Rising from the center of downtown Chamonix, France, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi cable car climbs more than 9,000 vertical feet to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi. It ascends past the Plan de l’Aiguille mid-station and traverses Les Pelerins glacier, then rises above the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, littered with rock, glacial ice, and jagged seracs.
In the Téléphérique, you'll see Japanese tourists in fancy brand-name street clothes dropping peace signs and posing for pictures, recreational skiers about to ski off the right side of the Midi into the world-renowned Vallee Blanche, and—when conditions are right—a few of the most badass skiers in the world preparing to go left.
They'll inch their way down off the summit of the Midi, using rope handrails for support, gripped about the prospects. Heading left signifies dropping into the fabled North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, the ultimate classic line.
"If the terrain on the North Face of the Midi isn’t extreme skiing, then nothing is," Hans Ludwig wrote in the December 2010 issue of POWDER. "Every one of its routes features thousands of feet of complex high-angle terrain with constant death exposure, mandatory rappels, and a snowpack that sticks tenuously to the hanging shield of glacial ice crowning the peak."
There are four prominent lines on the North Face: The Mallory Route, The Eugster, The North Face entrance to the West Couloir, and The North Face of the Col du Plan, each named after the climbing route it descends. There is no hiking required to access the North Face lines, but don't let the easily accessible zone fool you. Despite sitting almost directly underneath the cable car, the first descent of the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi didn't happen until 1994, when Pierre Tardivel skied it.
"The North Face of the Aiguille is a pretty amazing place to be," the late Arne Backstrom, Freeskiing World Tour Champion, wrote in his blog “Spring” in Chamonix. "You feel the exposure all around you, dropping off to nothing in any direction."
There's a process to going left off the Aiguille du Midi and skiing the North Face. "It's not like you can just show up there and think you're going to ski the North Face," says Seth Morrison, who has spent a lot of time in Chamonix the last few years practicing ski-mountaineering and filming for The Ordinary Skier. "There's a learning curve and a lot of technique involved. The times I've been on the North Face are with people that know where they're going. You are following the climber's routes, so there is a distinct degree of difficulty as far as the true angle of the pitch. There's a big difference between the U.S. definition of 50 degrees and a climber's version of 50 degrees."
"I was out in Chamonix for eight years before skiing the North Face," says "American Dave" Rosenbarger, an expatriate who splits time between Squaw Valley and Chamonix. "When I got to Chamonix, I quickly learned that what I thought was steep wasn't steep at all. You don't fly into Chamonix saying, 'I'm going to ski the Mallory tomorrow.' I wasn't even interested for the first few years, and then it took another four years for the conditions to get good."
After putting years of observation and practice to work, all you have to do to access the North Face of the Midi is bang a left out of cable car. The accessibility is part of what makes it so iconic, but it's a double-sided coin. There's a knowledge that comes with the sweat equity of a bootpack or ascent to a line. If you're climbing up the line that you're about to ski, you know what the conditions are like, you know how the sun is affecting the snow, and you're intimate with the exposure. When going left, though, "You only really feel the exposure," says Verbier-based pro skier Giulia Monego, "all you can see are sharp rocks disappearing into the void."
The North Face of the Midi is fickle, too. Due to varying conditions, there are certain seasons when it's unskiable. "The amount of rope work required on each line depends on the conditions and varies from year to year," says American Dave. "Conditions typically aren't getting better, though. They're getting worse because ice is melting away up there. I didn't ski a single North Face line last year because I didn't think the conditions were good. I bet there were only about a dozen people that skied the North Face last year."
Despite declining conditions, more people are attempting to ski the area than ever before. In the past, the terrain and conditions were the biggest risk to manage during a descent of the North Face. Now, skiers have to be conscious of people above them.
"Nobody in this valley or in the surrounding countries would ever go in and ski a line on the North Face if there was an existing track," says Nate Wallace. "Now, in one day there can be 17 people on the face, which is the same amount of people that skied it in about six years worth of skiers before."
The biggest factor that's contributed to the North Face of the Midi getting tracked out can be traced to the absence of one man: Marco Siffredi.
Siffredi—the first person to snowboard Mount Everest in 2001, who was tragically killed at 23 during his second attempt at riding Everest in 2002— was the Aiguille du Midi gatekeeper.
"The first 10 to 20 bins used to be reserved for Chamonix Mountain Guides," remembers Nate Wallace. "So, if you didn't know Marco Siffredi or the French guys, it didn't matter if you got to the tram at 6:30 in the morning. You weren't getting up until at least the 20th bin. It was like the North Shore of Oahu, it was completely regulated by the locals. Nowadays, you can sneak in before the guides."
There are still a handful of local French guys and transplants—like Wallace and Rosenbarger—who are going left properly. They're still prospecting lines, finding new ways to link-up zones, and getting creative on the North Face. It might take them all day, but their creative takes on the classic get people buzzing in Chamonix Valley. Andreas Fransson's name comes up whenever you ask Chamonix locals about the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, as does François-Regis Thevenet, a young French mountain guide starting to turn heads with creative descents and unique lines drawn on the North Face.
"It is a big deal. There is no run like that; the thing is huge," says Nate Wallace. "It's 3,000 feet in your freaking face, and you don't have to do anything to access it, you ride right into it. Despite how many people are going into it, it is still the most intensely beautiful run. There's nothing like the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi."