Behind the Aahhh’s
We?d been in Chamonix for just over a week, chewing up the record snowfall by cycling the lifts at the Grands Montets. Even though I?d only skied Europe on one other occasion I felt at home, as the lower mountain felt simply like a huge US resort. With the upper mountain closed, the truly steep terrain inaccessible because of the high avy hazard, and the awe-inspiring but intimidating views concealed by storm clouds, I didn?t fully comprehend where I was, or the dose of mountain reality I was about to experience.
Days later, one of the largest slides to ever wreak havoc in the Chamonix valley came off the Bossons glacier and buried three-story buildings in debris. But it was what we heard in the bars that was unsettling: a Brit got caught in a slide on Tuesday; a Swede fell into a crevasse on the Argentiere glacier yesterday. Stump even fished a snowboarder out of a crevasse. Chamonix; ?death sport capitol of the world?. We were starting to understand. Then we heard the stats: the Chamonix valley claimed roughly 50 lives a year. Holy shit?one a week! I couldn?t remember hearing about a single person dying at a ski resort back home.
So when the clouds finally broke, it was with a little trepidation that I boarded the Aiguille de Midi tram with Greg Stump, Bruce Benedict, Scot Schmidt, and our guide, Murray Ball. Constructed in 1953, it rose 9,000? from the valley floor to the shoulder of Mont Blanc in only two spans. Just getting on the rickety old box took a bit of courage. The views through the scratched windows shifted our concern from the tram to the mountains, as some of the most daunting, raw, alpine terrain on the planet unfolded before us. Enormous glaciers tumbled off the flanks of Mont Blanc, while towering seracs, sharp granite spires, and hanging glaciers dominated the landscape. To a city kid who grew up skiing moguls in American resorts, this wasn?t just another country, it was another planet . . . with a whole different set of rules.
The decrepit tram reentered our consciousness as it bounced its way into the docking station of the Aiguille de Midi. A bridge with 200? of air under your feet spans the 30? from the Aiguille to an adjacent spire. From there, an ice tunnel delivers you to the snow. As your eyes adjust to the brilliant sunshine you discover you are at the start of long arête. A steep, rocky unskiable pitch is the comforting side; if you fell off the other side you wouldn?t stop for several thousand feet. Normally, there?s a solid path with a cable for a handrail. Even so, guides will rope their clients to descend. But the cable was buried under 10? of snow. You can?t be serious?we?re not really going to walk down that?
I?d never had a harness on, had never held an ice axe in my hand, or even had skins on my skis. Hell, I?d never even used an avalanche transceiver. And despite being a pretty good skier, I?d never looked down anything as steep or committing as the Couloir Poubelle.
From the tunnel exit, the couloir dropped about 500? and went from flat to close to 50º without so much as a warm-up turn. With cameras rolling, Stump asked Schmidt if he wanted to ski it. Scot confidently, even enthusiastically responded, ?Yeah, I?ll ski it.? This wasn?t the plan. We were supposed to hike down the arête. Ski some pow. Maybe even make some warm-up turns. But now with the cameras running, Stump panned to me with the same question. If you?ve seen the footage from the Blizzard of Aahhh?s, you?ve heard the timid tone in my affirmative response. In fact, you can practically see the apprehension in my eyes through my mirrored lenses.
I hacked my way down, then crashed when I hit a rock that yanked my ski off. My ski slid almost to the bottom of the couloir. Over my radio, Murray informed me that my ski stopped just below a bergschrund and directed me to come in from below and to the side. His thick Kiwi accent, combined with the more important fact that I had no clue what a bergschrund was, left me completely oblivious as to what kind of danger I was or was not in. I followed his directions, but only as I approached my ski did I understand what Murray was talking about. I was shocked to be looking into a narrow, dark, and unnerving crevasse. This was the start of my alpine education. I quickly learned that bergschrund was the German word for the uppermost crevasse on a glacier that separates the glacier from stagnant snowfield above.
We spent the rest of the day skiing through seracs and around crevasses in some of the most rugged and breathtaking mountains in the Alps. It was my most eye-opening and inspiring day on skis, and taught me two things: first, I was not only captivated by, but drawn to the high alpine environment. And second, that I had absolutely no business being there. Not a great combo for longevity. It was this dichotomy that prompted me to seek further knowledge and embark upon the ten-year educational journey that transformed me from a skier to a ski mountaineering guide.