The Lost Glove of Vallee Blanche

Ron Karpinski  1994


At 15,771 feet, Mount Blanc is Europe's tallest mountain.  High in the French Alps, it casts a long shadow over the nearby Aiguille du Midi, a mere 12,602 feet tall.  Both peaks tower above the charming village of Chamonix.

Chamonix is a Mecca for climbers attacking the steep walls of the Aiguille du Midi.  Skiers also flock there to embark down the Gros Rognon Trail, atop the Glacier du Geant, as it twists its way down the Vallee Blanche.  After more than twelve miles, the glacier ends near the village of Les Praz.

French authorities do not allow ski excursions down the Vallee Blanche without a local guide; but guides are easy to find, milling about the town.  One led us on a spine-tingling cable car ride up the Aiguille du Midi.

Thirty people crowded inside a flimsy metal box the size of a small bus.  Two thin strands of steel cable then pulled the enclosure slowly up the valley wall, swaying slightly, dangling in midair hundreds of feet above the rocks.  After ten minutes, the car bumped to a halt inside a crude ice cave just short of the summit.

All stepped out and quickly broke down into small groups.  A guide huddled with each for a safety briefing.  As our guide spoke, his breath rose in light wisps; words echoed softly in the frigid semi darkness.

Do not take this mountain lightly, he warned.  The forces of Nature are swift and unforgiving.  He linked all eight of us at the waist with one long rope.

Gripping skis and poles in one hand, each man edged out of the cave and onto a narrow, icy ridge that dropped a hundred feet to a protected niche below.  Out in the open, the numbing cold bit at exposed cheeks and noses.  A brutal wind swept in from the east, cutting through thick ski pants, parkas, and gloves.

Left hands inched along a guide rope leading down the slope while right arms reached out and stabbed skis into the soft snow below for support.  Two short steps in clumsy ski boots gained a new foothold and a renewed sense of balance.  It took more than twenty minutes to reach the bottom.

All in the group suffered from minor forms of frostbite, mostly in the hands.  Some had no feeling in their fingers at all.  One could only squeeze a gloved hand into the warm space between the crotch, hunker over, and wait for relief.

At this point, one fellow did a very suspect thing.  Trying to remove a Velcro strap from around his skis, he found that his gloved hands were too bulky to gain a good grip.  So, he removed one glove and clamped it between his knees.

Never tempt Mother Nature like that.  An irate wind ripped the glove loose and hurtled it into the abyss.  The poor fellow watched in horror, as his brand new glove faded to a tiny red speck in the swirling mist a thousand feet below.

Poised on a mountain top at twelve thousand feet, his bare right hand stuck in his crotch, he could only hope someone noticed his plight.  Fortunately, another man had a spare pair of gloves in his knapsack, and they fit!  Thus could we continue our journey.

The trail began as a narrow icy path, winding down through giant mounds of hard packed snow.  Steep and slippery, it dropped several yards at a time.  Each skier took care to stay a safe distance behind the man in front.

Later, the trail flattened out and ran through the middle of a broad plain that followed the contour of the valley.  A thin layer of snow hid the glacier at our feet.  Our French guide rattled off the names of the peaks, as we passed beneath.

Down in the valley, the winds eased, and the sun came out; but the modest grade made for slow going.  Most of the way, one had to skate, planting ski poles in the ice and pushing off.  Tedious, exhausting work, few had the strength to keep it up.  As the day wore on, those in the lead paused often for stragglers.

Waiting, one could lean on his poles, take a deep breath, and soak up the solitude.  Pensive eyes lost themselves in a vast blanket of blinding white, snow-capped crowns of sharp gray, and deep azure.  Crevasses in the glacier afforded peeks thirty feet down at sheer walls of ice radiating luminescent green.

By two in the afternoon, stomachs growled.  When the Gros Rognon Trail ended at Mer de Glace, each man stepped out of his skis and hiked up a small hill to an old wooden hut where lunch waited.  After a quick bite to eat, all posed for a group photo and then pushed off down the snow road to Les Planards.

The snow road ran down a narrow tree-lined chute with sharp icy turns.  Thrice, one had to remove skis and walk, as loose rocks marred the path.  At last, the dense forest gave way to a wide-open piste that lead to Chamonix.

Having covered twelve miles in just over seven hours, the worst was over.  We had done it!  Now one could relax and carve out a few lazy turns in the soft groomed snow.

Ahead, at the foot of a small chair lift, a rustic inn beckoned.  One by one, whooping and hollering, each man glided to a halt out front and stepped from his skis.  The first man grabbed a table on the terrace and ordered a round of brew.

For the next hour, we raised toasts to brawn and good fortune; but, as the sun slowly vanished behind the Aiguille du Midi, moods turned somber.  Each man had left a bit of himself up on the mountain that day, some more than others.

High above, buried deep in the Glacier du Geant, a bright red ski glove began a descent that could last eons.  Advancing only a few feet per year, it will travel the length of the Vallee Blanche.  In time, it will work itself loose near the village of Les Praz, and future archaeologists will ponder how it came to be there.  They will never know.


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