Guide to Skiing the Vallée Blanche in Chamonix, France
The Vallée Blanche (White Valley) is one of the world’s great off-piste tours. You ride the great Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), the enormous glacier that has carved a gigantic path, and subsequently the Vallée Blanche itself, over centuries.
From near the top of the highest mountain in continental Europe – Mont Blanc (4,810m) – the great glacier arcs its way down towards the valley floor and the town of Chamonix.
A day riding the Vallée Blanche is the highlight of any ski season, or trip, to Chamonix. The area is completely unmarked and unmaintained, but offers some of the most incredible scenery in the European Alps. The total trip is around 17km.
See Work a Snow Season in Chamonix for more information on doing a season in Chamonix.
Getting to Chamonix
Chamonix is around an hour’s drive, when the traffic is good, from Geneva. From Geneva International Airport (GVA), there are plenty of shuttle bus companies that do pick-ups & drop-offs. One is, for instance, Mountain Dropoffs. Another is Alpy Bus. These cost around 25 euros one-way and pick up directly from the airport, with drop-off at your accommodation.
There is no direct train to Chamonix from Geneva, so you would need to go via Annemasse or Roche-sur-Foron if taking the train, which will take around three hours. A shuttle bus, or car, is generally a better option if arriving into Geneva.
The closest town in France to Chamonix is Grenoble, which has a regional airport. Grenoble is also accessible from anywhere in France using the French train system SNCF. From Grenoble, you can take a train straight to Chamonix to the Chamonix Mont Blanc station. en.voyages-sncf.com/en.
Time to go
The season for the Vallée Blanche usually starts a little later in winter, from around mid-January. This is because the crevasses need to be bridged over by the snow and form a solid layer before it is safe to ski on.
You will start at a height of 3,777m at the Aiguille du Midi, and finish in Chamonix at 1,050m. That’s a vertical drop of 2727m. The route length is around 17km, and usually takes 4-6 hours. The busiest times are weekends in February and March when numbers going down are in the many hundreds per day.
Gear and Safety
Remember that this is completely off-piste terrain, and there are additional dangers in the Vallée Blanche that may be less prevalent within a lifted on-piste area. These include crevasses and avalanches, as well as a lack of access to medical care if required.
It is recommended to carry avalanche gear in case you need to make a rescue, or be rescued. This includes a transceiver, shovel and probe as the basic gear. This can be rented in Chamonix for around 30 euros. For a guide taking you up, the transceiver is required to be on you by law. Should there be an avalanche, a guide who has taken up a group without a transceiver is liable for jail time. You should know how to use this equipment, though guides will often show you on the day.
Additional gear you might consider is an ABS backpack, which has a lever you can pull to inflate a balloon in the bag in case you are caught in an avalanche. It can assist with keeping you floating at the surface of the avalanche and not getting buried (though this can still happen). See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p_3u5luQUI. It won’t help with other dangerous aspects to avalanches, such as trauma by hitting a rock etc. However, most people who ski the Vallée Blanche (Classic Route at least) don’t carry an ABS backpack, and guides don’t generally insist on it.
The majority of the Classic Route is less than 30 degrees (between 30 – 45 degrees is the most dangerous angle for avalanches). There are a number of other routes you can take down, however, which are much steeper and more dangerous for avalanches.
You should always ski in a group in off-piste terrain.
A first-aid kit is also a good idea. The Vallée Blanche is not serviced by ski patrol, and so medical attention is difficult. If you need to be rescued by helicopter, you will be liable for the fee. But the helicopter can’t always get in due to weather, so you need to be fairly self-sufficient.
Ski touring equipment
You don’t need skins or other ski touring gear if you are just taking the Classic Route, or the other three main routes down. It is downhill all the way through the Valley. Alpine ski boots, skis, and your other normal ski gear is sufficient.
If you go with a guide, they will generally require you to wear a harness as you ski down, as well as carry ropes and crampons.
The harness is in case you fall into a crevasse. If you fall in, you will need to be rescued by your party. This will involve them sending ropes down to you and hauling you out by your harness.
The crampons and rope are also for the top part of the trip, where you make your way down the ridgeline to get to the top of the Vallée Blanche glacier.
This gear is recommended for obvious reasons, but some more experienced skiers and riders and those familiar with the area don’t take this gear.
Don’t forget to ensure you have off-piste ski insurance. If for some reason you needed to call in a helicopter rescue, you will be up for the bill. The latest from Chamonix is that this could cost up to 18,000 euros.
Food and Water
It is a full day trip through the Vallée Blanche. If you pushed it, it would be possible to do two laps in one day, though not many people do this, and it somewhat defeats one of the main reasons to ski the Vallée Blanche – soaking up the scenery.
Carry lunch and a bit extra food, as well as sufficient water for the day.
There is a hut near the bottom which sells hot chocolates and other small items. It is open when the snow is good and you don’t need to catch the Montenvers Train. This is a great place to stop and enjoy the Valley and is generally quite crowded on a nice, sunny day.
You will need to be of sufficient fitness to last a day’s skiing the descent. There is no real way to turn back once you have started the descent.
Taking a Guide
The Vallée Blanche can seem intimidating for those who don’t know much about off-piste riding or the terrain. A guide is a good idea. They know the safest routes down, and they will carry necessary safety equipment. A guide for the day will cost around 350 euros per group. The Chamonix Company of Guides https://www.chamonix-guides.com/en/home has a list of guides you can contact.
On good days, several hundred people will ski the Valley, so you will be surrounded by a few others on the Classic Route. Nonetheless, there will be parts of the day when you are by yourself given the size of the Valley.
