Today was a rest day from hiking, so we got out to explore all that Chamonix had to offer. The town is a bucolic French mountain town that is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Located in the Chamonix Valley directly below Mont Blanc, the town bustles with the energy of adventure seekers from around the world. The mountain trails offer challenging grades and stunning views for hiking enthusiasts. The numerous gondola lifts and ski areas double as an easy ascent for mountain bikers who want to experience the thrill of high country biking and sustained downhill rides. As you would expect, the sheer granite walls and high mountains have much to offer climbers of all different skill and style.
Another highly popular activity is paragliding. In the past few days we have seen over 50 paragliders gently riding the thermals for hours at a time. Although some of us had planned to experience a tandem flight with a licensed instructor, the weather on our day off didn’t cooperate and flights were grounded… oh well, it’ll have to be an adventure for another time.
Despite the overcast conditions down in the valley, some of us decided to roll the dice during a brief weather window to ascend the Aiguille du Midi on a breathtaking cable car ride from Chamonix. Rising from the valley floor at 1,040m (3,412 ft), the lift ascends to a granite pinnacle whose name means “noon needle” at 3,842 (12,605 ft).
At this high elevation the weather contrast was immediately apparent and the air was noticeably thinner. Even before our gondola settled into the station at the top, our car was buffeted by high winds causing us to sway back and forth and occasionally bang into the metal rails used to guide the car into the station. Fortunately, our operator payed close attention to the wind readings while we patiently waited for a calm moment to nestle into the upper station.
The cable car station is a multi-level structure built onto and into the sheer rock spire at that defines the Aiguille du Midi peak. Truly and engineering marvel, it houses viewing platforms, tunnels, walkways, restaurants and even a small museum and theater. Those employed to maintain the structure must also be experienced climbers given the work environment.
Yesterday’s post mentioned the Mont Blanc Tunnel that goes from France to Italy. For the adventurous, an alternate route includes three different cable cars, that combined, form a continuous route up, over the top of the Mont Blanc Massif, then down into Italy.
From the top of Aiguille du Midi another cable car spans a distance of 5 km across the saddle of Mont Blanc, including the Vallée Blanche and the Géant glaciers to another peak called Pointe Heelbronner. From there, a third cable car called the Funivie Monte Bianco connects the peak of Pointe Helbronner to the village of La Palud, just north of Courmayeur, Italy.
Bundled up in extra layers, the strong cold wind did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm as we explored all the Aiguille du Midi had to offer, until the clouds closed in and it was time to descend into the white void below.