The New England mountains I grew up with, gentle, rounded peaks covered in trees and boulders, bear no resemblance to the ubiquitous pointy cartoon version. The only real contender is Mount Washington in New Hampshire. At 6,288 feet (1,917 meters), its rocky heights are cloaked in snow for much of the year, but even its silhouette is more rolling than jagged. So when I saw the French Alps for the first time through the window of a moving train six years ago, I gasped and practically hit my forehead on the glass. They were harsh: sharp as spearheads, and totally fantastic. Swirling with clouds, their lines chaotic with angular juts of dark rock, they felt dynamic and formidable. The difference between such mountains and the ones of my childhood is the difference between a waterfall and a lake.
The French Alps run along France’s border with Italy and Switzerland, and the highest of them is Mont Blanc. At about 15,780 feet (4,810 meters), this snowy monstrosity also happens to be the highest point in Europe, and an ever-presence in my life over the last few years. I’ve seen it from all angles and distances– on clear days it can even be seen from Lyon, where I live– and it seems most of my hiking trips lie within its orbit. It looks, appropriately enough considering there’s a dessert named for it, like a big pile of whipped cream. But its tasty appearance and the extent of development of the area around it belies its hazards: about 100 hikers die there every year.
Mountains are humbling and deserving of caution, but I find it uniquely thrilling and refreshing to be near them. I’m a day hiker, not a mountaineer, so even on a good day you won’t find me donning crampons and an ice pick, but for the last couple of weeks three stitches in my foot have kept me from doing even my own modest trekking. The weather’s been great and the snow has finally retreated from nearby massifs, so I was shamefully pouty about the doctor’s orders until I remembered an Alpine activity that’s been on my travel wish list for years: riding cable cars up into the Massif du Mont Blanc and across its glacier. I finally made it happen this week, and it was more than suitable consolation for my bum foot.
The Chamonix cable car system brings riders up to the Aiguille du Midi summit in two stages. The first runs from Chamonix to the Plan de l’Aiguille over lush forest at incredible speed. Stomachs drop out as the car pops up over the side of the hill in the last stretch before the station– about half of the twenty or so people in my car shrieked and laughed nervously. The split-second drop and judder made lives flash before some eyes, but no one wanted to be the wuss who curls up in a ball on the floor.
At the Plan de l’Aiguille, we piled into a second cable car, which climbed steeply into the rocky, snowy landscape above. Ice and snow glittered, sharp peaks menaced, and the temperature plummeted as we inched the last few meters into the Aiguille du Midi station. In the height of summer just moments before, we’d suddenly entered eternal winter. I’d decided to wear a thin zip-up sports not-quite-sweatshirt under an H&M hoodie, and felt like a total idiot as I realized that if the cable car broke down for some reason I would be dangerously underdressed.
There’s a large visitor center at the Aiguille du Midi station, where you can sip coffee in the café, ride an elevator even higher up the needle (the French word “aiguille” means “needle” in English), buy souvenirs, stand on a transparent area of floor above the mountainside void, and poke around a couple of exhibits. You can also take a third, tiny cable car, the Télécabine Panoramic, from there across the glacier to Pointe Helbronner in Italy. I made a beeline for this last option, knowing my fellow riders would likely explore the Aiguille du Midi first (something I could just as well do on the return trip).
There’s not a whole lot of specific information available online about this “panoramic” ride; I was just hoping to get an up-close view of the peaks and glacier. I never imagined it would be a full twenty-five minute glide through the very thin air in my own private viewing capsule (the cars are meant for two to four people but management didn’t combine separate parties). Aside from the mechanical sounds of the wires and distant chatter from the other cars, it was a silent ride. The snow below was surprisingly well-trod: narrow lines of footprints criss-crossed the landscape and small groups of climbers trudged along in single file, ant-like. Wind patterns looked like intricate engravings on the bright white slopes, crevasses gaped, shelves of ice, like mountain bouncers, seemed to say, “tiny human, you don’t belong here.” I’d braced myself for the cold, but the summer sun was both closer and more direct in my glass pod two miles above sea level, and I felt myself roasting a little as I hung in midair above the frigid glacier.
The beauty of it took my breath away figuratively, but the altitude took it away literally. Before this, the highest I’d ever been was the Denver area (about 5,700-7,000 feet), where I actually ran a half-marathon without much difficulty. In Colorado, I remember feeling slightly odd the first day, especially when my friends and I drove up higher into the mountains near Denver and we ran around to test the air. My friends said they were affected during the race, but I felt just fine. However, running around in the Denver area was nothing to sitting still in a cable car above the Mont Blanc massif, where my poor internal organs screamed, “what the @#$% are you doing out there!?”
