarating; I try to regain some respect by skiing fast and making some fancy turns and jumps. Nobody is interested.
We fly a few miles down the valley for another hour—up to the right is the Grands Montets, a domain I have skied many times, and to the left the final outriders of the Aiguille du Midi tumbling down the slope. As the snow is beginning to thin, we reach the iron staircase up to the Montenvers, from where Steve says we will take the small train back to the centre of Chamonix. Sometimes it is still possible to ski right down to the contour path, and on into Chamonix itself.
There is one more unpleasant surprise: we have to climb up 450 iron steps to the railway; the glacier has contracted so much that the staircase has had to be extended. My training in the Underground proves woefully inadequate. I should have done it in ski boots. From the station on the lip of the valley, families pass us on their way down to see the blue grottoes in the Mer de Glace, something I find strangely Victorian. A blue astroturf carpet has been laid at the entrance.
In the café at the top I polish off most of a large tarte aux myrtilles before we take the little train down the steep gradients to the centre of the town. It’s a pleasant journey through the trees. As we walk to our bus, we stop to look at the statues of Jacques Balmat and his companion, Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard, who appears to be gurning. Balmat is pointing at the summit of Mont Blanc, which at this moment is bathed in a numinous late sunlight.