So winter has arrived. The nights are long. With the exception of Christmas, many people find the season depressing. Yet for others, winter is where they find inspiration and motivation. They hope that soon snow will fall. In Zermatt and Whistler, locals will be praying for a bumper year, and in towns and cities all over the northern hemisphere, men, women and children wait, tingling with excitement, their gloves and goggles ready.
I discovered skiing relatively late. At first it was simply a means of transport to the base of mountain climbs when walking though deep snow was simply too tiring and time consuming. But then I began training for the IFMGA mountain guides diploma (think PhD of mountaineering).
I had to pass a stern ski exam and then serve an apprenticeship alongside other guides, British, Swiss and French. Now, as a leader, I had to be able to ski expertly off piste, in powder, steeps, crust and while ski touring. To pass the test I had to spend several winters dedicated to becoming a pro, skiing day after day (sounds awful doesn’t it?). Suddenly, a door opened into an incredible world. On the one hand skiing requires expert judgement and skill, on the other hand, it entails untold joy and companionship: journeys that rest in the heart.
But what is the greatest ski descent in the world? I know my favourite. On a good day you cannot beat the grand Enver du Plan from the Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix, Mont Blanc, France. From the top of the Midi telepherique at 3842metres, you can descend 2700 vertical metres to the bar in Chamonix. It has sustained sections of 40-45 degree slopes, serious crevasses to be negotiated and risk of avalanche in the wrong conditions. Bad visibility would make the descent hazardous as route finding is complex and, of course, you have the physical effects of altitude, not to mention the stomach churning steep and exposed midi arête to negotiate at the start.
The snow is not always perfect; the effect of wind plus the sheer length of the descent mean that the snow quality will vary. It is a very serious route and skiing with an IFMGA mountain guide is recommended. Check out a British Guide.
I have been lucky enough to ski the route on New Year’s day in powder a few times. If your hangover is too grim, or you simply find the prospect too intimidating, the gentler classic Vallee Blanche is world class and many people’s desert island ski descent.
Here’s to winter!