The Aiguille du Midi and the Pointe Helbronner are both between about 11,300 and 12,600 feet (3,400 and 3,900 meters) high, which is considered to be at the upper end of “high altitude” or the low end of “very high altitude.” At these heights, humans take in 40% less oxygen than at sea level because the molecules are less compressed and there are simply fewer of them in each breath. Like my clothing, this was not something I really considered before I was up there, and the effect surprised me. I felt sleepy, a little nauseated, and my head ached, not to mention the sensation of breathing difficulty. It felt like something was squeezing my lungs, keeping them from expanding, when it was really just that each breath was less efficient. At one point I nodded off a little in my cable car (it didn’t help that I didn’t get much sleep the night before), which slowed my breathing further and left me briefly gasping to make up for it. Of course, being sort of unhealthily addicted to physical challenges, I made myself hurry up the stairs at the station visitor centers to push against the new limitations. I will save you the trouble: it was deeply unpleasant. There were moments of levity, though, as when I looked at the sticker on the window featuring an Italian translation of “do not lean out” that seemed just funny enough to my slightly oxygen-deprived brain that I laughed out loud and took a picture.
At Pointe Helbronner, Mont Blanc towered haughtily above like geological royalty. Little clouds floated by and there was ice in the wind. Signs in Italian at the edge warned those without an understanding of gravity that there was “a risk of falling.” There was little else preventing someone from taking a flying leap. This is one thing I really like about Europe: they warn you but the rest is up to you. My litigious homeland has predisposed me to be surprised by things like open windows in the side of my high-altitude cable car and decidedly modest precipice-edge guardrails, but I’d much rather an assumption of personal responsibility than layers of plexiglass between me and the sights.
I spent a few minutes exploring the Pointe Helbronner station (again, café and exhibits, plus yet another cable car running down to Courmayeur, Italy), gazing into Italy, and worshipping Mont Blanc, before heading back to the Aiguille du Midi.
Before returning to optimal breathing conditions, I enjoyed the view in both directions from the Aiguille du Midi with dozens of my closest tourist friends.
As I exited the station in town in Chamonix, I was glad I’d made an early start, because the crowds were swelling and the lines beginning to look chaotic. I remembered it was July and peeled off my layers, then set off in search of a café au lait and a croissant with a view of the glorious snowy peaks I’d stood among only moments before.
If you’re a serious alpinist or rock climber, I don’t know why you would choose this area for recreation. Loads of people got off the car at the Aiguille du Midi with heavy-duty equipment: helmets, crampons, ice picks, loops of thick rope, bulky backpacks, even skis, to make their way, in a sort of amusement park line, through a landscape that will never again be wild but is certainly not tame. And if you’re a novice, doing so puts others at risk and shows a lack of respect for the mountains. Like the ocean, a mountain is unpredictable and merciless. However, if you want to experience a real wonder of engineering and access a high-altitude landscape, I could not recommend the Aiguille du Midi cable cars and Panoramic Mont Blanc gondola more.
Update: just a couple of months later…feeling happy about my good timing.
Schedule: Weather at the Aiguille du Midi is extremely unpredictable, and storms and wind often close the cable cars, so definitely keep an eye on the forecast and plan accordingly. Cable car schedules depend on the time of year and the tourist volume.
Avoiding crowds: During popular periods, you might want to try reserving online in advance. Otherwise, try to get to the ticket office (which is located at the base of the cable car line) right when it opens, to avoid waiting and congestion at each stage of the journey. Note: The gondola opens later than the regular cable cars, and the ticket office will not give you a ticket for the gondola if it’s not yet open (#France). However, there is a second ticket booth at the Aiguille du Midi, and you shouldn’t have a problem buying the gondola ticket there. I also recommend going all the way to Pointe Helbronner first, as I did, and visiting the Aiguille du Midi on the way back, if you want to minimize the amount of waiting and time spent with the selfie stick crowd.
Price: A round-trip ticket from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi is about 58 euros for an adult, and a round-trip ticket from the Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner is about 28 euros more. Steep, but so is the smooth, quick ride, and it’s truly worth every centime.
Other: Don’t be a dummy like me: dress warmly. Also, if you are prone to sunburn, definitely slather on the sunscreen.
Chamonix itself is cute enough, but be prepared for tourist prices.
Finally, if you dislike heights, this is really not the activity for you.