“Always do what you are afraid to do” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Almost as soon as I moved to Geneva, some 12 years ago, I was persuaded to take up skiing. I was sweet-talked into joining a club by a colleague who didn’t want to go it alone. Never having been even remotely tempted to ski – in fact, having been scared stiff of the idea – I reluctantly agreed. Settling into life in a new country is never easy and I knew that building a social network was important, even if it meant hurtling down a mountain at full throttle, the potential for broken limbs ready to be fulfilled at any moment. So off I went, teeth gritted, in a bid to make a new friend and learn a new activity.
As it happened, no more than an hour into the proceedings my dear colleague abandoned me to spend the day in a one-on-one “lesson” with a hunky ski instructor and I was left in the pouring rain, gingerly making my way through the slush on the the resort’s one and only green piste, my heart in my mouth and my body in the highly unflattering “snowplough” position.
But by the end of the day, despite the hideous weather and the fact that skiing had proven considerably less glamorous than I had anticipated (my only preview into the situation having been a press photo or two of Princess Diana, sleek in black Gucci, swishing gracefully down the slopes at Klosters), drowned rat appearance and aching legs aside, I had thoroughly enjoyed my first experience on the piste. And I realised that – unlike some – I was happy to go it alone and could easily foresee spending every Sunday that winter learning to ski.
Fast forward more than a decade and I am still at it. Even a busted anterior cruciate ligament and fractured tibia haven’t put me off. For me there is still – and always will be – something magical about rising up out of the foggy valley onto the side of a blue-skied, pine-forested mountain to hear the sound of skis swooshing and crunching on crisp, white meringue-like snow.
Which brings me to number 51. When I sat and thought of my list of 50 things I’d like to do in life, it was a hot, summer’s day. The last thing on my mind was snow. And so, when I got to Chamonix last week for our annual skiing holiday, I realised I’d missed something off the list!
For years I’d been intrigued, tempted and terrified by the idea of skiing the Vallée Blanche: a 20 km glacier stretching from the Aiguille du Midi – which sits at some 3842 heart-stopping metres above sea level – back down to Chamonix. The thought of attempting this 3000m descent through the icy wilderness with two shiny bits of metal strapped to my feet filled me with anticipation.
Towards the end of our holiday, after several years of umming and ahhing, I finally bit the bullet. Bye bye comfort zone, hello ginormous mountains. Thankfully I had fewer than 24 hours to contemplate the consequences of this decision before I was heading up into the Alps in Europe’s highest cable car, which in itself is not for the fainthearted. By that point – if my pride were to remain intact – there was no going back.
Panic set in on arrival. Before you can put on your skis and sweep down the mountainside there is the not insignificant matter of a ridge walk (see photo above). Let’s just say I’m not a fan of sheer drops. Especially when teetering at an altitude of almost 4000m. Luckily for me our gallant guide offered to carry my skis, while I tried desperately not to look over the edge, clung for dear life onto the rope that runs the length of the ridge and gingerly placed one ski boot-clad foot in front of the other. A very long 10 minutes later, we were ready to don our skis. Or at least I would have been, had my knees not been shaking quite so badly.
The top of the descent is perhaps the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever had the privilege to be surrounded by. We had – as luck would have it – chosen a beautiful clear day, perfect for immersion in Alpine wilderness. There are peaks to the edge of the horizon, with the occasional skier or climber to be spotted in the distance. An imposing silence reigns. I don’t remember ever feeling so small. As you glide down the glacier the scenery changes and you become surrounded by a giant ice-scape – Mother Nature’s sculptures – deep crevasses below and imposing walls and archways above, all tinged icy blue in the sunlight. This is the ice age. About two thirds of the way to the bottom of the glacier you arrive at “la salle à manger” – the dining room – where it’s safe enough from potential icefall to find a picnic spot. I have never before eaten in such a spectacular environment.
The disconcerting thing about this glacier is the rate at which it is disappearing. When you have skied as far as you can ski, you arrive approximately 200 metres below the road back to Chamonix. This means that you must take off your skis, roll up your sleeves, and hike up the mountain to arrive at a point where you can ski back down into town (or take the train if your legs have really given out). This drop is increasing by, on average, almost 10 metres each year: a scary illustration of the consequences of climate change.
Given a distinct lack of decent snow, the run back into town was the most technically challenging bit of skiing we had done all day, way beyond my capacities and by that point my legs had really had it. When we finally joined a piste at the bottom I could have kissed the piste marker! But sitting down in the sunshine at the cafe at the bottom of that final run, the sense of satisfaction and achievement was phenomenal. Why only four hours earlier I’d been quaking in my boots at 4000m and now here I was, back in town supping a well-earned beer, exhausted, awe-struck and thrilled (not to mention very relieved).
So that was number 51. La Vallée Blanche. Another reminder, should I ever have needed one, that a few hours spent outside the comfort zone can be the experience of a lifetime.