The ideal way to explore the French Alps is to visit Chamonix. Himalaya-esque alpine vistas of saw-toothed mountains and broad glaciers, including western Europe’s highest mountain are the highlight of this delightful mountain town. While there are many outstanding hikes criss-crossing the valleys, the two highlights are the recently described le Mer de Glace while the second is the exceptional panorama of Mont Blanc and taking a series of cable cars across the border to Italy. How often will you cross a national border by gondola?
The viewing platform for Mont Blanc is a two-stage twenty minute cable car trip almost three vertical kilometres up to a vertical spire of rock that pokes out of the Alps like a needle from a pin-cushion. Indeed, the Aiguille du Midi translates as midday needle due to the sun appearing to sit directly over the rock spire at noon from Chamonix. Impressively, the two gondolas run unsupported (except at the ends) making for an extremely sharp rises in altitude and extremely sharp drops in temperature. The views of trees are quickly replaced by views of rocks and snow. From the top, the vistas leave you breathless both for the glory and the greatly reduced oxygen levels on this lofty perch.
It is a journey for early birds with more settled and clearer weather far more likely in the morning (and far shorter queues beating those who sleep in – travel before 7:30am with the gondolas open from 6:00am). A screen at the Chamonix base station shows the visibility at the cable car summit to ensure you don’t waste a pricey journey into clouds.
From the top of the gondola, leap into the lift through the rock to one of the world’s finest panoramas. From this one place, a 360 degree arc of alpine peaks lay before you across Switzerland, Italy and France including the brooding white mass of Mont Blanc immediately in front. Enjoy the chilly refreshing air and spot the tiny colourful dots sprinkled across the glacier and across the face of the white giant – climbers reaching for this imposing mountain summit. In the distance is the tiny but familiar crookneck Matterhorn rising proudly and an array of French mountain peaks several starting with aiguille and one descriptively titled The Giant’s Tooth lay before you.
To get a brief taste of the hiking conditions, proceed down an ice tunnel labelled la Vallée Blanche to the exit point for cross-country ski trips and treks to Mont Blanc. Brave souls laden with ice axes, ropes, crampons and more strode out while I was happily snapping the incredible mountain vista.
For those not yet overdosing on white splendour, tiny red gondolas for four silently sail a further five kilometres over forty minutes across the giant glacier field to Pointe Helbronner and Italy. This remarkable gondola has only one tiny mountain pylon across this huge distance and the 360 degree views are mind-blowing. Some packed with their belongings take a one way journey to enter Italy and continue their European trip.
Chamonix is a wondrous alpine playground. The journey to the rooftop of France is expensive but well worth the captivating mountain amphitheatre of the Alps. Take a couple of days to settle into this thriving town, hike the valleys, explore the ice river of le Mer de Glace and ride the imposing cable cars to the summit of Aiguille du Midi to experience superb vistas of Europe’s finest mountain range.
Note: Check out the excellent Chamonix brochures.