Dave the motorhome’s a lucky little blighter, Todd and Mandy have left to go see friends, but have told us we’re fine to stay here tonight. And they’ve hooked us up to their electricity (my toothbrush’s loving the re-juicing). And they’ve given us their WiFi code (so we can upload video). And the guys Hugh and Ali who’ve rented the cabin we’re parked up in front of are great folks, happy for us to be parked in front of their temporary home, as they fly about the place. Literally, Hugh’s a paraglider, and has had stunning conditions today to float about above paradise on Earth (actually we just shared a glass of wine and although the weather’s been perfect, the temperature variation’s not been good enough for great flying, bummer).
Beep. Beep. BEEPER-DE-BEEP. What the blazes? Peeling my eyes open I couldn’t work out where the noise was coming from, and made a game attempt to ignore it, burying my head back in the pillow. BEEPER-DE-BEEPY-BEEP! Huh. Ah, phone, beeping, bloody thing. I rolled out of bed, pulled the thing close to my myopic, hung-over and grit-filled eyeballs and slid a finger down the screen to shut it up. It worked, huzzah, back to bed. Ah, no, wishful thinking. Ju was up, reminding me of last night’s ale-induced promise to get up at the crack of dawn to hit the Aiguille du Midi. Ghhuhuhhhh.
The Aiguille du Midi, in case you’ve never heard of it like me, is a pinnacle of rock which strikes up at the sky on the southern side of the Chamonix valley. Its name means ‘Needle of the Noon’, as it roughly marks the position of the sun at mid-day when viewed from down here in the valley. Through some massive exertion of will, belief and effort, the French have built an incredible cable car up to the thing, the highest vertical ascent telepherique in the world. It’s over 2,500 meters pretty much straight upwards, and seems to take about 10 seconds. Word is, the queues are horrendous at this time of year, hence our 6am get up.
No dogs are allowed, but we suspect Charlie was less than fussed since he’d had less than 5 hours kip and has an aversion to anything higher than his bed. Fed, watered and short-walked, he resumed the position I’d have liked to resume, snoring away. But the sky was so, so blue. No clouds, just a perfect canvas. We headed for the cable car station, only a few minutes walk away, finding a queue of 1 person. €50 each felt much less of a loss when paid by card, we grabbed our bar-coded tickets and headed inside.
Chamonix has something of a reputation as a die-hard nutter’s haven, even being dubbed ‘the death sports capital of the world’. Folks come here to do all kinds of extreme sports, and a few inevitably don’t leave. Either the 2nd or 3rd cabin of the day arrived to pick us up, swinging back and forth as we all loaded into it. We looked about and smiled, half the people in there had an ice axe, ropes coiled over their shoulders, head to toe climbers in purple and green clothes. It felt like a bit of a cheat to me, taking the cable car up to Aiguille du Midi, the climbers were short-cutting to 3842m above sea level, leaving just a vertical kilometer to climb to reach the Mont Blanc summit at 4810m. Actually, the height varies with time, as the mass of rock’s capped with snow and ice which recede and thicken each year, but who’s measuring?
I once met a guy called Andy who’d made a good attempt to climb Everest, turning back when given a choice between life and death. It was at a corporate xmas dinner, which I’d expected to be a long and dull evening, but I sat riveted listening to the man’s down-to-Earth stories, telling of his addiction to climbing. Somewhere inside I thought maybe it was for me as I saw off the free vino. Today’s answered the slightly nagging question.
The cable car takes two huge leaps to get atop of the needle, stopping at the Plan de l’Aiguille before a second cabin makes an unsupported smooth slide up a vertical cliff face to the upper station. We’d read you could buy a ticket to the mid-station to save a few Lidl beers, but you’d be robbing yourself, and whoever tapped out those words is correct, if you come, head for the top. We saw the sunrise about half way up, then walked out of the cabin and within maybe 2 minutes I’d nearly passed out.
Breathless and speechless at the beauty of it, I reckon the thin air coupled with a skin-full of various alcoholic poisons had robbed my brain of oxygen though and I physically had to sit down while faculties were regained. It happened maybe 4 times while we were up there; Ju felt it too, but much less so. The truth of it though was that today’s been one of a few days in our two years on the road where I’ve been emotionally moved, in a big way, by the sheer natural beauty of what we’ve seen. The Tunisian and Moroccan rock and sand deserts, the Greek beaches and Swiss and Italian mountains all came back to me today in a sudden rush. Get in, what a feeling.
