Two young men, Michel-Gabriel Paccard & Jaques Balmat were the first to successfully reach the summit of Mont Blanc in 1786 and ever since mountaineers strive to transcend the mountain 4,810 metres above sea level in an environment where extreme climate conditions prevail. This morning we were taking two cable cars from the French town of Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi, a nearby summit with a great vantage point to the famous Mont Blanc.
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain peak in the European Alps, dominating the scenery at a height of 4,810 metres above sea level. I believe it can also be viewed from a cable car that sets off from the Italian town Courmayeur.
Steeped in mountain history, Chamonix is located in a valley surrounded by mountains and one of the reasons we decided to spend a few nights was to see the European Alps. Up until now, I had only ever read about them. Actually I had never seen mountains and to say I was excited was an understatement.
The town’s pride is ever so clear and one of the main statues looks out to Mont Blanc. Could you imagine back then, setting out to scale such a mountain?
The first cable car station is a few minutes walk from Chamonix’s town centre and the 20 minute journey was covered under the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass.
We squeezed in the cable car sharing the small space with a number of experienced snow sport enthusiasts; they were a sight of strength with their mountaineering equipment, dangling ropes and climbing spikes. Many ski the Vallee Blanche, a 20km long descent along ice glaciers and through ungroomed snow and ice, others continue onward and upwards to the mighty Mont Blanc. We were awestruck at these guys.
The journey up was surprisingly quiet aside from the whizzing noise of the cable car moving us up and along the iced cable, Chamonix disappeared pretty quickly and we progressed through layers of thick clouds. The day began with clear skies, however I began to wonder if we would have any visibility up the top. I was happy either way because this was my first experience in the mountains.
Our ears popped and the temperature dropped. I started to feel a little light headed and immediately shook it off with excitement. We reached the first stop at Plan de L’Aiguille (2,317 m) in only eight minutes – super quick! The cable car swayed slightly as it drew to a standstill inside a small station where we disembarked. We decided to skip the viewing platform and this was our first mistake as you’ll later find out. We shuffled along with the rest of the crowd to the next cable car.
The cabin passes the north face of Aiguille du Midi, a sheer ice wall as we approach the final destination. The trip via cable car is the highest vertical ascent in the world and in less than 30 minutes we were transported from a height of 1,035 m to 3,842 m.
As the doors opened black dots appeared in my vision. I knew I was about to pass out and there was nothing I could do about it except take a few steps out of the cable car and whimper ‘ I am going to faint’. Derek was left with a limp and unconscious me in his arms, by this stage the crowd had dispersed. Failing to attract the attention of the staff, he spoke in French yelling ‘attenzione, attenzione!’ The attendants motioned him to a room off the side dedicated to altitude sickness persons. Not an uncommon event, some people need time to adjust to the speedy change in altitude and as we discovered I happened to be one of them. In hindsight we probably should have stopped at the first station to acclimatise. All was good though within a few short minutes I came too with no recollection of what just went down. We had a chuckle about it and move slowly around to explore until I got my mountain legs.
On a clear day we were told visibility extends to the neighbouring Italian and Swiss Alps. The sky was a beautiful blue and it was so cold on the platform it hurt, we weren’t wearing any proper thermals or layers to keep out the chill.
Untouched mountains, recently fallen crevasses, snow capped mountains and thick clouds, the scene was foreign and far from the familiarity of our home in Australia.
The view was magnificent, the king of the Alps within clear eyesight and surrounded by an entourage of mountains all above 4,000m. the cloud cover did prevent us from seeing the town below and just how high we really were.
For the journey, we brought along some continental rolls from the local boulangerie and a hot flask of German chamomile tea. Finding a little terrace we took the chance to have our morning tea in the clouds, accompanied by two birds resembling a raven almost. I poured the tea into the flask cup and within moments it turned to ice, I shouldn’t be surprise because it was a bitterly cold and instead of snowfall, ice was blowing down.
On Auguille du Midi the facilities are impressive, there are five open terraces offering 360 degree views and a restaurant to escape the extremities. Weather permitting there is a panoramic Mont-Blanc Telecabin, taking passengers to Helbronner peak in Italy.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the infrastructure and how it all came to be in such an isolated and tough location. