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February 24, 2011

France: Chamonix, Chemin de fer du Montenvers

Filed under: Europe 2010, France, Italy, Travel — anotherheader @ 12:37 am

Chemin de fer du Montenvers or the Montenvers Railway near Hotel de Montenvers

Téléphériques are not the only way up into Chamonix’s famous mountains.  Another mode of transport is the Chemin de fer du Montenvers or the Montenvers Railway.  This cog railway leaves downtown Chamonix and winds its way up the steep tracks into the alpine terrain of Hotel de Montenvers alongside Mer de Glace.

A lift takes visitors down to the Mer de Glace glacier

Mer de Glace is the glacier that is formed by the confluence of Glacier du Géant, Glacier de Lechaud and Cascade du Talèfre.  Many years from now, if the glacier does not melt, the ice we saw from the top of Aiguille du Midi and from the Panoramic Mont Blanc will be heading towards Chamonix in Mer de Glace glacier.  Once easily visible from the valley floor, Mer de Glace has receded to the point that it is now barely visible from Chamonix.  Indeed, Mer de Glace continues to shrink at a dramatic rate.

Well below Hotel de Montenvers are amusing though touristy ice tunnels bored yearly into the ice flow.  A station-side chair lift takes visitors the first step down to the ice.  From the bottom lift house, a series of metal steps and walkways, adjusted and extended each year to match the receding ice, takes visitors to the glacier’s edge.  Easily seen from above are the remnants of the prior year’s tunnels.  The successive boreholes mark the progress of the ice as it inches towards Chamonix.

What only recently was a short walk to the ice tunnels is now a long hike.  The retreat of Mer de Glace is astounding.  Indeed, at Montenvers the ice level has dropped 230 feet in the last twenty years.  For comparison, the Louisiana Superdome is 253 feet high.  As you proceed down to the ice on the metal staircases anchored into the rock, placards note the historic levels of the Mer de Glace glacier.

“That can’t be right,” I said as we passed the first sign marking the 1990 level of the glacier.

Inside Mer de Glace

The ice was a long, long ways below the perforated metal steps.  It seemed impossible that so much ice could melt in just twenty years but it had.  Here there is dramatic and incontrovertible evidence that the climate has changed at least locally.

Some debate whether Global Warming is a myth conjured up by extremist environmentalists with naive agendas or a true scientifically valid phenomenon.  Still others argue that the phenomenon is a natural cycle and not the result of mankind’s extraction and burning of the carbon-based fuels long sequestered beneath the Earth’s surface thereby releasing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Certainly it is difficult to scientifically prove without all doubt that Global Warming is a result of mankind’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy.  True scientific proof is more difficult to obtain that many imagine.  What is not hard to prove is that glaciers around the world are retreating at a startling rate.  We’ve seen glaciers in New Zealand, North America, and South America and in Europe. The evidence of the glacier’s retreat is obvious in person and shocking when the present is compared to the historical photos.

We don’t travel to see retreating glaciers.  It just happens that the glaciers we journey to see are all in withdrawal.  Is this only random chance or is it true, as is said, that most of the world’s glaciers have been routed and are now in full on retreat?

But let’s step back from the depressing notion that Mer de Glace, along with many other glaciers in the world, will soon disappear.  In the present, the spectacle of the Mer de Glace gorge and the ice remains.  And, at least for a few more years, tourists will be able to tour tunnels bored each year into the side of the Mer de Glace glacier.  Inside the ice visitors will still find ice carvings and the strangely compelling colored light illumination.

The truth is that Chamonix was not Becky and my favorite stop in Europe.  The town was just too touristy.  And perhaps we had become jaded by all of the amazing places we had been during the summer.  But even amongst this lowered baseline, riding the téléphériques to Aiguille du Midi, Télécabine Panoramic Mont Blanc to Italy, and the Chemin de fer du Montenvers to the Mer de Glace glacier are unforgettable experiences.  We’d recommend these spectacular excursions to anyone.

A few more pictures can be viewed on Picasa.


  1. I should go, as I was there in 83 r 84. Be interesting (shocking?) to see how far it has retreated since then.

    Comment by PeterD — February 24, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

  2. A fascinating, disturbing story and really wonderful images to illustrate it – thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Blake — December 15, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

  3. Wonderful post and your photos are really awesome. Thank you for visiting.

    Comment by Chèvrefeuille — December 16, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

  4. will be there in April…the area looks fantastic…the sun causes global warming…the whole solar system has warmed..

    Comment by steve — February 25, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

    • Or maybe it doesn’t

      Comment by anotherheader — March 2, 2016 @ 4:50 am

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