We were 8,000 feet below the surface of the Earth when our Kangoo returned to France for the last time. The border crossing was deep in the Mont Blanc Tunnel well under the Mont Blanc massif. When we emerged from the concrete tube we were in Chamonix France. Chamonix, or more fully, Chamonix-Mont Blanc would be our base for the next few days.
“Where are you going next?” asked Nadia, our via ferrata guide, while we were all attached by metal cables to the rock high above Cortina d’Ampezzo.
At the time Becky and I were fixated on not slipping off a small ledge. One misstep and we might just have left Italy with an authentic souvenir hospital bill. Our response came slow. Unlike us, Nadia had no difficulty climbing and conversing at the same time.
Neither of these places brought out even a flicker of a response from Nadia.
After another careful step on the rocks I allowed myself to mentally roll the itinerary forward.
“Zermatt” I added after a couple of deep breaths to bring in the thin air.
Zermatt brought a slight twitch from Nadia but nothing verbal. But it seemed I was getting warmer. When my dangling boot clad foot finally found the next foothold I reflected back to the Excel spreadsheet of our schedule for the next destination.
“After Zermatt we are heading to Chamonix,” I finished to Nadia and took another breath.
I figured that there was no point in mentioning any of our flat land destinations to our mountain guide.
“Ah, Chamonix is nice,” Nadia responded after a reflective pause.
To an experienced mountain guide, Chamonix is a worthy destination.
Indeed Chamonix-Mont Blanc is the French Mecca of mountain adventure sports. At the bottom of a deep glacier cut valley below Europe’s highest mountain peak, modern touristy Chamonix attracts off piste skiers in the winter and mountain climbers in the summer.
Our base in Chamonix was the B&B Vert et Blanc (Green and White in English). The mornings began with a shared breakfast on a single long wooden table. Guests share their day’s plans and their yesterday’s experiences over croissants and coffee. With arrivals and departures from the B&B occurring daily, breakfast time was a conduit of tourist information. New arrivals learn the things to do from those that had been at the lodge for a few days. Later, the same once new arrivals pass the tourist tidbits forward to the next set of incoming B&Bers.
In Chamonix one destination is obvious even without advice from fellow travelers. The peaks surrounding Chamonix beckon visitors up out of the valley. Taking the tourists up the hillsides to the alpine terrain is a network of gondola lifts. Summer and winter, the lifts are the easiest way up the Alps. A multiple day pass, like we purchased, allows unlimited use of Chamonix’s lifts.
The most impressive gondola ride took us to Aiguille du Midi. Roughly translating to the “needle at the middle” in English, “Aiguille du Midi” is aptly named. At the top of the upper stage of a two-step gondola, or téléphérique in French, is a gondola station built on the top of a rock spire or “needle” on the way to Mont-Blanc. When the téléphérique was built in 1955 it remained as the highest cable car for two decades. Even today, the two-stage gondola lift holds the record as the largest vertical ascent in the world. Passengers enter the lift at 3,396 feet and exit at the top to a different world at 12,392 feet.
Rising quickly from the valley floor, the first stage of the téléphérique from downtown Chamonix to the midway station at Plan de l’Aiguille is impressive. But the truly mindboggling portion of the ride is the second stage. The téléphérique from Plan de l’Aiguille to Aiguille du Midi occurs in single cable span. There are no intervening support towers; the tram climbs the 4,790 feet to the top on a steep arc of steel cable. Nearing the upper station it feels like being lifted vertically, elevator-style, into the gondola station.
Traveling from Plan de l’Aiguille to Aiguille du Midi the scenery changes dramatically. Plan de l’Aiguille at 7,602 feet is surrounded by rocky alpine grassland marginally useful as pasture. When the téléphérique reaches Aiguille du Midi’s rock spire, all around are glacier ice fields and steep rock walls. It feels like being dropped into the midst of a Himalayan mountain climbing expedition. No plants grow this high on the mountain.
Indeed, Aiguille du Midi is a starting point for many mountain climbs. By exiting the téléphérique station through an ice tunnel many climbers begin their ascents of nearby Mont Blanc. Other climbers rope themselves together and traverse the Vallee Blanche ice field to the Italian side of the massif or climb the shear rock walls of Aiguille du Midi itself.
We could see the climbers more clearly when we ascended by elevator to the top of Aiguille du Midi’s complex. The platform viewing deck circles a communication tower at 12,605 feet. In between deep breaths you see glaciers, ice fields, and rock spires. Nearby snow capped Mont Blanc bulges into the view. Seemingly directly below you can see the upper téléphérique station with ant-like people on the nearby observation deck. Much further down is the urban sprawl of the Chamonix valley. The view from Aiguille du Midi is incomparable.
Exiting the Aiguille du Midi station and skiing down Vallee Blanche’s snow field to Chamonix or hiking across the ice to Italy must amaze. There’d be no such adventure for us on this visit. As near as we would come was to take the télécabine over the ice to Italy.
The “Panoramic Mont Blanc” carries passengers suspended in twelve clusters of three small cable cars well above the snowfield to Helbronner Point and the Italian border. Helbronner Point is 1,000 feet below and 3 miles away from the Aiguille du Midi station. On the télécabine we would cross the border into Italy for the fourth time on this trip. Our return journey would be our fifth and final crossing into France. The télécabine’s 6.3-mile loop of braided steel wire dangles it’s passengers between rock peaks and over the pure white snow of the glaciers. Aside from a single station on a rock outcrop and a cable-stayed “Pylône suspendu”, the wire rope is unsupported.
High above the ice, Panoramic Mont Blanc’s cars feel like they move slowly. Periodically, the motion stops as the two gondola clusters at the extremes reach the terminal stations. After the passengers in the cluster cabins unload and load, the cable restarts. The whole trip, out and return, takes about an hour.
The télécabine ride is an unusual experience. Leaving Aiguille du Midi suspended under the cable bestows unhindered views of Mont Blanc. Below is the pure white snowfield of Vallee Blanche. Mountain climbers roped together appear like small lines of ants as they head to France or return from Italy. Further on, we could see the start of a steeper, crevasse-filled section of Glacier du Geant. Where there is no snow, there is only rock.
When we reached Helbronner Point we continued in our gondola car back to France. If we had more time we could have lingered on the Italian side or even continued down to Courmayeur Italy on another ski lift. But Panoramic Mont Blanc was closing soon and, if we didn’t want to find a creative way back to France, we’d best return to Aiguille du Midi suspended under the cable.
The following day we took another pair of téléphériques from downtown Chamonix to Le Brévent. Le Brévent sits on the ridge across the valley from the Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi. The views are predictably spectacular. But if your lift pass purchase is going to take you to both Aiguille du Midi and Le Brévent, visit Le Brévent first. After Aiguille du Midi, all other vistas struggle to compare.
More pictures are on Picasa.