Finding an ice tunnel where all the climbers were headed, we headed there too. And here ends any thoughts of my climbing anything. A small metal gate marks the end of safety, leading to a steep ice ridge down which crampon-spiked boots were trudging in groups. Either side of the ridge were, erm, not good things. If you fell even a foot from the gate, you’d be trying to self-arrest with your ice axe immediately and failing that, it’s curtains I guess. As a total novice you can pay about €2000 for a week’s climbing course here and make a summit attempt at the end. I’ve not got €2000 on me, but if I had, nope, I’d not be going out there with it. It’s a pretty safe summit by some accounts. A plane’s landed on it. They once carried a hot tub to the top. 20,000 people a year climb it. On the other hand, it kills tens of climbers a year with snow and rock avalanches, crevasse falls, and other nasty but sudden endings. On a lighter note, there’s a bit of a comedy spat over the Italian-French border which, on French maps has a little kink to place all of the summit in France, but on Italian maps it cuts straight over the summit, so the mountain’s peak sits in both countries…
We marvelled at the climbers for a while, and then entertained ourselves wandering around the station and its array of platforms. Over to Mont Blanc in one direction, back over France, over Italy and Switzerland, jagged granite hacks at the pure blue above. Chamonix’s hotels, chalets and villas tumbled about below, miniature grey dice, far too small to make out much else but building outlines and tennis courts. Umpteen glaciers poured down the monumental creases in the rock, paused in time to our eyes; they must appear to be flowing like a viscous liquid to the millions-year old massif to which they freeze.
It was cold, we took it in turns to use the camera as our hands froze, filling our SD card by the time we got back. The friendly, perfect-English Bulgarian fella we met in Annecy tapped us on the shoulder and we recognised his beaming smile immediately. He took a raft of photos of us, telling us his kids were alpine ski racers and they’re often in the Alps, destroying my prejudice that Bulgarians couldn’t afford to be anywhere but Bulgaria. We shook hands again and tore ourselves away from our new-found friend and the station pinned to an impossible needle of grey. The speaker system encouraged us to depart, perhaps lost in translation, perhaps hoping to clear space for the hordes on the way up. I could have stayed all day, just staring out at the unreal eye candy. But Charlie was waiting below, and we’d no idea how hot it might get down in the valley below.
On the way down we took a wander around at the Plan de l’Aiguille station, stroking a couple of unexplained, relaxed donkeys and wincing at the cost of drinks. Mandy had told us of a 3 hour walk we could take across one of the many paths over to the ‘Sea of Ice’ glacier to the east, from which a train runs back to Chamonix. We’d already decided not to do it to limit Charlie’s time alone, but it would make a fabulous day trip for anyone without that limitation.
Down at the bottom, we stood aghast and a tiny bit smug at the size of the queue, snaking out of the ticket office and across the car park. The weather’s a reputation for clouding up in the afternoon and clearly the whole world wanted to get the same view we’d got, but without getting up at 6am. At this stage in the game tickets were being sold for numbered cabins, so you could get one and then wander off for an hour or two about the town without standing to the point you fell in an exhausted heap.
As we released a sleepy Charlie from Dave, we spotted Mandy who told us Todd had left at 7am on his marathon bike ride. What a hero. Mandy described a walk we could do with Charlie, up the north side of the valley for an hour to a cafe, and then headed off to their friends. We snoozed, but did make it out for the walk up, which just about killed us. Everyone, without exception, in Chamonix is as fit as a fiddle. We struggled up the 1 in 3 path, dragging our feet and moaning at the world, as people passed us pushing nippers in chairs or carrying them on their backs. Clearly we need walking sticks, those that look like ski poles, as they seemed to make elderly folks twice as fast as us!
The cafe (Chalet La Floria) was a lovely spot though, plastered with multi-coloured flowers, and with a panoramic view of the massif. Oh, and a dry-loo which had poor old Ju heaving and swatting flies! I held out for Dave’s luxury at hearing of this. Walking back through the town, we craned our necks up at the para gliders hanging in mid-air in clusters.
Right, Ju’s just cracked open a Tunisian rose with Hugh and Ali, time for me to nip over and part-take, wish us luck! The plan’s set for tomorrow for a nip over to Switzerland and Italy and back into France (maybe taking a couple of days), crossing 3 or 4 mountain passes. Poor Dave…!