Let’s be clear – we’re neither mountaineers nor skiers so we are heading up to the top of this impressive peak in mid-summer for a joy-ride just to take in the views and to “Step into the Void” (more on that new attraction later.) Even so, it is with some trepidation that we step onto the cable car at the Chamonix terminal, ready for an ascent of 3,842 metres – surely this is the highest point you can get to in Europe without climbing or hiring a chopper? It’s an absolutely perfect day – no wind to rock the cable car, a few puffy clouds in an otherwise flawless blue sky. We’re staying in Chamonix for a few days but it becomes clear that some people in the car have journeyed here just for this trip… I talk to a lady from Philadelphia who’s been monitoring the weather conditions over the last week and arrived early by train from Annecy the same morning. The ride was on her bucket list and she was keen to fit it in before the return to the U.S.
The cable car ascent is in two sections. Firstly there’s a swift ascent above the Chamonix valley up to the Plan de l’Aiguille at 2300 metres where you can get off for a stroll or a stop at the café. Or like most of us, you can carry straight on to the second leg, a more thrilling ride up to the pinnacle of the Aiguille. Even in the height of summer you are soon rising above snowy slopes pierced by massive granite outcrops as the distant town of Chamonix grows ever smaller out of the rear window.
The last few hundred metres of the cable car climb are almost vertical and it rises achingly slowly to the terminus on the peak just a few metres from the mountain face, almost close enough to reach out and touch the icy rock and ledges of snow. For some reason this reminds me of various James Bond movies where our hero is usually escaping from a snowy mountain hide-out, jumping off precipitous icy ledges onto a moving cable car whilst dodging bullets. It’s a quiet and calm arrival today but conditions are not always so serene – one of my editorial colleagues made this same ascent in February in a blizzard with next to zero visibility and the car swinging alarmingly as it sought final refuge in the terminal at the top – ooh la la! As the cable car docks in its bay the doors slide open and there is a real buzz of excitement as our fellow voyagers exit for the various terraces ingeniously constructed around this famous “needle” in the high Alps.
And it is jaw-droppingly sublime, and breathtakingly beautiful. The air you breathe is pure and clean and the colours that meet your eyes are super-saturated; sparkling white snow blankets laid out invitingly across the slopes and valleys set off against a deep deep azure sky turning to indigo against the horizon. Arrayed before you in supreme majesty are the Grand Capuchin, Mt. Blanc du Tacul, Mt. Maudit, the Dôme du Goûter and of course the distant rounded pinnacle of Mont Blanc at 4810m, the highest peak in Western Europe. On this exceptionally clear and warm day it is hard to believe that the mountain weather can be so changeable and unforgiving that climbers have lost their lives on these same peaks even in mid-July.
As your eyes drift lower down you notice in the distance the Mont Blanc cable car, like a fantastic mechanical toy, traversing the seracs and crevasses as it takes walkers, skiers and climbers to the Helbronner peak in Italy. Far far below, so tiny it seems on a wholly different scale of existence, lies the Chamonix town and valley and you can just pinpoint the tiny blue shapes of the public swimming pool and the sports ground. It’s a truly awe-inspiring sight.
Since 2013 there’s been a new attraction at the Aiguille du Midi: the Step into the Void. A glass box has been built that extends out from the highest terrace and allows you to gaze down 1000 metres in a straight drop. From the description and the stunning photos it promises to be an exciting and appealing attraction and it certainly draws the crowds, especially school-kids. Unfortunately the reality is somewhat less thrilling as you experience quite a long wait (inevitably) on the chilly side of the mountain, before finally shuffling like a penguin into the glass box, wearing the slippers provided, as the albeit very friendly guide gets you to pose for your souvenir photo. There is a brief frisson of vertigo as you step from concrete onto glass but by then it’s obvious that your time is limited: a few quick photos, a fleeting glimpse into the void and you’re out. I’m sure the glass and steel engineering is impressive but in the end it feels like more of a tourist gimmick. I wish I had spent my half hour outside on the terraces taking in the unrivalled views that nature has already provided.
Visiting the Aiguille du Midi is an experience that will live long in the memory. If like me your relationship with the mountains is mostly based on looking up at them, then, like the lady from Philadelphia said, this is definitely one for the bucket list.
PS: They were doing some work on one side of the peak – take a look at the photo of the cool guy on his phone – there was a sheer drop right below!
Tips for summer visits:
- To save time and queuing at certain times of year you can book your cable car places in advance (at least 24 hours), then buy your ticket on the day at the Terminal (or use your Multipass)
- If you have the Chamonix Multipass get there before 9 am and you can board without a reservation.
- IF you want to stop at the Plan de L’Aiguille, do it on the return leg from the top
- Sunscreen and warm clothes are essential, even in summer
- If you leave the bottom after 9.30 am they can’t guarantee you will have time to visit the Step into the Void
- Always check for the latest weather conditions and any updated instructions on their website
- From September 15th, 2014 the lift and Upper Terrace which provides access to the Step into the Void will be closed for improvements
The return trip costs 55 Euros. For more information visit www.compagniedumontblanc.co.uk/en/site-overview/aiguille-du-midi. For multipass booking, visit www.ski-chamonix.info.