Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 5, 2011: Chamonix - Snow, Rain, Sun, Marmots, and Mont Blanc

Today we woke to cloudy skies, which wasn't a surprise - the weather report for this weekend hadn't been great. But it was our only chance to see Mont Blanc, so we were going to go up regardless. The Aiguille du Midi cable car is infamous for very long lines (in fact, reservations for scheduled departure times are recommended). But this morning the station had warnings that visibility at the top was zero, so the line-ups were almost non-existent. In fact the ticket sellers were actively discouraging anyone from buying a ticket to ascend. Since we'd already paid for our two-day Mont Blanc pass we didn't have anything to lose by going up, so we did.

At the top we understood better why the visibility was zero. It wasn't just that there was dense fog (although there was). It was that it was also icy cold and about to start snowing. When we first stepped out at the top (3842 m) it was eerily quiet, and the rocky peaks that the station is mounted on disappeared right below us into nothing. We walked around a bit, went inside to get a snack, and came back out. By this time it was snowing - the first snowfall we'd encountered in France! We could feel the altitude change a bit too - I was a little winded climbing up and down the stairs in the station. We were up higher than we'd been at the top of Haleakala in Maui (3000 m), with a faster ascent (about 20 minutes versus 2. 5 hours). It is the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world (going from 1000 m to 3842 m).

We headed back down to the halfway point at Plan de l'Aiguille. Here we were below the clouds, so we could see rolling green hills and rocks - it looked quite a bit like the mountain plateaus in Norway. We got off to take a few quick photos, but since at this altitude the snow had become rain we didn't want to walk around for long.

So, back down to Chamonix. We found a place to eat our sandwich lunch under shelter, looked through some souvenir shops, and tried to find something else to do. There were some good movies at the theatre, but it wasn't open for business until the end of the afternoon. But as we started to run out of options the sun was breaking through, so we took another chance.

Back up in the cable car. This time our luck improved - no more rain and periods of sunshine. We had a good long hike around the midway point, seeing many marmots en route, encountering a beautiful blue lake, and seeing many birds wheeling overhead. It felt a lot like Norway, although with fewer meltwater streams and rivers.

After our hike we took the cable car on the second leg up to the top, then the elevator the last little distance to the observatory and had glimpses of Mont Blanc through the shifting clouds - amazingly dramatic as it shone out, bright white with its snow covering. It was hard to believe that it was June - it looked like the dead of winter. It was also hard to believe that it is in fact possible to hike to the peak, but there was a cabin visible just below us (but no sign of anyone there today!).

We would have liked to take the additional cable car that follows a largely horizontal trajectory to Hellebronner, crossing to the Italian side of the border, but it had been closed all day due to the zero visibility. So, alas, no Italian visit for us during our time in Europe.

Our SNCF bus ride home was a big improvement over the trip to Chamonix - just one bus, with a few stops along the way. As with all our bus trips there was a very narrow twisting road; this one leapfrogged on bridges back and forth over a river at the base of a steep valley, wherever there was enough space for the road to cling to. In many parts it was roofed over with heavy duty concrete structures - I can only imagine the snowslides/landslides/rockslides that can come crashing down from the almost vertical walls rising above. It's apparently the most expensive stretch of road, per kilometer, to maintain in France. But I guess the allure of the resorts in Chamonix Mont Blanc make it all worth while.

A path of flattened trees on the steep mountainside - an avalanche route?

Icy conditions at the top of our cable car ascent

A tiny church in Chamonix

Cable car emerging from the fog

Marmots! Can you see both in this photo?

Blue mountain lake

A small stream (you could hear it under the rocks before it finally emerged into the grassy area)

A hiker's chalet

Another marmot, enjoying the view of Chamonix far below

A huge glacier flowing down the mountain

The view from the top!

Even up at the observatory there were birds

A tunnel of snow en route to an observation deck

Part one of the descent

Part two of the descent 

The buildings in Chamonix couldn't have been any more "alpine" - gingerbread trim, flower boxes, heart-shaped cut-outs, reindeer, skis and snowshoes as decoration

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