The sun is still low on the horizon as we reach the summit of the Aguille du Midi, painting the surrounding mountains a mix of orange, pink and yellow I have never seen before. The wind surges around us in a dance too quick to understand, creating a beautiful mess of snow wherever we look.
I will have to leave France in two days, and I am yet to ski one of the most stunning alpine routes of Chamonix. If you had to choose to ski one route in the area, and one route only, most people would agree that the Vallée Blanche is the one to go for. It is the first clear day of a week full of falling snow and grey skies: today is the perfect day.
I have not touched snow for the past four years and I have really missed it. And even though I have only skied for three days before trying out my first off-piste route, here I am about to ski twenty kilometres until I reach the outskirts of Chamonix. Yes, I am scared. I am not sure if I am prepared, but it does not matter now; I am up here and the uncertainty of alpine skiing is exciting.
I begin to climb down a ridge that gets narrower with every step. As I move forward the wind gets stronger, threatening to make me lose my balance and fall to either side of the steep slabs next to me. I am almost crawling down, holding the safety rope with both hands; it is the only thing that separates me from a certainly unpleasant, if not fatal, fall. The rope makes the descent easier, but no less scary.
We start skiing. Fresh powder, no trails to follow — the whole face of the mountain is ours. The wind cuts my cheeks as I go faster and faster, unable to contain myself. I am not sure if we are still in France or if we have entered Italy, or maybe the Swiss Alps. . .
The shadows of the mountains grow as the day goes by; we’ve been skiing for hours. Never before have I skied for so long without having to take a lift back up. The descent gets bumpy and steeper, and the skiing becomes more physical next to a wall of shiny crevasses.
All of a sudden, the steep bits are over, and we enter the Vallée Blanche. The trail ahead is almost flat, flanked by enormous mountains. Everything is still: I just have to relax and let my skis guide me forward. I even think about closing my eyes, but dismiss the idea almost as soon as it crosses my mind; I have to take in the view. I cannot even blink because I am bewitched by what lies ahead. What seem like endless kilometres of untouched snow unfold in front of my eyes.
I start laughing. I cannot help it — the sound just comes out. It is one of those moments when you are just happy to be alive, extremely grateful to be in the middle of so much beauty and majesty. Amazed that places like this actually exist, and that you are right here.
Five months on, I still smile when I think about that day. I remember how frightened I was to go down at first, but how I could only think about doing the whole thing again as we took the train down to Chamonix. Now, I would never think about turning down an adventure — even if the beginning is beyond what I think I am capable of. The thrill of the challenge makes the memories all the more vivid.
photos by Joshua Willet