Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sea of Ice (Chamonix, France): Part One

Chamonix is the heart of the French Alps. Sitting below the towering peak of western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, serrated saw-edged mountains and sweeping glaciers dominate the mind-blowing alpine scenery. Two wonderful half day journeys (both requiring good weather) help experience the wondrous alpine splendour and extraordinary panoramas without having to strap on a ski or snowboard. While for many, the Chamonix highlight is Mont Blanc, the first article explores the sweeping glacier field of Le Mer de Glace.

Contrasting to the little yellow train (which carves its way through the Pyrenees), a little red train steers its way to the Alp’s second largest glacier. Challenging the engineering skills of over 100 years ago, this narrow rack railway labouriously climbs 800 vertical metres from Chamonix to a stunning glacier. Over 14 kilometres long, almost two kilometres wide and between 200 metres and 400 metres deep, the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) is a vast frozen river of crevasses and ice as it snakes its way between the picturesque French Alps from Mont Blanc itself. The edges of the glacier are a dirty grey detritus of rocks and dirt gouged from the mountains and spat to the side of the sweeping tide of ice.

Signs indicate that the glacier moves at one centimetre (1/2-inch) every hour or ninety metres per year (slower at the edges), moved by the sheer weight of snow and ice along with the natural terrain.

Tiny ants across the glacier are actually intrepid trekkers (look carefully in the right centre of the photo to the right), roped together for safety in a human train, carefully negotiating their path across the icy wasteland. It reveals the huge scale of the glacier and the massive cracks that mean that one faulty step could result in falling many metres into a frozen abyss.

A series of ancient metal ladders, very cold to touch despite the pleasant outdoor temperature, lead a precarious descent to the edge of the glacier. There is an almost magnetic attraction to clamber down the ladder sequence and take a few tentative steps across the icy river. While not being overly adventurous, the creaking and groaning of the huge tongue of ice as it meanders down the valley is a powerful indicator of nature’s power, crevasses being created at whim. The backdrop is a superb mountain vista, the razor sharp Alps reaching for the sky.

Nearby is the entrance to an eerie blue mystery of an ice cave. Carefully cut into the glacier each year to help visitors experience the interior of the glacier, this blue tinged tunnel leads to a wonderland filled with creatively lit and carved ice sculptures. The subtle lighting makes for a truly unusual frosty art gallery. Despite the clever lighting, the sub-freezing temperatures filter quickly through the layers of clothing quickly sending a reminder that the gallery is set inside a glacier. Highlighting the movement of the glacier, the entrance to last year's cave can be seen some point further down the mountain, requiring a complete rebuild of the cave and its decorations every year.

Three other small museums worth a brief stroll highlight the geology and rocks of the area, the alpine wildlife and the history of the area.

The quaint red Montenvers mountain train provides immediate access to a glacier in all its living glory. All the senses are sparked in experiencing the grandeur, raw power and regal beauty of one of Europe’s largest glaciers.

Check out the second journey visiting Mont Blanc.

Photo Credit: red train


Seminyak bali said...

Really nice place , i like the picture

Footsteps said...

Spectacular! Love your descriptions, Mark.

Mark H said...

@seminyak bali: The French Alps are truly enchanting. You feel at one with nature in these environments.

@footsteps: Thank you.

BarbaraW said...

I'm not much of a mountain climber, but I would love to go inside this ice cave and I'm fascinated by the fact that the glacier moves some 90 meters per year. I'd be tempted to mark a spot and come back a couple of days later just to see the movement.

Heather on her travels said...

I'll Chamonix in September, but I'm not sure we'll have time for the glacier trip although it sounds quite unique with the gallery in the glacier

Mark H said...

@BarbaraW: It actually moves faster in the middle than on the edges (about half as fast on the edges). Checking the caves movement from season to season is one manner. Glaciers have a wondrous enchantment about them to me as they slowly sweep down valleys collecting everything in their wake.

@heather: You'll love Chamonix. The best thing to do in ym view is the cablecar up the Aiguille du Midi to view Mont Blanc. That will appear soon as a post.

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