You can see the Mont Blanc from the Father of the Blonde’s front terrace. Some fifty miles or so to the east, the massif forms an awe-inspiring wall on the horizon. On my first visit a few Septembers ago, I didn’t acquit myself well in the conversation stakes until the clouds descended and the view was lost. My future father-in-law must have wondered what his daughter saw in this unworldly mute. Now I understood why the Blonde finds the rolling pasture of the East Midlands somewhat understated.
Clearly, I needed to work through this whole Big White Mountain fixation. Ascent was fixed for the following day, and we headed for the Chamonix valley, nestled at the base of the Mont Blanc range on its French side. A major ski resort, Chamonix is still pretty busy in the summer, with alpine walkers, mountaineers, and a few high-altitude skiers cluttering up the place in their trendy fleece and gortex wear. The pure, clean air virtually crackles with healthiness and infects all with a desire for exertion. We made straight for the cable car in a desperate attempt to avoid being overcome. Trying to understand the
fare structure was quite taxing enough for us.
We boarded the next cabin, giants of the genre designed to carry upwards of 70 people. With space to move around we had ample opportunity to enjoy the increasingly astounding view. The first section of the ascent up to the Plan de l’Aiguille lifted us over a kilometer vertically in around 10 minutes. The chalets of Chamonix shrank below, and we started to peek over the first of the Aiguilles Rouges that line the north and west sides of the valley.
As we approached the changeover station, a cluster of parasols was spotted below, and this being France, and the Blonde and her father being fully ‘Frenchified’, thoughts quickly turned to lunch. The Refuge du Plan is an easy few hundred yards back down the mountain: a small terrace and hut that churns out a wide but simple array of hot and cold food. The presence of a donkey tied up round the back suggests they don’t rely on the cable car for supplies. We dawdled over vin rouge, charcuterie et frites while the Father of the Blonde grilled me about my ‘prospects’. Apprehension about the onward journey began to creep over me; I’ve seen ‘Where Eagles Dare’ too many times.
The final ascent to the Aiguille du Midi took us above the summer snowline to an altitude of 3,777 metres in one single, sweeping span. For an alarming period just below the station, we appeared to be heading straight into the side of the mountain. This is where the wobbly legs began. A mixture of vague acrophobia had been joined by the impact of altitude, and we could barely walk a few steps without desiring a good long sit down. The complex at the Aiguille du Midi seems purpose built to exaggerate any fear you may have; iron grille stairways that give you a view 2,000 metres straight down, workmen hanging over the edge of the platform and fiddling with what appear to be crucial bolts. So what do you do next? Take the elevator up another 150 metres of course. The difference in view between 3,777m and 3,842m is negligible but, well you have to don’t you?
Before descending, we stopped for a fortifying hot chocolate in the personality-free, self-service restaurant. The walls were covered with images of tweed-clad, bewhiskered gentlemen scaling the mountain. These sepia murals celebrate Chamonix’s claim to be the birthplace of mountaineering, harking back to a golden time when all you needed to climb something of this scale were a pair of stout shoes, a hip flask, a ladder (?), and a healthy dose of derring-do.
We descended into what remained of a warm, late summer afternoon. I had bonded with my future father-in-law while gazing over sun-dazzled peaks, and the Blonde’s wobbly knees were getting a little sturdier. The temperature rose 15 degrees as the ants got bigger, donned fleeces and started walking on their back legs around Chamonix. Altitude sure plays with your head.
Compagnie du Mont Blanc website