There’s barely room to breathe as I jostle for space among bodies bent-double under the weight of huge rucksacks draped with metres of coloured rope, ice-picks and carabiners. We’re all packed into a cable car and heading in the same direction – to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi. At 3,800m, the passengers will separate into two groups: those who will descend the infamous arête before clipping on skis (or a board) and skiing the legendary 17km route through the Vallée Blanche, and those who’ll don climbing gear and head out on foot, some to the top of Mont Blanc (4,810m).
For the Chamonix virgin, the resort is both compelling and daunting. From the moment you arrive in the town there’s the unavoidable whiff of hardcore; wide-eyed men in technical jackets, women with carabiner earrings and vast, jagged peaks casting their shadows across the valley. Like all ski resorts, it’s full of frighteningly expensive boutiques and restaurants where you can gorge on spectacular food beneath the looming white peaks.
It stands to reason if you’re to make the most of Chamonix you need to engineer a fine balance between the extreme and the epicurean, which is where elite wintersports concierge service White Blancmange comes in. Husband and wife Mark and Gerry have their fingers firmly on the alpine pulse and can organise everything from staying in the region’s best chalets to hurling yourself off a mountain (with paraglider attached, obviously), wherever in the Alps you fancy. Both experienced skiers (Mark was formerly a ski trainer for the SAS and British Army ski team), they’ll also be on hand for instruction and guiding.
KNIFE EDGE RIDGE
Thanks to them we’re booked into Chamonix’s spectacular Chalet Amazon Creek, and it’s also thanks to them I’m walking out of the dark tunnel through the Aiguille du Midi – climbing harness tight around my thighs and waist, skis on my back and avalanche transponder in my pocket – about to descend the knife-edge ridge to the start of the ski run through the Vallée Blanche.
Roped together and led by mountain guide Kathy Murphy, we hack our way down the tricky arête before reaching the flat expanse at the top of the first descent. From there it’s a 17km ski down the valley through virtually deserted snow-fields, across creeping glaciers peppered with crevasses and past scenery you’d stop and stare at all day if you weren’t trying hard not to fall to the bottom of said crevasses.
It’s been weeks since it snowed, making the more technical sections a slog and robbing us of the chance to ski in waist-deep virgin powder, but it doesn’t blunt the incomparable experience of skiing uninterrupted through some of the most beautiful and dramatic terrain in the world.
One upside to the unseasonably warm weather is it makes long, al fresco lunches possible. We leave the little train that runs from the end of the run back to Chamonix, hop straight into Amazon Creek’s waiting Land Rover Defender (drivers are at your disposal and very welcome in a resort as fragmented as Chamonix) and are soon on the busy terrace of La Cabane des Praz (restaurant-cabane.com), gulping down rosé and fantastic grilled fish.
Back at Amazon Creek (named after a beach in Turkey, obviously), buoyed by the morning’s skiing and the afternoon’s drinking, there’s no shortage of things to do. The ten-person chalet (the largest of three in the development) has its own lavish spa with steam-room, sauna, Jacuzzi and treatment rooms, a well-stocked mini cinema plus its own resident chef capable of cooking-up feasts the equal of Chamonix’s top restaurants. As it happens, there are quite a few of those – newer additions worth a visit include superb biodynamic Italian L’Impossible (restaurant-impossible.com) and La Remise (laremise.eu), offering modern cuisine in a traditional Savoyard setting.
Amazon Creek’s rooms are, like the chalet, constructed unashamedly in the local tradition – plenty of wood, leather and furs, put together with a hefty dose of luxury – but the chalet’s trump card is the sky-high level of service. On top of the Land Rover taxis and the delicious and plentiful food, staff are on hand to assist with anything you need, from arranging ski-hire and fitting in the chalet to delivering champagne while you’re in the Jacuzzi. But White Blancmange save their best party trick for last. Roused early, we’re driven to a heliport and ushered into a waiting chopper, bundling skis into side baskets. Heli-skiing is banned in France, though it is (if you know the right people) theoretically possible to fly to a designated piste-side landing point, get out and ski-off.
That’s exactly what we’re planning, but first we rise up through the valley, seemingly inches from snow-laden trees and huge, creaking seracs until the view unfolds into a spectacular panorama of the Vallée Blanche, with Mont Blanc looming in the background.
And it’s to Mont Blanc we head, hovering over the summit before gently touching down for a handful of breathtaking seconds. “Now you can tell your friends you’ve been to the top of Mont Blanc,” the pilot says over the radio. In fact, I might just stop after telling them about the Vallée Blanche; any more than that and they’ll think I’ve made it all up.
DISCOVER HELISKIING - THE ULTIMATE POWDER SKI WEEK IN INCREDIBLE BRITISH COLUMBIA WITH SQUAREMILE.COM & OLYMPIC LEGEND – GRAHAM BELL
What better way to celebrate the New Year this winter than indulging in the ultimate powder skiing adventure brought to you exclusively by the Squaremile.com Travel Club. Together with our friends at Total Heliski you will be whisked off to one of the most exclusive ski resorts in the world, Whistler in British Columbia, Canada, to warm up on the slopes ahead of a four-day heliskiing masterclass with former World Cup legend Graham Bell.