The International Writers' Magazine

Chamonix, France
The Ultimate Natural High

• Susan Fogwell

It's the crème de la crème for the perennial mountain climbing and expert skiing.

I was awestruck the first time I laid eyes on the enormous snow capped Mont Blanc.
There I was, standing in Chamonix, looking up at one of the world’s most recognizable peaks, which inhabits a mythic place in the sport of mountain climbing.

For an idyllic summer sojourn, Chamonix will charm you and Mont Blanc will leave you speechless. The stark contrast of jagged white peaks jutting into the cobalt sky high above the clouds left an indelible image etched in my mind. For those of you who share a love of nature and the mountains; it’s the ultimate place for adventure and exploration.

Chamonix Valley is among some of the highest mountain peaks in the Alps, including Mont Blanc massif at 15,771 ft. In 1924, it was host to the first Winter Olympics. The village has a combined chic and rustic atmosphere filled with outdoor cafes, boutiques and small cozy hotels. It’s a high class milieu situated at a crossroads of three countries. The Chamonix tunnel takes you into Italy in less than 25 minutes, and in the same amount of time, Switzerland can be reached over the Col des Montets. Here, in this picturesque town, outdoor adventurers mix with the well heeled. Bar none, it’s the crème de la crème for the perennial mountain climbing and expert skiing. It’s also a haven for an international set of mountain climbers and radical off-piste skiers, and there is a predominate mix of Italians, Swiss and British climbers.

The highlight of Chamonix is ascending the mighty Aiguille du Midi, a rock needle which towers above Chamonix at 3,780 meters (12,600 feet). The world’s highest cable car transports you and about 60 other onlookers on this unforgettable ride. It’s evident when you have passed the tree line, as rocks, ice and snow replace the vanishing pine trees and alpine plants. The village below diminishes and becomes indistinguishable to the naked eye. At the mid way point, as you climb toward the sky, you’ll encounter the the descending gondola returning to Chamonix, as it passes, they both sway enough to cause most of the occupants to gasp, including myself. My stomach had the sensation of doing flip-flops as we dangled precariously thousands of feet above the ground. As I embraced the cool, crisp mountain air, I was conjuring up scenes in my mind befitting James Bond. At this stage in the journey the air is thin, and the vast majority become light headed and giddy. As you gain altitude the surrounding scenic paradise of peaks and snow-blinding glaciers will enrapture you.

As the cable car reaches its pinnacle and sweeps itself inside the crevice of a rock wall, the door opens and the drastic decrease in temperature is apparent. The alpine air is frigid however, refreshing. Regardless that it might be summer, expect a drop in temperature of about 40 degrees. The average temperature on a sunny day in July is 32 degrees. Dressing in layers is paramount for a comfortable visit, and without sunglasses, the intense glare will leave you blinded.

Cross the bridge and ride the small elevator through the rock to its summit. This part of the trip is exhilarating. When you step off the elevator you will be on an observation deck with your head literally in the clouds. A stunning panoramic view of the French and Italian Alps is spread out in front of you. Forty miles in the distance, the Matterhorn can be seen on a clear day with its distinguishable bent tip. And looming smack in front of you is glorious Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest mountain. It’s all too obvious why it’s labeled the" Rooftop of Europe." Looking through the telescope you will spot mountain climbers walking along trails where the snow never melts, and tents pitched the night before, dot the sea of snow.

Next explore Europe’s tallest lift station. More than 490 feet of tunnels lead to the icicle- covered gateway to the glacial world. This tunnel of ice is where you can observe skiers and mountain climbers embarking on their journeys. After all, this is the birthplace of mountaineering over 200 years ago. Seasoned hikers undertake the Tour du Mont Blanc by following a circular route through France, Italy and Switzerland. They follow roads once used by the Roman legions crossing through a succession of seven valleys.

For your final venture of the day, you’ll have an intimate look into a world of glaciers, by taking a ride in the small red telecabine ( called Panoramic du Mont Blanc) where you will head south to Hellbronner Point, the Italian border station. A suspended pylon stretches between two peaks from the Italian end. For 40 minutes you’ll dangle silently in a gondola for four as you glide over the glacier to Italy. I opened the window and peeked my head out for breathtaking views that will last a lifetime. Have your passport handy to show at Hellbronner where you can then descend onto the Italian Valle d’ Aosta. Otherwise you can continue back to Chamonix via the tram, or better yet, get off at Plan de l’ Aiguille where you can hike to a peaceful spot for a picnic lunch and return to Chamonix on a cog- train. The allure of Mont Blanc will entice you to return again, and until then, the images will be indelibly etched in your mind too!

Chamonix is 381 miles/613 km SE of Paris and 51 miles/82 km SE of Geneva.
You can reserve and purchase tickets for the Aiguille du Midi lift in advance, or at the information booth next to the lift. Open mid- June to mid-September. Toll free phone 08 9268 0067-any season/English is spoken. The lift is generally open from 7:00 to 1700 during the summer.
Set aside three to four hours, or longer at peak times for the Chamonix/Aiguille du Midi ride.

© Susan Fogwell June '05


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