The snow made a squeaky crunching sound under my boots. It was cold up here, and I kept wriggling my fingers to keep them from freezing in their ski gloves, but the sky was blue and we would soon be in the sun. All around me mountain peaks stood guard, single rock fingers pointing up, bulkier rock formations flanking these, snowcapped mountain tops and a large valley spreading downhill, funnelling into the distance until it would do a sharp left turn leading to the mountain village of Chamonix. All around me were the Mont Maudit, the Aiguille du Midi, the Dent du Géant, the Grandes Jorasses and of course Mont Blanc itself. Names I had read about, seen on maps, but never seen like this.
Giorgio, our guide from the Courmayeur Alpine Guides, was roping us up together for our snowshoe excursion. We were a mixed bunch, all brought here by the promise of seeing this incredibly beautiful corner of the world on a spectacular morning of snowshoeing. He told us that the day before, the weather had been all fogged in and bitterly cold when he had taken clients climbing, but he promised today would be a bluebird day. We had all convened at the cable car station in Entrèves in the valley below and taken the Skyway Monte Bianco to Punta Helbronner. And now we were ready for our snowshoeing trip in the Vallée Blanche.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Courmayeur, a famous Italian ski resort, had it not been for a work presentation that I had to give to a group there. At less than two hours drive away from Milan, I really had to wonder why I had not gone there earlier, and I jumped at the opportunity to do the presentation and add the weekend for some time in nature. Courmayeur is a typically pretty ski village, with one main street full of hotels, restaurants, cafes, and apparel shops. But nothing there is as beautiful and as breathtaking as the mountain ranges surrounding the village.
We were now all roped up together and Giorgio led us on a gentle uphill climb at an easy pace to test us out and see what our ability was. There were young couples in our group and an older couple, which made for differences in ability. He was pleased with our progress and decided to take us a bit further afield than he would otherwise do, given the weather was so good. He would take us towards the Aiguilles du Diable, the Grand Capucin and the Col Maudit.
Walking in snow shoes may look easy, but you do have to get used to them and when you’re roped up and you have someone in front of you who is struggling with balance, you can find yourself doing some interesting balancing exercises yourself to stay on your feet. At one point the slope was becoming steeper descending into the valley and our guide slowed us down by making us do switchbacks, otherwise we would have all potentially slid down the hill in an unruly tumble.
Skiers would occasionally pass us, as they assessed the trail ahead of them, considering which way would offer the best descent for their abilities. You used to be able to ski down to Chamonix, but this year there was no snow in the village at all. Climate change is increasingly causing a decrease in snow and is destabilising glaciers in the area, particularly above the nearby village of Plampincieux, which was recently evacuated for fear of the glacier above being at the point of collapse.
As we continued our hike the only sounds were those of our own breaths, the swishing sound of fabric and the crunch of the snow shoes on the packed snow. Everything was reduced to the experience of the natural world: white snow, brown and grey colours of granite towers around us, deep blue skies. I took deep breaths, finding myself tiring quickly – my condition wasn’t as good as I would like. I had a flu-like illness in early December that really knocked me around and I still coughed a lot and the cold mountain air wasn’t helping.
Every now and then Giorgio would pause, assess his charges and give us a moment to drink some water, before moving on again. Time became an abstract concept, how long had we been out here? I didn’t know and it didn’t seem to matter either. We finally arrived in the cirque; you could see the moat running along the outlines of the cirque, from where the granite towers rose. Above in the distance, blasted by winds so that wispy white filaments were trailing from it, was the summit of Mont Blanc. The scene had an ethereal quality and was so breathtakingly beautiful that it felt like we had been given a precious gift. One to behold and rejoice at and then leave it right where we found it for the next person to find it. Eventually, reluctantly, we turned our backs on Mont Blanc and the Col Maudit and returned in the direction we had come from.
At first we were walking on an even level, but eventually what had come down, must go up and we had to start ascending the hill that skiers were effortlessly and elegantly skiing down. No such elegance in our snowshoes; it was simply hard slog and for the slightly older ones amongst us (yes, that includes me), the going was slow, painfully slow. This was particularly felt by the younger ones roped up with us, who were getting impatient and started to try and overtake, causing more ropes to tangle. But we did get there and when we returned to the access point for Punta Helbronner, we enjoyed the view into the valley and towards Courmayeur first, before taking the snow shoes off and climbing up a steep ladder to reach the ramparts of the cable car building. I was astonished when I looked at my watch. I had been convinced we had been out there for much longer than we had signed up for, but only three hours had past from when we had gone up to Punta Helbronner. Time does fly when you’re having fun.