The Fourth Whiteburn PHAT Challenge took place across two countries. Starting at the Funivie Monte Bianco beside Courmayeur, Italy the PHAT teams met their IAMGM mountain guides, Stuart Macdonald and Adam George over lush Italian coffees and hot chocolates.
Equipped with harnesses, big packed lunches and avalanche safety kit, everyone went up to Helbronner in high spirits despite the icy cold air that met them at 3452m. They were to descend 14km of the Vallee Blanche, crossing into France and Chamonix Mont Blanc.
The snow wasn’t easy but the terrain was spectacular with cold blue glacial walls and gaping gullies of ice. The guides shared tales of historic heroism and first ascents around the Vallee Blanche until they reached Montenvers – home to a glacial cave and the old Montenvers Hotel. The charming funicular Montenvers train took the PHAT crew down to Chamonix town for a well earned beer and rest… before they were whisked off again for more skiing, this time on The Grands Montets.
The final guided off-piste skiing around Chamonix’ famous steep mountains, ended at Refuge du Lognan – tonight’s PHAT abode. Just as PHAT delegates were tucking into their Vin Chauds – shock horror – they discovered the evening’s whiskies and local genepis had been stolen and buried by a historic glacial monster: a Yeti. Transceivers turned to search mode, the PHATs were challenged to hunt down and dig out the precious liquid resources. Said monstrous and grizzly Yeti was found asleep in the snow off-guard from protecting his treasures – which were finally dug up and shared out in sparkling shot glasses. Inside the historic Refuge delegates found a local guitar hero, Gary Bigham, belting out classics that have been played in Chamonix bars since the 70’s. Vin Chauds proliferated and songs were shared until the 5pm curfew… only 14 people were allowed to stay at the Refuge so everyone else (musicians, photographer, guide and yeti) had to ski home before the pisteurs came to chase them away.
The history tour hadn’t ended there. John Shepherd, Whiteburn CEO, read from Fergus Fleming’s Killing Dragons – a marvellous history of the Alps – before everyone raced to choose their most salubrious beds that a rustic old mountain refuge could offer.
Over a dinner of steaming winter vegetable soup, the most delicious 3-cheese Tartiflette you have ever tasted and a Myrtille tart for desert, we drank carafes of vin rouge and heard more crevasse-ridden tales from Chamonix’ glacial past.
Guest speaker, Jon Trigell read a cold, dark, gothic tale from his illustrious novel: Cham and described the impact of the Alps on historic poetic pioneers Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Throughout the evening the snowy mountains and icy glacier nearby glowed pink with the sunset and shone bluey-white in the moonlight. It was such a tranquil and spectacular place to be.
By midnight it was time to turn in for the night, with an early start for our wholesome breakfast and big bowls of coffee. Tired but impressed by the stunning scenery at sunrise, the PHATties hiked across and skied down the Grands Montets for a final quick coffee and a minibus back to the ski races at Courmayeur.
So what’s next? We’ve already got a measure on our PHAT Challenge participants and “challenge” seems to be the order of the day… as is doing something unique, amazing and memorable. PHAT PHIVE – the 5th PHAT Challenge in 2012 – is already under discussion… It’s going to be suitably packed with PHAT fun.