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Jan

6

The Reckless Puppeteer of Vallée Noire

Lefty-Loosey Righty-Tighty is a great mnemonic until it’s not.

 

by Marc Peruzzi | photographs Fabian Bodet

Lefty-Loosey Righty-Tighty is a great mnemonic until it’s not. On a bike, left pedals are reverse threaded so they’ll spin off if the bearings seize. With alpine touring bindings the mnemonic fails too. Here, a threaded bolt spins through the heel piece like a bolt through a nut. The effect is that the more you turn the screw clockwise, the more the heel piece moves back on the track in a hard to discern righty-loosey action. 

If anyone should know this it’s elite European Alpine guides who make their winter living on ski touring gear. But three such guides are now confusedly misadjusting the bindings of a petite, strawberry blonde Italian member of the ski media. The guides argue in three languages as they snatch one multi-tool back and forth, only managing to loosen the heel piece further. Curses I can’t fathom dissipate into the skies above the Monte Bianco massif. A fellow American with a better grasp of French, German, and Swiss-German, blushes. 

I quietly call out in my Northern Rockies drawl: “You’re turning it the wrong way.” They’re all fluent in English, but they tune me out. The airline lost my luggage and I’m glacier skiing in chunky untinted prescription eyeglasses. I realize I’m not exactly speaking from a position of authority. They tinker for five more minutes, eventually landing on lefty-tighty with a “wallah!” and a “vunderbah!”

Today’s tour will take our international party of junketeering ski writers, professional skiers, and representatives of Scott—the ski and bike company—from the Italian side of Mont Blanc in the posh resort town of Courmayeur, to France, and the ski mountaineering hub of Chamonix. Yesterday’s test run has confirmed the skiing will be horrendous. Gales and high pressure have hammered the alpine for weeks, and the resulting sastrugi is just a prettier way of saying frozen harbor chop. Pockets of soft snow beneath trap-door layers of crust break up the miserable surface conditions. 

With the snow gone to schiese, the goal of the traverse is to minimize the skiing and maximize the touring and rappelling, which is a very European thing to do anyway. European randonnée skiers often skin uphill and ride lifts back down—a practice I’ve always snickered at. But the sun is out and beyond yesterday’s test run, I’ve never been on Mont Blanc. I’ve also always wanted to see Chamonix—the birthplace of extrême skiing where everyone reportedly wears climbing harnesses for après. Having flown in from Montana, I’m up for a big walk in the mountains. Our route winds from the top of the Helbronner tram to the Combe de la Vierge (part of the famed Vallée Blanche route), but then we’ll divert to a descent of the Vallée Noire and skirt and skin glaciers until we gain the Couloir Puiseux—the crux of the traverse. 

A couloir is a steep, snow-filled mountain passage. Couloirs are wider than chutes and by definition lead somewhere. In this case, the couloir ascends to a gap in the rock called Brèche Puiseux. From that notch—we were told over dessert cheeses the night before—we’ll rappel to yet another glacier and then ski and hike out to Chamonix. The tour will immerse us in what one of the guides called the biggest theater of the Alps. Mont Blanc’s vertical relief twists one’s sense of scale. 

It’s a day for gleaming and building a mountain sense. But with the snow frozen into dunes, it’s not a day for athletic skiing. The Italian on-air personality fades in the Vallée Noire. It’s the tricky trap-door snow. Never knowing when the crust layer will hold her weight or collapse and toss her, she gallantly picks herself up after a string of slow-speed tumbles. 

Having once witnessed a wind-in-hair guide on Wyoming’s Grand Teton (a name that kills it with the French) mansplain climbing to a female client who was a stronger alpinist than he was, I’m expecting our guide to patronize the Italian down the slope. Instead, his indifference is near total. For her part, the Italian—she’s a strong technical skier and quite fit—survives the descent and recovers on the skintrack, gapping much of the field on the 3,500 foot climb to the base of the couloir.    

It’s here that on a guideless outing, a group of four to five backcountry skiers would pause beneath the 50-degree ramp to eat lunch before the last hard push. But our party is too big and the perch above too small for such simple joys. There are 25 of us, broken into groups of five. Another party of eight unaffiliated skiers is closing fast. The Brèche Puiseux, where we’ll make our rappel, can safely hold perhaps eight at a time. A dangerous bottleneck is forming. We push on without rest. 

