Staunch travellers can’t escape Chamonix for long, writes Kalpana Sunder as she takes a leap of faith at Chamonix’s newly-opened Le Pas dans le Vide that takes the thrill of stepping into the beyond to the next level.
“I don’t live for the mountain. I couldn’t live without her. I live with her.” —Sylvain Saudan
I am at Aiguille du Midi (3,842 metres), a rock needle above the town of Chamonix in Southern France, on a vertiginous cable car that’s packed like a sardine can with sunburnt skiers toting huge rucksacks, and whizzed past an untamed coniferous stretch to climb higher up the mountain, to the snowline and beyond, and into a paradise of ice. This is the closest point to Mont Blanc one can reach without hiking, and also a stomping ground for extreme skiers and snowboarders, mountaineers and rock climbers.
There are two legs of this journey—the first hurtles you across to the Plan de l’Aiguille from where daring paragliders launch themselves over the valley, and the second takes you across the Des Pelerins glacier to climb up the north face of Aiguille du Midi. I get out of the second cable car and take the footbridge to the Central Piton terrace for an outstanding view of the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps. In the distance, I can see enthusiastic and intensely athletic skiers whizzing with élan. Here, a cave-like room called L’espace vertical (The Vertical Space) gives travellers an insight into mountain climbing, with videos and exhibits, while on display are climbing equipment—crampons, ice axes and skis—that have been used by famous alpinists. The highlight is the latest addition ‘Le Pas dans le Vide’ (A Step into the Void), a suspended glass cube that juts out of the main building and allows intrepid visitors to gaze at the mountains, 1,000 metres under their feet through the glass floor. I walk like a penguin donning large fluffy slippers into the see-through box, and look down and beyond the piece of reinforced glass between me and nothingness. It’s no surprise that people come here year after year for the rush that this elevation gives.
Back to the centre of town, I feel instantly warmer, and a warm mug of hot chocolate later, set out to explore Chamonix. Tucked into a long glacial valley between two walls of towering granite, this is the birthplace of Alpine tourism, discovered in 1741 by two Englishmen, Richard Pococke and William Windham. Today, the streets brims with bars, cafes, and outdoorsy shops, and families from around Europe enrolling themselves for ski lessons. For those who want to keep off the snow, there’s always the vintage red cogwheel train built in 1908 that trundles its way to Montenvers, another of Chamonix’s main attractions. “Long ago it was only accessible by mule, but the launch of the Montenvers Train in 1908 really opened the site up to the masses,” informs my guide, Chloe. The train takes us past bare trees, snow-covered peaks, valleys plunging downwards, tunnels carved out of mountains and over viaducts to reach our destination: A blinding white glacier framed by the mountains. The Mer de Glace or ‘Sea of Glaciers’ is the largest glacier in France and the second largest in Europe, snaking its way through rock spires and turrets into the far, unreachable depths of the mountains. This otherworldly, raw beauty is surreal.
Here you can see rugged skiers with sun-burnt faces, returning from the Vallee Blanche route. While my more active companions begin to trek down 300 odd steps to the ice grotto carved out of the glacier, I head to Glaciorium, a new exhibit that educates visitors about the creation and evolution of the glaciers with the help of technology. It is fascinating to learn that a glacier is a climate indicator and a scrapbook of the memory of the planet.
When we finish, it’s time for lunch and we head to the wooden beamed restaurant of the legendary Hotel du Montenvers. Built in 1880 to accommodate the first mountaineers and travellers who came to see the Mer de Glace, it’s granite façade and floor-to-ceiling windows offer staggering views of the surrounding mountains. We sit around a large wooden table to enjoy fondue with platters of crusty bread and ham and the Drus and the Grandes Jorasses peaks in the background for company. I can only now begin to imagine people of the bygone era making arduous journeys on mules to see the jaw-dropping terrain of this region and it begins to make sense why staunch travellers can’t escape Chamonix for long.
Fly Air France from Mumbai to Paris and connect to Geneva. It’s an hour drive from there.
Hameau Albert Premier: This Relais & Chateaux property is a 110-year-old hotel. It has excellent gastronomy and spa options are popular. Doubles start at around US$358 per night.
Visit The Catholic Church of St Michel is beautiful for its architecture. Look out for the stained glass windows.
The heritage buildings of La Maison des Artistes and Mountain Guides Building are fascinating for history lovers. The Crystal Museum, the Alpine Museum, and the Museum of Alpinism are also worth a visit.