Reporting from Chamonix, France — "Let's have coffee while we wait," Olivier Greber said, extending an offer I couldn't pass up, even though I'd already had breakfast.
The chance to test my skiing abilities on the Vallée Blanche glacier above Chamonix energized me, but stubborn flu symptoms tempered my eagerness. Two days before, my exploration of the immense Portes du Soleil terrain above Morzine had ended quickly and unceremoniously after I was overcome by fever, sore throat, general aches and mild nausea.
The unexpected coffee break allowed me more time to psych myself up for the 12 1/2 -mile run with a vertical drop just short of 9,000 feet. Try as I might to overlook the obvious, I was still miserable, subject to fits of coughing and sniffles. With no egress until the run deposited me at Chamonix at day's end, I was committed to the full experience. Did I mention I was using rented skis?
The Vallée Blanche, or white valley, is classic backcountry skiing, and the prospect of skiing on the mythical glacier overrode health and sanity considerations. The descent, neither groomed nor patrolled, follows the glacier's path along the flanks of Mont Blanc.
It is not a run you'd find in a ski resort, but a broad finger of ice, sometimes more than a mile wide and topped with snow, that snakes its way past crevasses and frozen slabs on its way to Chamonix.
My companions and I had hired Greber to lead us down Vallée Blanche. Although not forbidden, it would be foolish for first-time visitors to strike out on their own. In business since 1821, the licensed mountain guides of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix definitely know their way.
Our small group retreated to the warm cafe at the base of the Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi, where other adventurers had gathered to await the cable car ride to the summit and the beginning of the Vallée Blanche ski run. Our 45-minute wait and the additional caffeine did little to quiet my nerves. Despite reports of minus-4-degree temperatures and reduced visibility, Greber and my companions assured me I would have a good time.
Outside the entrance station, scores of eager skiers shuffled about in the morning chill. Before boarding the cable car, Greber strapped an avalanche beacon around my chest and a harness around my hips, "just in case," he said.
The ride up was subdued, almost reverent. The cable car glided over rock slides, exposed granite faces and vertiginous couloirs packed with snow. Chamonix receded. I chatted with a woman of a certain age who professed to be an average skier. Her presence testified to her determination -- and it comforted me. Strong intermediate skiers (and snowboarders, or snow surfers, as they are called in France) should have no problem navigating the Vallée Blanche. "If I can do it, you can do it," she told me.
It took nearly 20 minutes to reach the postage-stamp landing near the craggy summit of the Aiguille du Midi at 12,397 feet. The landscape looked like an oversized expanse of white suspended in the thin air, a hammock between the Grandes Jorasses on the Italian border and the coarse rampart that hides Chamonix.
Switzerland occupied the northern horizon. Mont Blanc, western Europe's tallest peak at 15,781 feet, presided over the treeless wilderness.
After a few pictures from the observation deck, we finalized last-minute preparations. The cold air stung me. Gusts of wind whipped me. I zipped up and stepped out, skis flung over a shoulder and poles in one hand, onto a narrow path down an arête with steep drop-offs on both sides. We proceeded with care, at a measured pace, balancing our gear as a counterweight to gravity.
Strapped to one another, the fall of one would, in theory, be halted by the other partners in this adventure. Or precipitate a group plunge.
This little walk exhilarated me, but the moment of truth had arrived. I stepped into my bindings, heard them snap around my boots. A slight forward pressure thrust me into the soft powder. A few turns and I knew, instinctively, I would be fine. The skis functioned as an extension of me. I absorbed the variations of the terrain and floated on a cloud of snow.
When we stopped to regroup, I grinned. "This is awesome," I yelled.
Greber chose routes that mixed steep pitches with relaxed cruisers, knee-deep powder and the occasional packed ice. Fairyland turns succeeded fairyland turns in a euphoric procession.
From a distance, the surface of the glacier appeared uniform, but we came across massive upended slabs of ice, the result of the furious, if slow and relentless, downward pull of gravity. Where the glacier squeezed between rock faces, a jumble of broken chunks threatened to swallow all who ventured near its cracks.
"Don't get too close," Greber said as he pointed to unstable snow bridges that would most certainly give way under a person's weight.