Nail Biter in the Clouds

The past week has been one of excitement, exhaustion, struggle, achievement, and awe inspiring natural beauty. It has also been uniquely human experience where people of different backgrounds and places came together to enjoy the beauty of this part of the world. During the long days on the trails or moments shared in Chamonix and beyond, bonds were developed and friendships were forged.

Since the weather wasn’t great for our 4th of 5 hikes, a small group elected to visit the Mer de Glace. This glacier, whose name means “Sea of Ice,” descends from the northern face of the Mont Blanc Massif and is accessible to tourists, researchers, and students. The journey begins by taking the Montenvers Railway, a cogwheel train that ascends nearly 3000 ft during a brief 20 min ride from Chamonix to Montenvers. From there, a short gondola ride descends into the glacial moraine, the mass of rock and sediment that is pushed aside by an advancing glacier.

Due to global warming, this glacier has been melting at a rapid rate over the past decades. This is made dramatically clear as you descend over 500 metal steps just to get to the surface of the glacier that has thinned and retreated at an increasing rate over the years. Along the way down, there are signs that mark where the surface of the glacier had been beginning in 1985 with every 5 year increment up to today. The further the group descended, the 5 year increments were farther apart clearly showing the increasing rate at which melting has occurred.

When you finally get to the glacier, a tunnel has been bored thru the ice to allow visitors to experience the beauty of the ice from within… a truly unique and unforgettable experience.

Our fifth and final hike took us to the Aiguillette des Houches, a steep climb of nearly 1000m to an elevation of over 7,500 ft, above the town of Les Houches and directly across the Chamonix Valley from Mont Blanc. Although the day started with some heavy downpours and low clouds, once we hit the trail, the sky lightened and the sun appeared in the sky. The trail started steeply, but it was a pleasant climb thru lush green forest. As we climbed higher, we began to get some glimpses across the valley of Mont Blanc, fully covered in fresh snow from the past two days. The view of the bright white peak with wind blown cirrus clouds above and beyond, made the mountain appear massive.

Mont Blanc enveloped in swirling clouds

As we exited the forest, we began to hear voices even though there was no one else on the trail. Suddenly, we noticed a large group of paragliders right by us as they rode the thermals rising up from the valley below the ridge we were crossing. A short time later, another paragliding enthusiast passed us on the trail, packing all of his equipment up the hill to a suitable launch point. On a small grassy knoll with a steep dropoff to the left, he took about 10 minutes to lay out his wing, arrange the control lines, and rig his harness. One he was ready, we got a front row view as he used an updraft to fill his wing, then began a short run to fully inflate the wing, followed by a half turn to orient correctly and lift off into the sky. He quickly disappeared into the mist, followed by another paraglider that suddenly appeared from behind us. For those of us who missed the opportunity to paraglide on our day off, it gave us a little taste of what the experience would have been.

Once the excitement was over, it was time to make our final push up the narrow summit ridge just as the clouds began to build and the wind picked up. By the time we got to the small patch of grass and rock that defined the peak of the Aiguillette de Houches, we were enveloped by a cold mist and strong wind. Needless to say, we didn’t remain there for too long. Instead, we put on some additional layers and prepared our trekking poles for the steep, narrow descent down the other side. With low visibility, a very narrow and steep trail, and a sharp dropoff to the right, we were all a bit nervous as we carefully placed each foot. After about 10 minutes the trail became a little less steep and a bit wider, making the remainder of the descent more bearable. Needless to say, we would all remember those moments when, as a group, we prevailed and got thru a difficult section together.

A few hours later we were off the mountain, back at the chalet to enjoy another delicious homemade cake, some refreshing drinks, and a nice hot shower. The hikes were over, but the memories will remain. For now, it is time to say “au revoir” until the next adventure.

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