Oh, the Alps. Glorious. Majestic. Breathtaking. They’re the mountains of your dreams, every hiker’s delight, and a “must” destination for so many. For the past week and a half, Rick and I have been leading 26 tour members through the Alps from Austria to Italy to Germany and to Switzerland. And now we’ve arrived in the French Alps, in the resort-y town of Chamonix, at the valley base of the mother of all Alpine mountains: Mont Blanc.
Scraping skies at 4809 meters (16,043 ft), Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and was first summited in 1786. These days, 20,000 mountaineer-tourists annually—loaded down with rucksacks, mountain boots, crampons, ropes, harnesses, carabiners, ice axes, and many layers of clothes—make all-day hikes to trudge through vast and often steep snowscapes, past abyss-like crevasses, eventually reaching their ultimate destination: the top of Mont Blanc.
But we’re not all mountaineers, and thankfully we don’t have to be in order to experience the thrill of being surrounded by the sheer massiveness of this area’s alpine terrain. All it takes is an early morning alarm and a ticket for a cable car to Aiguille du Midi, a mountain that’s part of the Mont Blanc Massif and is as close as you can get to the perpetually white mountain without any alpinist skills.
The gods of weather were smiling on us. While the valley floor wore low clouds like a shawl around the neck of its foothills, lush blue skies awaited us above the cloud line. And after two days of wet and grey, we were quick-stepping out the door to beat the crowds and catch one of the first cable cars to the Aiguille du Midi.
Waiting in line, we observed men and women of all ages geared up for their snow trek. Knowing that I would never in my right mind attempt what these adventurers were doing, I gathered up enough courage to ask one of them to try on his helmet, just to feel, for a brief second, like I too, was a mountaineer.
Fifty of us shuffled into the surprisingly large cable car and stood like vertical sardines, jetting from Chamonix to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in twenty minutes. At 3842 m (12602 ft) above sea level, the chill from the surrounding snow-capped needles and the intermittent wind gushes were biting. Seven layers of tops and 3 layers of bottoms seemed to do little to diminish the shocking cold.
But the goosebumps I felt weren’t because of the temperature. They were induced by the utter splendor all around me. You know that tingle you feel in your cheeks and the electricity that pulses at the base of your neck when all your mind can process “Wow!”? That’s precisely the sensation I felt as I walked through a tiny cave and onto a metal platform with an eye-level view of the French Alps. It wasn’t my first time here, but seeing this simply never gets old.
It was nice without the midday crowds. Everyone had space to take their wide shots and their selfies. You could linger at views of the so-close-you-could-almost-touch-it-yet-still-pretty-far Mont Blanc. Almost as impressive to see were the tow lines of mountaineers who were just starting their hikes and those who had a least an hour of slogging under their belts. It’s a fine line between brave and crazy, and I think they all stayed roped together so they don’t cross it.
From Aiguille du Midi, Rick and I cozied up in a bubble pod for two (or four when it’s busy) for a 40-minute ride to Hellbronner, the border peak shared by France and Italy. We floated high above the silence of the snow fields. From this vantage point, it was difficult to look at the jagged cliffs and get a sense of scale, until you saw the teeny tiny mountaineers still hundreds of meters or more away from the base and realized, “Whoa! Those are some big needles!” How numerous the pinnacles, how deep the crevasses, how far this mountain range extends, how small we are in comparison to all this grandeur!
And then came the Mer de Glace or The Sea of Ice. The glacier begins in this high-alps valley of ice and snow and serpentines its way down towards the Chamonix Valley, well to the east of town. From high above it, it’s deceptively massive. You can see its “original” claw print that scraped the mountain facades. The glacier has receded drastically in the last 50 years at significantly faster rates than in the previous 200 years. But despite it’s reduced profile, the Mer de Glace is still a stunner— 5.5 km (3.4 miles) long, 200 m (660 ft) deep—and is the 2nd longest in the Alps. In 1777, the English historian William Coxe wrote, “I can no otherwise convey to you an image of this body of ice, broken into irregular ridges and deep chasms, than by comparing it to waves instantaneously frozen in the midst of a violent storm.”
Gliding out of our bubble pod, we emerged in Italy and immediately scrambled to the top of the observation deck. My earlier goosebumps multiplied and once again, “wow!” was all I could utter.
To think, just three hours earlier, I had been comfy and warm in my hotel room bed. And now I was embraced by an Alpine wonderland near the top of the world. No, if the mountain won’t come to you, you don’t have to go and climb it. Just take the lift, and you’ll be close enough.
PHOTO COLLECTION: It’s a challenge to verbally capture the immensity and magnificence of the French Alps, but I hope you’ll enjoy some more photos from our excursion to the Aiguille du Midi, Hellbronner, and the Mont Blanc Massif to get a better visual sense of the amazing experience we had.