March 26, 2011
Last year, we actually looked at flights to Geneva before deciding to visit some other places instead. As part of looking at Geneva, I realized there’s not much to do there and looked to see what else there was nearby. One place I found was Chamonix.
Chamonix is a small town (think: Whistler) well known for skiing, being the location of the first Olympic games, and as a starting point for people to ascend (or die on) Mont Blanc. I think it’s a bit glamorous and historical because of its association with people dying on Mont Blanc, but now that I was actually there, it looks more like Blue Mountain (since I haven’t been to Whistler). Part of it might be because the mountaineers don’t come until summer.
In any case, we weren’t going skiing/snowboarding, hiking and we weren’t climbing Mont Blanc, so the reason we paid the cost to go there was to take the cable car up to the summit of Aiguille Du Midi. The cable car is also famous as being the longest cable car in the world, used to be the highest cable car in the world and has a stretch of over 2500m (that’s 2.5km!) without any support pillars. If that sounds a bit dangerous, then I take solace in the fact that it was built in 1955 and is still in operation so it haven’t broken or what not (plus we got back in one piece).
The ride is a thrill. It’s actually in two stretches with a station in the middle (Plan de l’Aiguille). The first stretch starts a bit ho-hum. It goes up a mountain and you can see trees underneath. I was thinking “Wow this is pretty lame, it’s just like Grouse Mountain“. Then we got past the trees and started on the snow and it started to take off at a steeper pace. At that point, you feel like you’re on a mountain. You have to swallow every once in awhile because of the ascent from 1000m to 2317m, and they give you a Ricola candy to help with the process. At the Plan de l’Aiguille, you shuffle off the first cable car and into a second (with a bit of pause so people can take pictures). This is where the fun starts.
The second stretch goes up from 2317m to 3777m and it’s very steep. The car is at a (less steep) angle until it looks like it’s going to smash you into the mountain face, and then it feels like you’re being pulled straight up! By our back-of-the-hand observations, it looks like a 70° incline.
Once you’re at the top, you have a couple of different terraces to look out from. We first headed for the summit which is a short elevator that takes you up to the top of the Aiguille Du Midi. From here, you have an almost 360° view of the mountain range and below (we were very lucky to have a clear and sunny day). We were able to find our hotel!
You are very high up. This is the highest up I’ve been short of being in an airplane. At Mt Rainier, I was at about 1600m and CN Tower was only about 550m. We were just slightly higher than the clouds. At this height, it gets pretty cold. The temperature in Chamonix was about 12°C, but they had a sign at the top that said it was -17°C! We knew this would happen so we were prepared; fortunately there was hardly any wind(chill).
They say at this altitude, it takes about a half hour to adjust. We were actually fine and went about our business (i.e., picture taking) with no problems. Then we decided to go to a couple of other lookouts, this time without elevators, and climbing 2 or 3 stories of stairs really winded us!
From up here, Mont Blanc itself didn’t look as grand or as beautiful as it does in commercials etc. But the combination of rocks and snow and being really up high in the air, and human construction was pretty neat.
Although we came to Chamonix specifically for this, it was worth it. Actually I think the ascent and the experience at the summit is well worth it considering it is only about €43 for the return cable car (you can also choose to ski+hike back down).
Here’s a panorama I took at the summit.