Mountains help the soul soar… Seeing this grandeur and height makes you feel like pushing the boundaries, and climbing to the top is the dream of many. Climbing the highest peaks is hard work though… if you are not so inclined, there are ways of getting closer. In Chamonix, France, a cable-car will take you to the closest altitude point to the Mont Blanc, the rooftop of Europe. It is easily the most beautiful panorama of the French Alps and an unforgettable experience.
The French Alps
The Alps form an imposing mountain chain, the largest in Europe, and extend into France, Switzerland and Italy. In the Chamonix Valley, France is home to the highest peak in Europe, the Mont Blanc, which stands at 4,810m.
Whilst not originally from the region, my grandparents lived quite a few years in the Alps, and my mother went to school there. Even after the family returned to Paris, they kept the house and I spent many holidays there. I never regarded the mountains as a major tourist attraction but the fact is, people come from all over the world to cast their eyes on perpetual glistening snow. As a place of historic significance for many winter and snow activities, Chamonix welcomes the attention of the world when it comes to viewing, climbing or skiing the highest peaks.
Aiguille du Midi
Standing at 3,842m above sea-level, the Aiguille du Midi is an iconic symbol of the conquest of heights by mankind. The name literally translates as “Needle of the Mid-Day”, as a reference to the fact that the sun passes its peak around midday, as viewed from the St Michel church in Chamonix. Also, the peak sits directly above the Mont Blanc Tunnel, which links France to Italy.
More importantly, the Aiguille du Midi is topped by a complex set of buildings and viewing platforms, accessible by cable-car. The cable-car was built in 1955 and is the highest vertical ascent cable-car in the world, running from 1,035m to 3,842m. There are two sections: the first one runs from Chamonix to the Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317m and the second goes up to the upper station at 3,777m. The lift then goes to the top at 3,842m.
The Aiguille du Midi and its various viewing platforms offer the most incredible views over the Mont-Blanc Massif and the Valley of Chamonix. Some of the peaks visible are:
- Mont Blanc, 4810m
- Dome du Gouter, 4303m
- Mont Maudit, 4465m
- Refuge Vallot, 4362m
- Mont Blanc du Tacul, 4248m
Also visible on a clear day:
- Matterhorn (Cervin), 4478m
- Monte Rosa, 4636m
- Grand Combin, 4314m
The Chamonix Valley is accessible by car on the Autoroute Blanche, by train or bus. The cable-car terminal is just off the highway, before entering the town of Chamonix. You can park nearby at the Parking Grepon and walk across to the terminal. The cost of a return ticket is 60 euros for an adult, which is not cheap but this is an unforgettable experience… For an extra 3 euros, you can access other attractions around the Chamonix Valley. You won’t have enough time in a day to visit them all but even adding one other excursion make this add-on really attractive.
We didn’t book the ride in advance and only had to queue a little bit, but I would recommend booking online during peak periods in order to avoid long lines and possible disappointment.
The cable-car is a fun experience, in spite of being pretty packed. I managed to get a spot by the windows to enjoy the view, however, the plastic of the windows was quite scratched so I didn’t get good photos. Also, the cable-car can bob up and down a bit, especially on the descent, which feels like a roller coaster… The first section takes you to l’Aiguille du Plan, where you can break the journey and have a coffee at the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille.
When taking the cable-car for the second section, the ascent is very steep and looking up to the Aiguille du Midi is both fascinating and unnerving.
When you come off the cable-car, a lift will take you to the viewing platform and you can start wandering through the corridors and terraces.
With plentiful and beautiful views, it’s hard to know where to look first and not to get excited at the gorgeous snowy peaks and sharp rocks everywhere, however, you need to exercise caution: take your time, walk slowly, don’t spring up the stairs as you normally would… Why? You are at 3,842m above sea level. The top of Europe, the Mont Blanc is less than 1,000m further up… And the air is very thin, with a drop in 55% of its oxygen. So the slightest physical effort like climbing a set of stairs can get you seriously out of breath, not to mention the lactic acid racing through the legs. If you are in the region long enough, it’s worth waiting a few days before going to the Aiguille du Midi in order to acclimatise to a higher altitude.
Other precautions to take include packing sunglasses and sunscreen, the sun’s reflection on the snow is very bright! Also, take some warm clothing, even in summer. At this altitude, the temperature drops easily to ten or zero degrees, and when the wind picks up, it gets very wintery. I was very grateful for my beanie and gloves!
At 4,810m, the Mont-Blanc (or Monte Bianco, in Italian), is the highest mountain in Europe, right on the border with Italy, and a very popular hike for experienced climbers. From the Aiguille du Midi, it looks like a soft white dome and is easily spotted as the highest peak. On its right is the Refuge Vallot, where mountaineers overnight before the final climb and the Dôme du Gouter.
The Aiguille du Midi is the start of several snowy treks. In spring, you will see a lot of people dressed in winter gear carrying skis… they are about to ski down the Vallée Blanche, all the way to the Mer de Glace. There is a knife-edge ridge to start with, then a long snowy valley winds down the Glacier du Géant. I did that trek when I was fifteen and certainly kept some interesting memories from it.
At that point of our visit, the sky was overcast but the views of the Chamonix Valley and the Mont Blanc are gorgeous! The succession of terraces offers a great range of viewpoints so you will have plenty of opportunity for good photography. The cafeteria and gift shop are also located in this block.
The bridge links the North Tower to the Summit. The views are very dramatic, especially if you look up to the summit!
Don’t miss the cheeky alpine choughs, jet black with yellow beaks. They will try and grab a small piece of bread from your hand… It’s hard to imagine wildlife in such hard weather conditions but they are completely in their element and don’t seem to mind the thin air!
Glass Skywalk (Step Into The Void)
The “Step Into The Void” is a glass box hanging from the building, with the best view over the Mont Blanc. This is a really cool attraction, but you’ll have to wait in line for it. Stepping into a glass box above the void, with views over the Mont Blanc is a unique experience. Bags and cameras are not allowed in case you drop them on the glass… but an attendant will take photos with your camera. You do have to don large slippers over your shoes in order not to scratch the glass…
I didn’t freak out too much at the experience, I was busy hoping that the guy would get good photos with my camera… The whole experience went very quickly and is not for the faint-hearted… I highly recommend it!
In summer, you can take another cable-car to the Hellbronner Peak, above the Glacier du Geant. We didn’t get to experience this so it’s on our list for next time!
Cafeteria & Post Office
There is a post box in the souvenir shop, and the Aiguille du Midi even has its own stamp. The post box is the highest one in Europe, so it might be an idea to send a few postcards to friends and family. The cafe provided a welcome break and some warmth, even though the prices are high.
The descend by cable-car is just as spectacular as the ascend. To make sure you don’t miss anything, I recommend you dedicate at least two to three hours to the Aiguille du Midi. You will then create plenty of unforgettable memories of the French Alps.
Visit the French Alps
Visiting the French Alps will make your stay in France unforgettable. The peaks are always snowy and whatever you do, you get a strong sense of adventure. Chamonix is accessible by car, bus or train. If you are flying, Geneva Airport is an hour away and Switzerland has some great boutique hotels too!
If you are looking to stay in the region for several days, my family home is open to holiday rentals. I have recently completed a renovation, which I will tell you about soon.
Have you visited the Aiguille du Midi? Did you find it to be the most beautiful panorama of the French Alps? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!