Crevasses on the glacier are constantly moving, and will differ from season to season. A guide is also able to give you this knowledge. They will also have a better idea of the stability of snow bridges.
Tristan is a good guide in the area with a number of years of experience ([email protected]).
The Aiguille du Midi
The Aiguille du Midi (Middle Pin) is a famous Cable Car ride from the base of Chamonix to almost the highest lift-access terrain in Europe at 3,777m (Zermatt has a lift which goes up to 3,899m). The ride is two separate Cable Car trips – one to the mid-point, and then one to the very top.
The cost for a ride up is around 50 euros for the Aiguille alone. If you have a Mont Blanc unlimited pass (around 65 euros per day), the Aiguille du Midi is included. The Montenvers Train is also included in the Mont Blanc unlimited if you need to take that down at the bottom of the Valley. There can be quite a wait at the Cable Car given the number of people going up and the limit each Car can carry. It is possible to pre-book the Aiguille.
From the top, you have a clear view of Mont Blanc, as well as a viewing platform. It’s an incredible view over the Chamonix Valley and well worth doing even if you don’t plan to ski the Vallée Blanche.
To get to the Vallée Blanche, you will go through a rocky tunnel, before emerging out the alpinists exist at the ‘Arête’. This is a sharp ridge, which has been produced over millennia by the glaciation. One side is an icy drop of around several thousand feet on around a 50-degree pitch.
For many, this is the most challenging part of the trip.
If you are with a guide, they will rope you up for this part of the day trek. They will also generally give you crampons to give you extra stability and grip as you descend the ridge. The trek down takes around 15 minutes along the ridge and you carry your skis on your pack. It’s not a hard trek down, as such, but it is important to take care.
There is a rope to assist you as you walk down in high season, and there will generally be a bit of foot traffic around you in high season. No particular technical skill is required. Nonetheless, Chamonix village looks tiny from up here, and it can be a little nerve-wracking looking over the ridge as you walk down!
Some people choose not to use ropes and crampons for this trek down, but safety is always recommended, particularly if you are inexperienced. It can get very windy on the Arête too.
The Vallée Blanche Terrain
There are four main routes down.
The Classic Route (Voie Normal)
This is the route most people take and, while certainly not busy, you will see other groups during the day as you make your way down.
The terrain is actually not that steep. The steepest section is at the top. After the top section, most of the route is a traverse and an opportunity to take in the scenery.
Nonetheless, the snow conditions at the top can be unpredictable and snow-blown, so you need to be of at least intermediate ability and able to stop when required, and side-slip. Also, there are parts of the tour down where there are obvious crevasses. You need enough control that you can stop and not fall in! You also need to be able to follow your guide as they know the safest way down. Off-piste experience is recommended for these reasons.
From the top of the ‘Arête’, you will go right of a large rock outcrop Le Gros Rognon. There is a wide traverse before you get to a steeper section, which is around a blue/red in terms of steepness. Once down this section, the route flattens out.
Along the route, you will take in some absolutely stunning scenery. Huge rocky peaks, other glaciers, and beautiful seracs (pinnacles on the surface of the glacier).
If you take breaks along the way, the total round trip will take between 4-6 hours.
There is a hut along the way called the Requin Refuge (at 2,516m) https://www.chamonet.com/accommodation/huts/requin-hut-2516m-massif-du-mont-blanc. This is a nice spot for lunch. It does in fact have beds for people to stay and you can book to stay there if you are exploring the area. The hut is staffed from mid-January to the end of August.
Many groups also choose to simply pick a beautiful spot along the way for lunch.
At the bottom, once you are off the glacier, there are a couple of options. Where the snow is not very good, there is the Montenvers train which will take you back to Chamonix. There is a hike up around 400 stairs to a gondola that takes you up to the train.
Where the snow is good, you can continue skiing a little bit further down. This will lead to a boot pack where you will carry your skis back up the hill to the Buvette des Mottets. This takes around 20 minutes. At the top, there is a small café with hot chocolates for a rest and a look at the view. There is then a home trail from there back down to Les Planards, a small beginner area at the base of Chamonix village. This is the perfect place for a drink to toast the day!
Le Vrai Vallée Blanche, the Envers du Plan and the Grand Envers du Plan
The other routes down the Vallée Blanche are more difficult, and considerably more difficult. These routes are for more advanced skiers, and they can involve some couloir skiing.
The Envers Du Plan is a bit steeper than the Classic Route, with steep turns and nice off-piste skiing. Again, you will need to be confident of your route and it needs good snow to fill in the crevasses. This ends up at the Requin Refuge hut, and then continues through the valley floor.
The Vrai Vallée Blanche takes the left of the Gros Rognon. This is a difficult route, with an entrance through an icy labyrinth. There really needs to be good snow to make sure all the crevasses are covered. This route involves skiing between icy walls and ice falls, and is quite spectacular, but certainly more dangerous.
The Grand Envers Du Plan is the most difficult route down, with pitches of 40-45 degrees. You need to be an expert skier to go down here. You will get up to the Glacier d’Envers du Plan from where the route gets its name. There are a lot of crevasses through here, and there is some solid knowledge required to make sure you take a safe route down, particularly where exposed moraine slabs can mean taking a wrong turn is perilous. The route ends up at the Requin Refuge hut, and then continues through the valley floor.
There is also a route down from the Italian side from the top of the Helbronner lift, which is a five-minute drive from the Italian resort of Courmayeur.
If you have skins and touring equipment, there are many other options down the Valley. One example is the Col Freshfield. Another is skinning across to the Italian side and skiing down. This can be physically demanding hiking at altitude, but offers a way to get to less accessed areas. It does add complexity in terms of route-planning, mountain knowledge and mountain safety.