Spring had come to Chamonix. The skiers' favorite restaurant, the Choucas, where one could scarcely get a table at Easter, was closed, and so was the jumping Bivouac discoth�que. The only sounds coming from the casino were the whispers of spinning wheels, spun idly by croupiers with no one to bet. The ski instructors (moniteurs) in knickers and hobnailed boots gathered on the corner by the school to talk of summer climbs or the tragic avalanche on the Zugspitze. Only a handful of die-hards remained at the Hotel de Paris, the seedily comfortable skiers' hotel. Most had come to ski the Vall�e Blanche, Europe's highest run, after snow had gone from lower places. I had come to fly with Michel Ziegler to some remote mountain to ski a glacier with Yves Blatg�, a friend who gave up a career as a petroleum engineer to combine the best of two worlds, working in winter as a moniteur and mountain guide in Courchevel and in summer at his own beach establishment, down the coast from Saint-Tropez.
At a little before 6 the morning after we arrived in Chamonix, Blatg� knocked at my door, and we went to my window to look at the day. The river gurgled below, filled with the brown silt of May's melted glacier snows. The sky was opalescent and the majestic bulk of Mont Blanc loomed pink in a cloudless sunrise. "We'll fly," said Yves.
We dressed and went across the street to the H�tel Suisse for coffee and a croissant. All along the road to Le Fayet, Chamonix's airport, the glaciers on each side seemed poised to crash into the valley below. We stopped at a roadside �picerie for provisions—Savoie sausage, a round of Reblochon, a liter of red wine, some Tobler chocolate bars. Janine Bloch, of Air-Alpes, was waiting at the field, her "office" the fender of her Renault station wagon. While we were pouring the wine into Yves' wineskin, the Air-Alpes Pilatus dived down, power off, whining shrilly, at head height over the field. It swooped into a chandelle before landing and stopped within 300 yards of touchdown.
Michel Ziegler jumped out to help us secure our skis and Yves' pack, the 25 pounds of gear carried by every glacier guide: ice ax, crampons, ropes, tarpaulin, a metal tip for a broken ski, and a device that joins two skis into a sled which could carry an injured skier off a mountain.
"There's too much wind on the D�me du Go�ter," Ziegler said. "At least 40 knots." He had checked it on his flight over from Courchevel. For most glacier landings, 10 knots is the maximum wind. This was disappointing news. The D�me du Go�ter is a broad shoulder, only 1,600 feet beneath Mont Blanc's magnificent head and, at 14,100 feet, the highest point to which Ziegler flies his clients. From there you can climb Mont Blanc in an hour and a half—if you have never smoked in your life and have done your deep knee bends—and then ski all the way down through valleys of green-blue serac ice to the top of the Aiguille du Plan t�l�f�rique.
My disappointment was tempered, I will confess, by what I had learned of the D�me du Go�ter the day I first met Michel Ziegler at Courchevel. The D�me is not only the highest place he lands, but the toughest ski down. And one of Ziegler's airplanes is buried in its snows. Blatg� and I had stopped after a morning's ski on the Saulire to join Ziegler for lunch at Courchevel's altiport. Planes on skis were taking off and landing on the sharply inclined packed-snow runway, bringing new arrivals up from Geneva, taking children on tours around Mont Blanc or skiers over to La Plagne or Meg�ve for the day. In the April sun girls were lunching outdoors in ski pants and bikini tops. The chef sang along with Renata Tebaldi's Tosca, playing on the kitchen radio. Martine Ziegler, Michel's beautiful blonde wife, brought us steak, pommes frites and a carafe of Beaujolais, and the whole scene was so pleasantly, cosily comfortable that climbing into a single-engine airplane and flying up to some crevassing and perhaps avalanching billion-year-old river of ice seemed not only a perfectly sensible but, indeed, the only thing to do.
The ceiling of the airport restaurant was papered with precisely detailed relief maps, showing all the glaciers from the Mont Blanc massif to Alpe d'Huez. "Here is the D�me de Chassefor�t," Michel told me. "I could land a Boeing up there." Then Blatg� took over. "You walk for about half an hour up to the Refuge F�lix-Faure, then there is a beautiful tour for two hours ending at Pralognan for lunch." There were 12 different Xs on the charts, marking spots where Ziegler has landed his turbo-powered Pilatus Porter, and leading from them, snaking down the ice-blue contour lines, there were ski tours of from 12 to 18 miles.
"And here's the D�me du Go�ter," said Michel, "my highest landing place. My first Pilatus is still up there. It was in 1960 and my first solo glacier landing." Until this point I had not thought it polite to ask about accidents.
At 31, Ziegler has been a licensed pilot for half his lifetime. His father, Henri Ziegler, is a pioneer of French aviation, formerly a director of Air France and now head of Breguet, the company that has made France's fighting planes since World War I. Henri Ziegler instilled his own love for flying and for mountains in his son. The family climbed and skied the Saulire in Courchevel long before the first lifts were built there. Michel was a paratrooper in the Algerian war and, to learn English, worked for Air France in London afterward.
Convinced that the new frontier for aviation is in the mountains, where surface transportation is so arduous even for short distances, he then went to learn the secrets of mountain flying from Hermann Geiger, the famous Swiss glacier pilot. "Geiger made it seem easy," Michel said. "He picked the snow and the piste, and he knew the wind. It seemed so simple that I suppose I became wildly overconfident. After 40 landings with Geiger, I was ready to land on my own. It had to be on the D�me. Robert Merloz, my partner, and I took off from Geneva one morning and headed straight for Mont Blanc. The wind was gentle, the snow smooth and our landing perfect. We had a Lycoming piston engine on that first Pilatus, and I was afraid to shut off power in that high, thin air. We got out and walked around, throwing snowballs in our elation, then climbed back in and started downhill for the takeoff. The engine quit before we were airborne. The right ski went on the first crevasse, the left on the next and the whole damned undercarriage on the third. Merloz and I skied our way down to Chamonix, leaving a $100,000 airplane on the D�me du Go�ter. Since Mont Blanc glaciers move about a foot and a half a day, it will arrive in Chamonix in about 95 years. I have never been cocky about glacier flying since."