If I were to bootpack up this snowy but stable couloir with friends from back home, we’d remain unroped and take turns kicking a staircase into the slope. To move faster, we’d change leads like cyclists taking pulls at the front of a peloton. That method allows the group to settle into a sustainable pace while movement remains constant. Here though, the professional skiers in our group immediately commence with solo bootpacking, and I prepare to follow suit. Except that’s when the benign neglect I’d only recently noted leaves our guide. Quickly doling out a few fathoms of rope, he directs us to snap into crampons and clip in. Like Manhattan socialites on Everest, our party will be short roping up the Couloir Puiseux.    

Incredulous, but too conscientious of my place in the world to argue—I won’t be the ugly American—I fix my carabiner to the loop of rope. The guide is first, followed by a fellow American less than three feet of rope in front of me. The television journalist dangles shortly behind. A French client has wisely disappeared from the scene and is climbing on his own. A quick look around reveals that none of the other parties now transitioning at the base of the couloir are roping up.

Short rope bootpacking is impossible to choreograph. The guide steps forward, yanking the leash on my countryman who stumbles to keep up. The rope pulls my blocky hipster eyeglasses dangerously close to his swinging crampons. I, in turn, tension and de-tension the line tethered to the Italian, who must weigh 100 pounds. Like me, she’s now getting knocked off balance with every step. A third of the way up the couloir I’m frustrated and the Italian is approaching exhaustion. She’s an aerobic animal, but with no rhythm there’s no rhythmic breathing, and she asks to stop frequently to catch her wind. We’re moving slower because of the rope.

“How about some more slack?” I politely ask the guide. 

I think I hear a “Nein.” 

The European civilians without ropes or crampons now pass us, catcalling and snickering. It’s humiliating, but I think of Jean-Paul Sartre. The philosopher-skier used the pomposity of “The Waiter” to show how role playing removes us from the authenticity of being. Our guide is now “The Guide,” an unassailable stereotype. To him, we are dead weight—estranged others. He is role playing in the theater. The Poseur of Puiseux. 

Atop the notch, which is about as wide as a footpath, guides feign nonchalance as clients try to avoid bumping each other to their deaths. Below us, a steep mess of sharp rock and snow falls away. A fall here won’t kill you all at once, but will tear you apart over ten seconds. Rushing now, with throngs approaching the perch, our guide rigs a belay and starts sending us over the edge without guidance. It’s a system built for speed. A loop of rope is clipped into the harness of the descending skier. The guide controls the rate of the rappel. 

I’m third to go, with dozens stacking up behind me; descending before I can properly secure the rental crampon (entirely unnecessary in today’s soft snow) that pinged off near the summit. After two steps, I’m giant stepping at a jog—backwards—over cliffs with the guide feeding line like I’m a running marlin. 

As I scurry down, I pass another client on a second rope that’s too short to reach the snowfield below. He’s stuck midway. The idea was that he would transfer to another rope, but there is no second rope here nor anchor. I can’t stop to help because if my rope goes slack and I fall, I’ll take a whipper onto the rocks. Guides are yelling at me in multiple languages to head left, but a quick assessment tells me that they mean their left and I pop over a boulder to my right to the Glacier du Mont Mallet below. As I unclip, two clients (including the stranded descender) on one rope are now being tossed about drunkenly on the jagged boulders like entwined marionettes. They crash to the snow beside me, lucky to have not sprung any leaks. Looking up, the reckless puppeteer doing the dangling is our guide. He’s gone back to mad neglect. We’re through the crux.   

More breakable crust skiing and crevasse avoidance follows, but at a less frenetic pace. We soak in the daunting north face of the Grandes Jorasses (13,000 feet) and expansive Mer de Glace. And eventually hike out of a confluence of valleys to the Buvette des Mottets, a tiny-home-sized cabin serving beer, wine, and snacks to tired ski tourers. The guides circle up and smoke Gauloises and talk about their clients. The beer tastes especially crisp. I’ve skied from Italy to France under full sun. And all of my preconceptions about Mont Blanc and European ski guides have been realized. The dulling and distancing effects of travel and jet lag have been stripped away. My existence is tangible. So too with the guides, athletes, and clients. For a little while, we are metaphysically tethered. The moment is all that there is, and I’m careful to revel in it. 

It’s January of 2020, and tonight I’ll again sleep in a stone village in far northern Italy. Tomorrow in Milan, I’ll try to avoid deplaning crowds from mainland China on the off chance that they carry a strange new virus from Wuhan I’d been reading about. 

Months later, when the nation and my psyche descend into darkness, memories of the Vallée Noire will remind me that life also gleams.  

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