Top o’ the Monde: France’s Aiguille du Midi

O'NealCol613 Top of the Monde France Photo3
Author atop L’ Aiguille du Midi, face-to-face with Mont Blanc.

Soaring over the charming village of Chamonix, France, l’Aiguille du Midi (elevation 3,842 meters, 12,605 feet) is an Alpine peak accessible by cable car. From the top, views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding Alps are breathtaking, both literally and figuratively.

The Lure of Chamonix
Ski destination, Olympic venue, charming village—Chamonix, France, is all of these things. Also known as Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, in homage of its proximity to the tallest mountain in Western Europe, Chamonix captured the world’s attention when it hosted the first ever Winter Olympics back in 1924. Today, despite its renown, it retains the character of a village, rather than a metropolis. To be sure, the tourism infrastructure is robust. But with a population less than 10,000, Chamonix is a small, welcoming little town and a great base for exploring Alpine France. Here, too, is the Télépherique de l’Aiguille du Midi, the cable car that takes visitors to the community’s undisputed major attraction: L’Aiguille du Midi.

Cable car to the summit.
Cable car to the summit.

The Télépherique (Cable Car)
Somewhat of an engineering marvel, the Télépherique de l’Aiguille du Midi is an attraction in its own right. The two-section cable car departs Chamonix, rises to Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 meters (7,602 feet), then the second section—noteworthy in that it contains no support pillar—takes you to the summit. In total, the lift’s two sections transport passengers over 2,800 vertical meters (almost 9,200 vertical feet). Savvy travelers stand on the right side of the car for the best glacier views on the ascent.The cable car runs year-round, weather permitting. Tickets were €56 per person the summer of 2015, or about $60 USD. Reservations are accepted for ascents one to seven days in advance at the ticket booth during peak months (generally mid-June to mid-September), or year-round online or by phone (04 50 53 22 75). A small fee applies.Without a reservation, get to the ticket booth as early as possible, especially during peak months and if the weather is clear. Ascents begin as early as 6 a.m. in the summer.

The Aiguille du Midi Experience
At the risk of stating the obvious, expect it to be cold at the top. You may be strolling the streets of Chamonix in shorts and a T-shirt, but you’ll want a hat, gloves and layers at the summit. And sunglasses. The vistas are dazzling in every sense of the word.

 Ice cold Mont Blanc beer at 12,401 feet!
Ice cold Mont Blanc beer at 12,401 feet!

When you arrive at the top of the lift, you’ll want to ride the elevator to the very top. Here, you are face-to-face with Mont Blanc, soaring to 4,809 meters (15,778 feet) above sea level. Information placards help you identify many of the fabled peaks, including the Matterhorn, visible on really clear days.

For a separate fee of €84, you also have the option of taking a scenic ride on the Panoramic Mont Blanc cable car to Helbronner, on the Italian side of the border. This 40-minute ride offers another series of “WOW” vistas from the relative comfort of 4-person gondola pods and is weather-dependent.

Take your time. Views like this are once-in-a-lifetime for most of us. Enjoy a snack or a beverage at the café. Take copious selfies. But beware of creeping altitude sickness. It may not strike immediately, but in addition to the expected shortness of breath, many will experience a touch (or more than a touch) of nausea and/or a feeling of swelling and itchiness in the extremities after 20- or 30 minutes at this altitude.

Plan a Stop at The Plan
On your way up or, more likely, on your way down, take a break at Plan de l’Aiguille, the interim cable car stop. The altitude is a little friendlier here, and it’s also a starting point for one of the area’s most popular hikes.

The 4.1-mile hike from Plan de l’Aiguille to the so-called Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) is a moderately challenging route that descends some 1,600 feet but also includes some climbing and plenty of uneven footing. You may encounter snow or ice and slippery stretches. It’s a rewarding trek, but not to be taken lightly. Wear hiking shoes and take the altitude into consideration. Generally speaking, you’ll start your hike by following signs to Refuge de l’Aiguille, then to Montenvers-Mer de Glace. At Montenvers, after viewing the glacier, you can catch the train back to Chamonix. Allow 2.5 hours for the hike and make sure you check the train schedule so you don’t miss the last return option.


Top Photo:  View from the Top!


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