16 Feb 2012

Take your time - Chamonix's more than just a ski resort

As the Montenvers train chugged slowly up the hill towards the Mer de Glace I realised that I had totally misjudged the timing of the day. No wonder the woman in the ticket office looked at me strangely when I demanded a Mont Blanc Unlimited one-day ski-pass; it was already midday, with barely time for one activity, let alone two. It might have been the thing I really wanted to do, but I hadn't planned it very well. My heart sank as I read that the trip to Aigiulle du Midi took 3-4 hours on busy days. We only had 4 hours until our transfer out of Chamonix departed and it was a Sunday, so surely a busy day. Feeling rather despondent, I resigned myself to the fact that the Aiguille du Midi would have to wait for another trip. I'd admired it from Chamonix for a few days, and now I'd have to admire it even longer.

After nearly half an hour of pleasant scenery barely seen through ice-covered windows the train pulled into the station above the Mer de Glace, a large glacier that pours down the mountain from Mont Blanc. In winter you cannot see all the crevasses - it is just a smooth harmless-looking white slope, dotted with the odd off-piste skier.

It is only the posters of a young skier who went missing the previous week that remind you of how dangerous it can be. I imagine Christophe's body will be found in the summer when the snows melt, or in years to come as the glacier recedes further. It makes you realise that it's a mighty beast down there, inspite of its serene appearance.

Wanting to make the best of the fact that this might be our only activity of the day (and an expensive one at that), we headed down to the Grotte de Glace (Ice Cave) to explore. There was a cable car to take one down most of the way, and then a long stepped walkway down to the cave's entrance. The journey was made under the shadow of Aiguille du Dru, and unfeasibly pointy peak directly above the glacier.

We reached the entrance to the cave, which they dig out anew each year, as the glacier shifts during the seasons inbetween.

The cave was a lot shorter than I'd expected, only about thirty or forty metres long from start to finish, but the walls of the ice were smooth with intricate patterns of bubbles beneath and beautiful crystals hanging from the ceiling, like tiny stalactites.

The walls were adorned with information about the history of the glacier and the railway, which we'd read in the blurb on the train. Feeling slightly disappointed we climbed up the stairs back to the gondola to take us back to the train down to Chamonix. Along the walkway I noticed a small dip beneath some rocks attached to which were exquisite ice crystals. The lighting was poor, but I just managed to capture one of them with my macro lens (still working in spite of the cold) with its delicate layers of tiny symmetrical ice particles.

As we reached the top the train was about to leave (they only depart once an hour), so our chances of visiting Aiguille du Midi were marginally improved; our visit to the ice cave had been efficient! On the train we perfected scraping the ice from the windows with our ski passes and were able to enjoy the view of fir trees in the foreground, mist in the distance, Chamonix nestled down below and more beautiful mountains across the valley.

I looked at my watch incessantly. Murray assured me that it wasn't peak season and that the return lift trip would only take 2 hours; just enough time. When the train stopped we rushed out and headed along a busy main road to the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi station. A cable car took off a few minutes before we arrived and another one descended towards us. As we reached the entrance we realised that we were definitely not there in peak season, as there were two skiers in the queue already; our visit was going to happen after all. We had twenty minutes to wait, time to grab a ham and cheese baguette at the adjoining café before rejoining the queue. I calculated that we would just have enough to make it up to the top, have half an hour or so up there to take a few photos and enjoy the view (and the -25°C temperatures with a 25mph wind to boot), before heading back down, racing back through town to pick up our bags and our ride to the airport.

By 2.30pm the doors were opened and we crowded into the first cable car - the first stop is just under half of the way up at Plan de l'Aiguille. Seven or eight minutes later we were bundled out, shuffled along to the next cable car which would take us all the way up to an altitude-sickness-inducing 3,770m above sea level. Another eight minutes or so, with little to see given the condensation and frost on the windows, and we were at the top, where we had plenty of time to explore. We left the cable car and headed towards the elevator that takes you up to the highest viewing platform at 3,842m. In order to get there we had to cross a bridge, as the mountain station is arranged over a number of rocky outcrops, joined by this bridge. As we walked across there was a strong gust of unbelievably cold wind, making standing around to take photos fairly unpleasant! I was very glad to be wearing my mum's Michelin-man down jacket (and about 6 layers underneath). We rushed across to the tunnels opposite and headed out to some viewing platforms, as there was a queue for the lift.

Fortunately the wind was nearly absent on the other side, so it was almost pleasant standing out there, overlooking the magnificent mountains spread beneath and in front of us. To the left was an exit that nutters take when skiing down (where poor Christophe must have begun his fateful journey).

Behind us was the enormous metal tower that sits above the highest viewing platform and that is visible from Chamonix, 2,700m below.

We headed back inside and made our way to the lift (no queue now) and headed out to the highest viewing platform.

The view from here was even more incredible, with the mighty but smooth summit of Mont Blanc lurking behind more jagged peaks, a constant stream of cloud emanating from the other side. We both felt a bit light-headed from the altitude.

The sun was just to the west of the summit, making photos a bit tricky, but taking photos is tricky anyway with an effective temperature of -40°C; a raised hand to shield the sun glares helped.

The automatic focus on my wide-angle lens stopped working, but otherwise the equipment was performing okay, if a little slow. I was surprised at how I still managed to turn the camera on and off and press the shutter release with my bulky mittens.

By 3.45pm it was time to go and leave the panoramas behind us, to embark on our long journey back to London. We made it back to the hotel with about ten minutes to spare, relieved and happy that my mis-planning hadn't involved missing out on such an incredible sight. Of course it'd be great to have an excuse to come back - I'd love to visit in summer - but it was truly worth the visit, even in a mad rush. If I were to go back, however, I'd make a bit more effort and get up a bit earlier so I could relax a little once up there; a coffee with the most stunning view would have been nice.

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