We continued on from Lausanne, around the northern edge of Lake Geneva to where the Rhône river begins and followed the Upper Rhône Valley until it reaches the pass up to Mont Blanc. This takes you back in to France and to Chamonix via some pretty narrow and sometimes hairy roads. It was mostly OK because there was little traffic, but at one point we were approaching a blind right uphill bend with a shear rock face on the inside, when a coach came barrelling through on the wrong side! On the upside, the views were a great taste of what was to come.
Chamonix is a town with a pretty small permanent population. During the peak of the ski season and increasingly in the summer, it is host to thousands of tourists. There are tonnes of chalets, hotels and apartments all focused around a town centre that is set up for eating and entertainment. However, at the beginning of May, it’s pretty quiet.
We wanted to go up one of the mountains. There are a few options, but the quickest is the cable car up to Aiguille du Midi. Apparently it is the highest vertical ascent cable car lift in the world. When we bought the tickets, we weren’t too impressed by the €60 price per person, but by the end of the day, we didn’t regret it.
The lift is in two sections. The first takes you from the base in Chamonix at 1,035m to the mid-point at Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317m. The second lift goes up Aiguille du Midi to the station at 3,777m. There are quite a few things to do, including a cafe, restaurant, shop and the hypoxia exhibition. This was mainly about the equipment used to climb the mountain, but also mentioned that about 2,500m, the air pressure is low enough to suffer the effects of altitude… which is why we both (and me in particular) felt dizzy almost immediately after we arrived, and light headed for the whole time we were up there. I’m reasonably fit and walking a couple of flights of stairs got me out of breath and a bit woozy!
Top Tip: wear a jacket and warm clothes, we picked up hats and gloves in Decathlon cheaply to keep warm. One lady in the queue was only wearing a cardigan. It was -7C outside at the top.
There is then an elevator to take you to the top viewing point at 3,842m at the mountain peak. This includes the ‘Into the Void’ attraction where you walk into a glass box that is suspended above a 1,000m drop. Joolz didn’t fancy it.
After a couple of hours, we’d taken too many photos and Joolz had bought too many souvenirs (I agreed to them, I blame the lack of oxygen!). So we took the cable car back to the middle station. The dizziness immediately faded, even though we were only slightly below the magic altitude. There isn’t much there except a small cafe, but the slope is far less extreme at that level, so there’s an outdoor seating area and it’s safe to walk around without a tether, crampons and a pair of ice axes. Walking about was still tough, but mainly due to the deep snow. The outdoor eating area attracted a flock of Alpine choughs, which are a member of the crow family. Like crows, they were clearly very smart at manipulating tourists to give them food.
We were planning on staying in Chamonix for another day and then moving on to the Matterhorn. However, the weather wasn’t being kind to us again. The temperatures were expected to go well below zero overnight. We have gas heating in the van and plenty of warm bedding, so we’d be OK. However, most of the water pipes run under the floor and are exposed to the outside and I really didn’t want something to freeze and burst. Instead we took the decision to head for Italy. We took the easy route though the Mont Blanc tunnel, which saved about 90 minutes of driving more hairy roads… but it was very dull and cost €60… our budget for the day was absolutely torpedo’d!
The Mont Blanc tunnel is long, but the tunnels on the Italian side are nearly as long and far more numerous. We spent about an hour driving where we were more underground than in daylight. But we’d made it to Italy…