Thursday, May 27, 2010


On Monday (yet another French holiday in May), Susie and I drove from Thones to Chamonix. Driving in Chamonix, never easy, was made even worse by construction projects that sent cars in confusing loops through the city center. After finding a place to park, we walked through the pedestrian district and each had a salade Savoyarde for lunch at a sidewalk cafe. Downtown Chamonix reflects its role as the most celebrated tourist attraction of the Savoie and as a center for mountain sports. Restaurants, ski shops, brand-name stores such as Columbia Sportswear and Helly-Hanson, and stores selling specialized sporting goods line the Rue Paccard, named for the first person to reach the summit of Mont Blanc.

Above the city, numerous parapenters crisscross the sky. On the streets, clumps of tourists from all over the world mix cross from shop to shop. If you're not in Chamonix to ski the unpatrolled upper slopes of Mont Blanc, to climb its ice fields or rock faces, or to take to skies as a parapenter, then you are there for one key reason: to take the telepherique to the top of Aiguille du Midi, high on a shoulder of Mont Blanc.

You actually take two telepheriques, one to the Plan de l'Aiguille, and then a second to the Aiguille du Midi. From the Plan de l'Aiguille, the Aiguille du Midi towers above you as rocky height right out of the movies.

The second telepherique travels in a single span, with no intermediate towers. As it nears the top of its climb, it's traveling almost vertically. Chamonix and its valley lie nearly 9,000 feet below.

Finally, you cross through a passage and take an elevator to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, at 12,600 feet.

The cost of the rides is a staggering $53 per person. But when you reach the top and look around, you simply forget about the expense. You're there--amid the snowy spires, surrounded by the peaks of the Alps, and looking out over la Valley Blanche.

In the distance, the Matterhorn's distinctive pyramid makes itself instantly identifiable.

And, up close, above you, looms the massive summit of Mont Blanc, reaching 15,700 feet. The mountain is so big and so close that even my camera's wide-angle setting couldn't take it all in.

From the top of the Aiguille du Midi, you can look back down at the top of the telepherique station, so far above Chamonix.

The telepherique station has a door, guarded by a large panel of serious warnings about risks, that opens to a tunnel through the ice that leads to the slopes of Mont Blanc. Sufficiently serious climbers and skiers take this tunnel to begin their ascents.

Mountaineers who climb Mont Blanc can then ski down from the summit back to the Aiguille du Midi or the Plan de l'Aiguille.

Even from the relative safety of the Aiguille du Midi, the views across Chamonix's valley and its surrounding mountains make you feel like you're at the roof of Europe.

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