GETTING HIGH IN CHAMONIX
From our hotel room we can see the Aiguille du Midi (i.e. the Needle of the South), one of Chamonix’s most iconic landmarks. This 3,842m mountain is part of the Mont Blanc massif and towers above the town, drawing your eye where ever you are in Chamonix. After looking at it all afternoon yesterday we decided we just had to go up there today and see it up close. The views from up on the Aiguille du Midi were spectacular, and the pleasure of spending the day hiking around the mountains incomparable. There really is something magical about being up so high.
With mountains either side of the deep valley Chamonix sits in the sun didn’t appear until about 8:00am this morning. We got to watch it poke it’s head above the Alps as we sat at breakfast in one of the many cafés around town. Coffee, croissants and an epic sunrise in the mountains – not a bad way to start the day!
After our leisurely breakfast we headed over to the cable car station where the 2 part telepherique (i.e. cable car) journey up to Aiguille du Midi begins. Imagine our shock and horror when we discovered there was a 30 minute queue for the ticket booth, and then a further hour long queue to get on the actual cable car! Not at all how we had planned to start the day*, but what can you do? So wait in line we did, until it came our turn to get packed into the crowded cable car up to Plan de l’Aiguille, the half way point at 2,317m. The views as we soared over the forest were incredible; being at the back of the cable car (pressed right up against the window, being elbowed and jostled as by 60 of our new friends) we got to see the cable car station and Chamonix itself grow smaller and smaller as we climbed 1,300m in altitude in just 10 minutes.
*We thought we’d been smart coming here after the European school holidays were finished! What we didn’t count on was the fact that North American school holidays haven’t finished – the queue was made up mostly of American and Canadian tourists, with a few Aussies thrown in for good measure.
Every time the cable car passed through a support tower the whole cabin rocked and a few people went a bit green. Luckily we were so squished in that there was no room for anyone to pass out or collapse, though there were lots of exclamations of shock and fright each time. As the air in the cabin got staler and smellier (seriously people, would it kill you to use a bit of deodorant?!), I started feeling less and less comfortable*. Luckily we soon arrived at Plan de l’Aiguille and the doors opened, allowing us all to spill out into the fresh mountain air. We stopped here for a few minutes to get some air while we waited for the second cable car to arrive.
*One of the less pleasurable consequences of being short is that, in a crowd, I am invariably at armpit height. Never a pleasant place at the best of times, let alone when people are stinky.
The second cable car whisked us the rest of the way, climbing up to 3,842m in just under 10 minutes*. We were above the tree line by this point and along the way we passed over glaciers, rocks, and jagged mountain peaks. Seriously awesome!
*Some interesting stats on the Aiguille du Midi cable cars (if you’re into that sort of thing):
• The cable car was built in 1955 and held the title of “World’s Highest Cable Car” for 2 decades.
• The 2 cable cars together travel from Chamonix to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in just 20 minutes, climbing over 2,800m in this short period of time (because of this a lot of people who make the journey experience some altitude sickness).
• There are only 3 towers/pylons supporting all of the cables.
• The cable cars travel at speeds of 40-45km/h.
• They can carry up to 600 people per hour.
• A million people use the Aiguille du Midi cable cars every year – most during the winter ski season.
Once arriving at the top of the Aiguille du Midi we were able to disperse and leave our crowd of friends behind. There are lots of different viewpoints around Aiguille du Midi, all affording incredible views over the surrounding mountain landscape and across to the highest point of Mont Blanc.
It was pretty cold up there (about 8C compared to 20C down in Chamonix) and we were quickly pulling our gear out of our backpacks and putting it all on in an effort to stay warm. Luckily there wasn’t much wind up there otherwise it might have been a bit too chilly to go walking around outside! Still, it was worth a few minutes of teeth chattering cold for the views.
Mountain climbers keen to scale Mont Blanc depart from Aiguille Du Midi and we got to see a couple of parties of mountaineers set off. It’s so humbling when you see people take on challenges like that.
From the Aiguille another cable car crosses the Glacier du Géant to Pointe Helbronner (3,462 m) on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif. Pointe Helbronner is served with a cable car from La Palud, a village near Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley (Italy). This means you could start in Chamonix (France) and catch 4 cable cars to end up in Italy for lunch! So cool!
After sampling a little of the views from every angle we decided we had had enough of the high altitude. I was felling quite ill from the quick ascent and rather than risk any further symptoms of altitude sickness we headed back down to the mid-station, Plan de l’Aiguille. From there we set out on our afternoon hike.
There are lots of hiking trails criss-crossing the mountains either side of Chamonix. Some of them are pretty intense (think near vertical ascents/descents) and require a mountain goat license. Not being mountain goats we chose one of the gentler hikes that wound its way across the mountain-side from Plan de l’Aiguille at a reasonable gradient.
The terrain was pretty rocky and dry, but the views down into the Chamonix Valley and across to the mountains on the other side were glorious.
Along the way we stopped at Lac Blu, a small mountain lake formed from snow and glacier melt.
The walk, although with significant descent, was incredible scenic and pleasurable. We didn’t get to see any famous Chamonix mountain goats, but did see (and smell) plenty of poopy evidence!
After a few hours of exertion we were back in Chamonix and happily headed back to our hotel for a shower and some down time. And now that the sun is slipping, once again, behind he mountains we’re contemplating venturing out for some dinner and a quiet drink in one of the prettiest places in the world. Not a bad life is it?