How I Learned to Stop Sweltering and Love Chamonix
I first visited the Alps of France (the Haute-Savoie region) during a sweltering Provencal summer in 2005. If you’re not familiar, it’s in the southeastern portion of France, near the borders with Switzerland and Italy. We were staying at my brother’s house near Montelimar with our daughters who were about 10 and 12. My brother’s house is a lovely and secluded hillside retreat. It was under construction, and very much a work in progress. It lacked amenities, including essential ones like air conditioning, but it has a breath-taking view of Mont Ventoux and the rolling hills of the Ardeche region. We loved it, and normally, we’d have been unfazed by a minor inconvenience like no AC, but it was early August and afternoon temperatures were hovering around 40 degrees Celsius (over 100 Fahrenheit). We sweltered.
Lorrie (my wife, partner and only S.O.) is steeped in the wit and wisdom of Rick Steves. She owns most of his books on France and has watched many of his shows. Rick’s descriptions of the French Alps had caught her attention during our months of planning for our trip. She had been looking for an excuse to visit the Haute-Savoie region and since we were less than four hours away, it wasn’t a hard sell. When she pointed out that the higher elevations would mean cooler temperatures, we were eager to go.
We found rooms in Chamonix-Mont-Blac (usually just abbreviated Chamonix). It’s a village near the base of Mont Blanc, about 995 meters (4800 feet) above sea level.
Chamonix in August was several notches above delightful on our memory meters. The mild temperatures were a huge relief after the suffocating heat in the Ardeche area. We’d visited Vaison la Romaine while we stayed at my brothers but as much as we enjoyed the town, the weather sapped our energy and enthusiasm. When we stepped out of the car in Chamonix, the air was cool and invigorating.
Chamonix is small enough to navigate easily on foot. The total year-round population is around 9,000 but seasonal visitors can easily double that number in both summer and winter peaks. The town feels friendly. It’s a community that thrives on recreation and tourism, and the locals treat visitors as though their livelihoods depend on repeat business. I’ve noticed that some tourist destinations can have a facade of welcome that covers a core of resentment. Chamonix is not one of those places.
The town is on the slopes of the central French Alps. Torino (Turin), Italy, lies 80 miles to the southeast and Geneva, Switzerland is about 60 miles to the northwest. Nearby Mont Blanc stands at 4807 meters (15,770 feet) above sea level and is the highest peak in Europe. It’s part of the Mont Blanc massif, a range within the Alps that includes 11 peaks that are over 4,000 meters (13,700 feet) high. To describe the area as spectacular doesn’t do it justice. It is absolutely breathtaking and among the most scenic places I’ve visited.
Not just a pretty place
Naturally, all of the foregoing makes Chamonix and its surroundings a top tourist destination, and not just because of the scenery. Skiers and snowboarders come from just about everywhere to enjoy legendary slopes and perfect powder. One of the fabled ski runs near the town, the Vallée Blanche, stretches for a knee-wrenching 20 km and drops over 2,800 meters (over 9,100 feet). Rock climbers love the area for it’s challenging but piton-gripping rock faces. Paragliders are partial to the ridges and updrafts; their colorful canopies are as common as dandelion fluff in summer. There are lots of trails for hiking and cross-country skiing. Ice skaters can sling their blades all year long. But if you’re in Chamonix during the summer, the luge is an exhilarating ride that you really shouldn’t miss.
The newest luge runs are on rails. They’ve been introduced at ski runs everywhere to give lift operators a year-round source of revenue. Riders can choose between a one- or two-person “sled” that sits on a slotted concrete track or metal rails so no steering is required. The You’ll be glad to know that brakes are included (usually). Gravity the only power source, and it’s more than enough. A lift gets you and your sled to the top of the 1,300 meter (4,265 feet) track where you strap in and take off down the rails.
At 5.50 euros for a single ride, the luge is a great value. A word of caution though: A single ride will only whet your appetite. There are discounts for multiple riders and multiple rides. It’s open year round, and it’s a blast. Don’t miss it.
The main luge is operated at an amusement park, Park d’Attractions. It’s part of the Les Planards ski area and has lots to keep kids of all ages happy for hours, even without the luge.
Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi
The luge was thrilling and all of us loved it. My daughters couldn’t get enough of it, in fact. But the pièce de résistance of our visit to Chamonix was our visit to the Aiguille du Midi, a rugged mountain peak that stretches to 3,842 meters (12,605 feet) into the heavens.
