CourmeyeurBelow5L9.jpg (Leo)

Standing in France looking down at Courmayeur, Italy.

Snowboarding to Italy

I've already mentioned crossing the French/Swiss border coming into Chamonix. In addition, Chamonix is very close to Italy. You pass the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy on the way into Chamonix; unfortunately, the tunnel was closed when we were there. When the tunnel is open, you can easily drive to Italy for dinner.

Since the tunnel was closed, Oren, Justine, and I decided to take the logical alternative, and hike up out of the Vallée Blanche to the far side, then drop down into Italy. (Leo)

Above: the route to Italy. We rode as far out as we could; the route from there was to pick out way through the glaciated ice and go up. There's a large rock at the right edge of the photo; the pass to Italy is the brightly lit snow just to the left of it.

The trip starts like the other Vallée Blanche routes: you take the Aiguille du Midi up, trot down the Walk of Death, and then ride out into the Vallée Blanche. However, once out in the valley, instead of turning left towards the Mare du Glace, you continue straight across the valley.

UpUpUpL9.jpg (Ralphie)

Above: we ran out of momentum, and had to strap the snowshoes on and begin hiking. From left: Leo, Oren, and Justine.

Oren and Justine in the Col (Leo)

We were roped up with our climbing harnesses as a precaution against crevasses. As you can see in the pictures though, there was a clearly established track even though we were less than a week out from the last storm.

This was the warmest day of our week in the Chamonix valley, so the climbing warmed us right up! The slope varied a good deal, although we generallly kept a steeper line than the skiers who preceded us, since we were on snowshoes. Ralphie, our guide for the Italy trip, was on skis and kept to the established skier trail most of the time.

Oren and Justine (Leo)
UpUpUp3 (Ralphie) Posers (Ralphie) (Ralphie)
Happy to not be climibing.
After a little under an hour of steady climbing, we came out in the pass. It was a very wide-open place for as narrow as it looked from below.

ralphie in front of Italy (Leo)
A view of the Italian Alps in the distance.

Ralphie's skis embedded in the pass, looking down at Courmayuer, Italy. As we rested momentarily in the pass, we saw the group just ahead of us fussing with ropes and their climbing harnesses. We wondered what was going on over there, and Ralphie said, "Oh, did I forget to tell you there's a belay on the way into Italy?" Yes, Ralphie, you forgot to tell us that. (Leo)
Ralphie watches the belay in action.

OrenBelays (Leo) Belaying, at least in this case with an established belay line, was pretty simple although I hadn't actually done one before. Hang onto the rope, slide out, and let the rope pay out as you work down the slope. RalphieDrops (Leo)
Oren is belayed down by Ralphie. The vertical part of the belay extended down to the dark/light boundary in the snow below Oren. Ralphie came last, and so he had to self-belay. Needless to say, no problem for him.

Woo-hoo! Oren, safe and sound in Italy.Oren about to drop into Italy (Leo)

We thought the excitement would be over once we were down the belay, but not quite. There was a set of steel stairs (seen behind Oren at left) that led down the first couple hundred feet. The stairs were fine, but where they let out was a very, very bad place to strap into your board (seen at right). We each had a personal approach to trying to get safely into our bindings. SketchyStrapIn (Leo)
Justine's approach (click to enlarge) was to strap in on the steel safety tread. Definitely a surer thing, although tough on the p-tex. I strapped in out on the steep beyond the platform.
Once that was done with, we had beautiful spring-snow riding down the hill, with amazing views of Courmayeur below. (Leo)
Ralphie over Courmayeur. We're still not sure how an Italian town got a French name like that, but maybe it's best not to ask.

Queen of the Glacier (Leo)

Queen of the Glacier!

Courmeyeur below Justine (Leo)
The spring conditions on the way down the Italian side.

View up from Midstation (Leo)

Eventually we arrived at the Helbronner midstation. The key to this trip-to-Italy thing is that on the Italian side, a cable car called the Helbronner runs back up the mountain and lets you out at another entrance to the Vallée Blanche. Here's the view from the midstation back up the mountain towards France.

We hung at the midstation for a quick lunch. Although it was just a sandwich (it was about 1:45pm, meaning of course they had almost stopped serving; Europe is very timely about food) it was a damn fine sandwich. This Italy place seems very intriguing...

Oren and Justine eating lunch in Italy (Leo)
Above: hanging with the international crowd (we heard a lot of languages). At the right edge of the picture is a fellow visitor showing how Europeans use their sunny lunch hours. We could learn something here.
On the way back up, we got to check out Italian engineering up close and personal (4-person cable car). You know that joke about how hell has the Italian mechanics and the British lovers? It didn't seem very funny at the time. I'll take the French cable cars any day. Double warnings (Leo)
Crevasse Man and Cliff Man. Plus a landslide warning and a no- patrol- beyond- this- point.
At left, we're at the top of the Helbronner about to run back into the Vallée Blanche. They don't mess around with the warning signs on that gate! (Leo)
Note the huge crevasse at the left of the photo.

Now it was time to slide back down the Vallée Blanche and across the Mare du Glace in beautiful spring conditions. We started beside the spectacular rock formation there, and kept moving farther and farther from it.

Unfortunately, at this point we wanted to keep speed up, since you don't want to miss the last train back down from the Montenvers. The advantage was that on our third Vallée Blanche trip of the week, we knew the way. (Ralphie) (Ralphie)
Mission accomplished! We made the last train down with time to spare. The train was packed on the ride down, but even so we were three very, very happy people.
OrenInTrainL9.jpg (Justine) JustineInTrainL9.jpg (Leo) LeosMouthInTrainL9.jpg (Justine)
This was our last day of riding in Chamonix, but I'm certain all of us will be back. While I'll never move my home hill outside the Sierra Nevada, the terrain, conditions, and most of all mountaineering attitude of the Chamonix Valley is fantastic. If you're a serious skier -- or if you're the least inclined to try backcountry, off-piste activity -- the Chamonix Valley is a tremendous destination.
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  © 2002 Leo Hourvitz
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