Considering all the varied landscapes around the world: cityscapes, tundra, rubble, farms, ocean – I have to marvel at the vista we have chosen in Aspen. It is head-shaking gorgeous. Mountain people. That’s what we become. We live with this backdrop, the visual absurdity of weather-betraying sky and snow-capped ranges every day. That kind of bluebird sky, those kind of socked-in blurs, the surprise of green and wildflowers at last keep us tuned to adventure.
The Vallee Blanche and the Mer de Glace
Chamonix introduced me to a new view. One where rocks and ice and snow are magnified. It is spell-binding – both in the mirage of faraway peaks and right in front of your face at a tangible, touching distance. Today we head to The Vallee Blanche and the Mer de Glace (Ice Sea). Two, brave souls, Tony (Austin) and Antonio (Milan), joined the escapade with my fearless and fierce guide Freie Ferse Mike. From the Aiguille du Midi (Needle of the Mid-day) Telepherique (Europe’s highest cable car), we entered an ice cave where we had, what Antonio aptly dubbed, “The Crampon Lesson”. It was the kind of day you start humming tight-lipped tunes when forced to take your frozen hands out of your gloves. One set of crampons were not properly measured and we have to do a Price Is Right like switch-a-roo, so everyone can be locked in. Next up, we exit the cave to a fixed rope snow arête. It is steep and PACKED with people. Remember, this is the best snow Europe has seen in years. Words cannot do justice to the panorama outside nor to the internal thrill of knowing one false toe locked in and it’s over the handlebars and out. Tony is capturing all of this on his Go Pro. He has only been skiing about 5 seasons and not full ones. We all are impressed by the way he is handling the things we, as lifelong skiers and boarders, take for granted. The way to balance skis on your pack without clonking your helmet. The way to kick your toe with intention into the staircase and not hesitate. These creep up on us and get built-in to our fiber. Antonio and I were runners-up in the Battle of the Bowls years ago at Aspen Highlands. We have had incredible ski days together, but skiing 2800 vertical meters over a glacier (receding at a saddening and maddening pace) riddled with crevasses is a new kind of breath-taking. Not only do we commune with rock, snow and ice and its other-worldly glow, but some are driven to these sacred places to recognize our humanness, to learn to rely on each other with self-reliance. Powder turns drop us into the runout of this sunny amphitheater where Tony has a close encounter with a crevasse that would have been invisible had Mike and another guide not been blocking the way. He stops in time. All is well. The sun is bright, the snow is white, the ice is a particular blue and the fact we are on a planet more powerful than us is undeniable. Reminders to coexist with it are loud and unspoken. There is a flat area called the Salle a Manger (“lunch room”). We stop for a shared bar of chocolate. Mike chooses the spot wisely knowing it is no laughing matter that lunch guests can suddenly be down a rabbit hole, leave the party table, “poof!” due to the percentage of crevasses around us. This year brought enough snow to ski out further than recent past but, due to the glacial recession, we glide to the end of our epic run and join the march up a long staircase as tourists flow down to take in the view. The train, the Montenvers Funicular, back to Chamonix, is a marvel of mountain engineering.
I watch a local hop confidently over rocks to a cliffy entrance and steep descent and wonder for a moment: who would I be if I lived here, what kind of skier, what kind of local? Oh the rock, oh the snow. I can only imagine the hiking in the summer. The mountaineering history looms in the air. Evidently, the natural structure has created looming air quality issues as well. Hard to believe. Chamonix is a little/big town. Population 10,000 with visitors in the millions each year. It includes a bustling town with a network of appealing, winding streets full of bars and shops and an international stream of people. We are staying at The Hotel Mont Blanc. A five star property with a five star spa that does not disappoint. After rounds of sauna, steam, cold buckets of water and tropical rain showers (shifting spray temps and angles, aromatherapy and wildlife sounds included), we head to our celebratory dinner at Albert 1er at Le Hameau – another notable five star hotel with an unforgettable three star Michelin chef repast. Foie gras, fresh-caught fish and an epic cheese course all served with the artful respect of food at its finest. The dress and heels were worth bringing along indeed. Fear not, there are also Cap Horn for killer, affordable sushi and Casa Valerio for traditional Italian in a lively, family restaurant environment among so many others.
Our last day we spend skiing Grand Montets
Argentiere(Chamonix). We stare back at Mont Blanc. The ranges in the distance from above the clouds represent Switzerland, France and Italy. I ride the lift with a famous DJ Zhu(zhumusic.com) blasting his playlist from his backpack. Makes me think of my 18-year-old and how it would have felt to luck out and sing along with Sting on a chairlift at her age. I meet two Vanderbilt alums-to-be and share small world stories. From the silence of our days in the backcountry to this tram full of bundled, smiling faces, 5 languages flying around me- it is all part of a love affair with the wonderful connections we make to others and to ourselves in the mountains. Chamonix is the sister city to Aspen. Our patrol often does exchanges. When I bought my lift ticket the girl at the desk noticed my Highland’s bowl strap and exclaimed, “Highlands! What a mountain. How I would love to live there!”. We all benefit from the chance to trade backyards. I arrived back home February 14th, just in time to hike the bowl now full of snow compared to when I left. No beacon, no shovel, no probe, no steaming tartiflette, but I knew half of the people in the short, Deep Temerity lift line. I asked about their spouses, their kids. We exchanged stories, hoots and hollers of the powder flying in our faces. This is home. I wasn’t born in the mountains. I wasn’t put on skis at 2 like my kids. I have learned more than I realized from this choice to push myself uphill and down. It’s in the landscape. It’s in the eyes. It’s in our fiber.