Aiguille means “midday needle”. Wikipedia says that this name was derived from the fact that the sun appears directly above the summit at noon. At least, it does during certain days of the year. But only if viewed from a particular church. If that’s true, I missed it. But the peak itself is lovely from just about any angle.
The locals first proposed building a téléphérique, a cable tram, to the summit in the early 1900s, but the extraordinary project wasn’t completed until 1955. For twenty years after it was built, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi held the title of the World’s highest cable car, and with a total elevation gain of over 2800 meters (9,186 feet), it remains the cable car with the greatest vertical span in the world. Somewhere, there is apparently a cable car that spans a greater horizontal distance, but I don’t know where it is. I do know that it can’t span more stunning scenery than theTéléphérique.
Having researched the Chamonix, Lorrie knew the specifics of the Téléphérique while I knew only that it was a cable car that took visitors to an observation point high in the Alps. I was puzzled when she refused to accompany my daughters and me up the mountain. As far as I was concerned, it was a rare opportunity to see alpine geology up close and to get a bird’s eye view of Chamonix and its surroundings. The girls shared my enthusiasm, so we left Lorrie in town while the three of us ascended the Aiguille. I can’t remember what the fare was, but it wasn’t cheap. Today, it’s 61.50 € for adults and 52.30 € for children under 12. Both fares are round trip. It’s a little cheaper for one-way tickets, but you have to be pretty fit to make the trek down on foot.
The ride on the Téléphérique was thrilling. Which is to say that it was terrifying. And that’s despite the fact that in my younger days, I was a hang gliding enthusiast. I’ve logged many hours high aloft with nothing between me and the earth but a flimsy harness strapped to a cloth-covered aluminum frame. I love flying, but I didn’t love dangling thousands of feet above granite outcrops and boulders. I know that my terror wasn’t necessarily rational but that didn’t make it less terrifying. My daughters, by contrast, thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the incredible view.
The first segment of the ride was fairly tame. The gondola was crowded, which was both comforting and claustrophobic. It stayed about 100 feet off the slope and ascended slowly enough that our ears popped but it was not uncomfortable.
The second leg of the ascent was much steeper. At one point the gondola was at least 1,000 meters (over 3,000 feet) above the very unforgiving rocky crags of the Aiguille’s midsection. I think I’d have been alright if the gondola hadn’t begun to sway, although even that didn’t faze my daughters. A few of the other passengers seemed at least a little uncomfortable but it was a gentle motion.
Reaching the summit was a huge relief. The views were remarkable although that’s so inadequate. The clear air made every detail crisp and sharp. The peaks of the Mont Blanc massif, including Mont Blanc, looked close enough to touch. I could see at least three active glaciers and the features that they have carved into the sturdy granite ribs of the massif. Many of the peaks were topped by sharp horns, like the Aiguille. A map table on one of the observation decks named the peaks and gave a sense of the scale of the panorama. France, Switzerland, and Italy were all within view. I forgot all about the terror of the ascent as we drank it all in.
There are a cafe and snack bar at the top. We didn’t sample the food or drinks so I can’t vouch for them. The view was quite satisfying enough.
Although our visit to the Aiguille was before the construction of Le Pas dans le Vide (A Step into the Void), you should certainly consider it if your nerves and your tolerance for height are stronger than mine. Just thinking about it makes me dizzy. According to the description at www.chamonix.com, Le Pas dans le Vide is a glass cage that allows you to walk on a glass walkway that’s suspended over a 1,000-meter (3,000 feet) vertical cliff. If you survive you’ll have a great story to share with just about anyone that will listen.
The téléphérique from Chamonix is not the only tramway that serves the Aiguille du Midi, by the way. If you’d like to visit Italy during the summer months, the Vallée Blanche Cable Car will take you to Pointe Heilbronner, a peak on the Italian side of the border, that is also served by a third cable system, Skyway Monte Bianco, that will take you to Entrèves near the Italian town of Courmayer. I haven’t done it, but the peak-to-peak ride takes 50 minutes and crosses several glaciers. I can’t imagine a more exhilarating ride.
There’s lots more to know about Chamonix than I’ve shared here. If you’re considering a visit, don’t hesitate.