Le Massif du Mont Blanc is… massive. The peaks of the range look huge from the valley, towering more than 9,000 feet over town, and from the air they lean towards you, simultaneously exerting a gravitational pull and a crushing weight. There are larger, steeper mountains on Earth, but there are no larger, steeper mountains on earth with a tram that takes you directly to the top in a few minutes. It is without doubt the most accessible serious alpine terrain on the planet. Skiing first brought me to these mountains in 1999, and I have been spending the majority of my time in the Alps since. And since I first saw it, I have always wanted to launch from the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, where the Aiguille tram accesses an alpine ridge just below Mt Blanc. The ascent to the Aiguille is so steep that at night, the light at the summit of the tram appears to be a mysteriously bright star. A member of the first group of skiers I guided there didn’t believe me when we arrived in town at night and I pointed to the light and told him that was the summit of the tram: he craned his neck upwards, smiled, and said, “You’re full of shit.”
Five years in Europe and I still hadn’t flown off of that thing.
A few days ago I received a frantic call from Olivier Laugero, a photographer from Chamonix. A stretch of brilliant weather had been forecasted; high cloud bases, insane lapse rates, and classic springtime instability. “C’est parfait, it is time, you need to come tomorrow!” he said in his endearingly optimistic French accent.
I packed my car full of gliders, bid farewell to the rest of the team in the office, and raced northwards. The air was clear and cool when I exited the tunnel du Mont Blanc a few hours later, and wispy shredded cumulus stuck to the steep rocky peaks like alpine cobwebs, forming and degenerating in minutes due to 75kmh winds in the upper elevations: the forecast was wrong.
“Sorry, um, they were wrong. I guess we can go for a hike, eh?” Olivier said.
He shrugged off the high winds as though the weather didn’t affect his job and I tried to mimic his casual attitude, but to no avail.
Antoine Boissellier rolled into town with two friends from St Hillaire, and amongst the abundant but casual enthusiasm someone suggested that we fly from the north face of the Aiguille the next morning if the winds were light enough. It was instantly agreed, and we set out on a valley wide scavenger hunt for mountaineering gear, as we had only brought summer flying shoes and no one had thought to bring crampons or climbing harnesses, mandatory equipment for descending the ridge from the cable car to launch. By midnight, we were outfitted, and a few hours later the crew was chugging café au lait in Chamonix sud, waiting for our tram. Xavier Blanes and Sandy Cochepain met us there, excited to show us their crown jewel of alpine launches.
The top of the Aiguille du Midi is like an amusement park ride for adults. After cruising through the tunnels of rock and over the bridge spanning a massive couloir, and then through more rock tunnels and finally a tunnel of blue glacier ice, we emerged at the top of the ridge trail that leads to the top of the Vallee Blanche and the paraglider launches. Crampons were mandatory for this section, although most of us elected to skip the belay offered by Xavier and trust ourselves to not slip and fall. Falling to our right would result in a painful ride down the 1,500 foot ‘Poubel Couloir’, and to the left was the North Face of the Aiguille, 4,000 feet of 60 degree rock and ice on which too many people have met their fate. I felt stupid being here without my skis as a May storm had swept through during the days before, leaving a foot of dry, chalky wind-buffed powder that only a handful of skiers were greedily devouring.
The snow was slightly shallower on the north launch, which was lucky for us since the launch terrain and the altitude was enough to think about without having to trudge through knee deep snow on take off: you have forty feet to run, beyond that, if you’re not flying you are falling down the north face. As my pulse quickened and my glider danced around in the thin and turbulent winds on launch, I thought about Clair and Zeb Roche, who successfully launched tandem from the highest summit of every continent, including Everest… respect to them.
We all launched cleanly, and in less than 3 minutes there were 7 Ozone gliders in the air (5 solos and 2 tandems) gliding away from the north face towards the Glacier du Boisson. The landscape was mind boggling. Gargantuan hanging ice cliffs towered above endless couloirs, seracs and crevasses of indiscernible depth yawned up at us, and mini avalanches of spindrift careened down the alpine slopes just a few feet from our wingtips. I stared at the Cosmiques Couloir and the Tourrond, lines that had felt somewhat big on skis but looked colossal from the air. In a trance, I barely had the energy to focus on the task at hand, which was getting within shooting distance of Olivier’s camera.
Later that day and the next day, we launched from the Aiguille mid-station, 4,000 feet lower on the same side of the valley. That Friday turned out to be one of the most incredible flights of my life, with cloudbase at 3800 meters and no shortage of solid spring lift. After a few hours of turning in circles next to peaks so big that they occupied the majority of my field of vision for the majority of the turn, I was lightheaded, mildly hypoxic, and my nerves were frayed from looking down on terrain that was at the same time horrendously threatening and breathtakingly gorgeous. These pictures should be worth at least a few thousand words, so I’ll shut up now and leave you to enjoy these images that we truly enjoyed making.