05 Jul The Aiguille du Midi: Portal to Adventure in the French Alps
When you grow up in the Colorado Rockies like my daughter has, you naturally assume you’re living in the most epic mountains on the planet. There are 53 “fourteeners” (peaks over 14,000 feet high), skiing is arguably the world’s best, and John Denver gave these heights immortal fame back in the day with “Rocky Mountain High.”
So it was entertaining to see the awe on my daughter’s face when we woke up in the French Alps and she looked out from the balcony of our pension. We had arrived in the dark, so our surroundings were a surprise: Before us, the Bossons Glacier surged down from on high like a massive frozen waterfall. On either side of Mont Blanc’s ice-cloaked summit — the highest in the Alps — black granite needles poked up like spikes in the wall of peaks that provided the backdrop to our chalet. The mountains’ vertical pitch, jagged profiles and icy crowns offered scenic drama on a scale my daughter hadn’t seen before.
But the grandeur above us was just a taste of what lay in store at the top of the Aiguille du Midi. The pointy peak overlooking 15,781-foot Mont Blanc is the terminus of a high-altitude cable car ride that warrants an overused cliché: it truly takes your breath away.
Built in 1955, the aerial tramway still holds the title of the world’s highest vertical ascent, rising nearly 9,200 feet from the Chamonix Valley to the tip of the needle at 12,605 feet. The 20-minute journey is made in two legs, stopping midway at Plan de l’Aiguille before continuing to the summit on a single span with no support pillar. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering — but it’s quickly overlooked once the 360-degree panorama is unveiled as you step out of the cable car and onto the viewing platforms.
360-Degree Alpine Vistas
A global center for mountaineering, rock climbing and extreme adrenaline sports, the Mont Blanc region draws loads of hard-core adventurers. Though we didn’t see any highliners or skiers ready to drop into a couloir with escape parachutes on their backs, we did count 14 paragliders in the sky at once, and dozens of alpinists with ropes and ice axes tackling the glaciated expanse below the Midi’s sheer pinnacle. Our plans to hike felt tame, but the views we savored were every bit as stunning — perhaps even more so, since we had time and comfort to look around, rather than worrying about whether we were going to fall off an inverted cliff face or a slack line suspended between two spires.
Once we had ogled the summit vista to our content, surveying ridge after ridge of serrated peaks marching off into Italy and Switzerland, we boarded the cable car to return to Plan de l’Aiguille and the start of our hike. Here at the midpoint on the tramway, the trail takes off to Montenvers — our destination — a classic 2.5-hour traverse across the Grand Balcon Nord, covering just over 4.5 miles.
The views from the side of the mountain were nearly as arresting as those from the top, with a more intimate perspective on the rocky slopes and broad U-shaped valley below, as well as the far wall, laced with lifts and ski runs. The town of Chamonix still looked like a miniature toy village far below, filling the valley floor and cut by the silvery ribbon of the Arve River.
Periodically, we would stop and look up, and back, to see the spine of the massif draped in glaciers, with the white hulk of Mont Blanc towering over all. We gradually dropped in elevation until we reached the treeline, entering a subalpine forest of larch and spruce, giving way to pine and birch at lower elevations.
Retreating Sea of Ice
Our goal was Montenvers, where we would catch the cog railway train back down to town, saving a long descent on switchbacks through the thick forest. The rack and pinion track was constructed in 1909 to take visitors for a close-up look at the Mer de Glace — “Sea of Ice” — a massive, crevasse-riddled glacier winding down from the Mont Blanc massif. Fed by numerous tributary glaciers converging in the vast Glacier du Geant, the Mer de Glace once filled the deep valley it had gouged out during the Ice Age, and its tongue was easily visible from Chamonix a century ago.
Having heard about the famous glacier, I was stunned when we crested a ridge and looked down, expecting to see it. What we saw instead was a sea of gravel—the gaping moraine left by the glacier’s retreat. The remaining ice lay high up the valley, well above the hotel built at Montenvers in the late 19th century that once overlooked the glacier and provided easy access to the ice caves below.
The Mer de Glace is but one startling example of the retreat of Alpine glaciers, casualties of a warming climate that has exponentially hastened their melting in the last several decades. The glaciers are receding so quickly that most scientists predict they will be gone from the Alps by 2050, if not sooner.
I found myself feeling emotional, and grateful, that my 19-year-old daughter had this chance to see what was left of the Mer de Glace and the glittering icy ramparts above it. The next generation likely will not. If the Alps have been on your bucket list, it’s possible the glaciers may kick the bucket before you do — so go now.
Planning Your Adventure
A wonderland of hiking trails above Chamonix offers endless exploration in the French Alps. Much of the terrain is contained within the Mont Blanc Natural Resort, which includes the cable car up the Aiguille du Midi and the cog railway to Montenvers. Although you can purchase an individual ticket to ride either one, the Mont Blanc Multipass is the best bet for avid hikers who want to cover a broader area or who wish to spend more than one day — and a longer visit is surely warranted. The pass covers a host of lifts in the region. You can buy one for 1-21 days, with the price dropping substantially the more days you purchase. A one-day Multipass costs 63 euros in 2017.
If you’d prefer the ultimate exposure to the Mont Blanc heights without worrying about a single detail of your arrangements, go with Backroads: the boutique adventure company offers a French & Italian Alps Walking & Hiking Tour that also visits the chic resort town of Megeve and Italy’s renowned ski village of Courmayeur. The 6-day circuit from Geneva includes the Grand Balcon traverse that my daughter and I hiked, plus a walk on the ice with expert haute montagne guides across the Glacier du Géant — the source of the Mer de Glace. Fine cuisine and luxury hotels steeped in mountain ambience are added highlights.
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