The day a 50-year-old took on the longest off-piste in Europe . . .

PUBLISHED: 14:51 02 January 2008 | UPDATED: 11:25 01 July 2010

God, was I really nearly 50? It seems only yesterday that I was a young bloke without a care in the world, racing around on motorbikes. I decided I had to do something special to mark this major landmark in my life.


God, was I really nearly 50? It seems only yesterday that I was a young bloke without a care in the world, racing around on motorbikes. I decided I had to do something special to mark this major landmark in my life.

Ask anyone who knows me or who has met me at a party and they will probably tell you I am a real ski bore. Not exactly Franz Klammer, but pretty nifty on red runs and the occasional black one, provided there's no ice and I do not have a bad head from the night before.

Off-piste is not my real forte, but somehow over the years I have earned the name 'Powder Phil' - probably partly due to the number of times I have head-planted in the stuff and ended up resembling a yeti.

For years I had read and heard about this magical place called the Valley Blanche. At 18km, it's the longest off-piste in Europe that your average red run skier can do without serious risk to life and limb.

A bit of ringing round the guys and it was booked. We were going to Chamonix in the French Alps - home of some of the world's greatest mountaineers.

It's the sort of place where you should not venture without a guide. Ice falls, crevasses and the minor walk across an arête to the start of the valley. An arête in this case is like walking along a knife-edge with massive drops at each side...

My birthday was at the start of December, but the valley can not be skied with any reliability until February-March - it's best to take advice before booking your holidays. We plumped for the first week in March 2007. Four of use flew into Chamonix from different parts of England to the Park Hotel Suisse, our base for the week.

We decided to ski the valley on later in the week, giving us plenty of time to get our ski legs and acclimatise.

Friday morning arrived. The alarm rang, I pulled back the curtains - wall-to-wall sunshine with clear skies and no wind. Perfect!

At Icicle HQ, we were greeted by the owners and met our guide, Benoir. They ran through the safety procedures. A short stroll and we were in the queue for the lift to the top of the Aig du Midi - the entrance to the Valley Blanche.

The ride up was amazing. As well as being the longest single span cable car in Europe, it floats over incredible scenery: ice falls, snow fields...

When you arrive at the top of the cable, there's a walk across an enclosed iron bridge from one peak to the next - the start of the real adventure.

You walk through a maze of tunnels within the mountain and can take a lift to the very top of the peak, which has a weather station/tele mast. When you first walk out of the lift onto the top of the peak, you find yourself on a circular gantry offering incredible views - you are at the top of the world.

There in front of you is Mont Blanc. You feel as though you could almost touch it.

Things started to get serious when we descended into the warren of tunnels below. Benior slotted a rope into our harnesses to join us all together. "Anyone afraid of heights?" he asked.

It was here that I decided to come clean - and put up my hand. I love skiing, but I hate heights. "You'd best be next to me," says Benoir, offering some reassurance.

Once outside, I realised why we were roped. Yes, there was the arête in front of us. Wide enough to take one person. A set of iron posts linked together with heavy rope. A drop of thousands of metres at one side and a vertical drop straight back down to Chamonix at the other.

There was a second route across the arête. Steps had been cut into one of the faces of the arête and this was the route we took. We inched our way down the steps, with me clinging tightly to the thick rope attached to the ice face. After what seemed like any eternity, Benoir smiles and says: "You can relax now."

We had made it. We were on a wide piste at the entrance to the valley - a descent of 2,700m and around 18 k long. Off came the rope and suddenly the real pleasure was to start.

Wow! In front of us was the widest expanse of snow I had ever seen. Pure powder, pure manageable powder. "Stick close to me," says Benoir. He'd stop at ice blocks the size houses, show us crevasses with ice blue colours, point out ice falls. He wanted us to take everything in - he knew we were in a special ice wilderness.

After a hearty meal of traditional Savoie food, Benoir picked up his rucksack and produced a birthday cake. Truly the icing on the cake!

After a well-earned rest and having taken in gluggs of water, we set off for the final part of the run. Down we dropped on perfect snow towards the valley end. Legs started to tire, but this was fantastic.


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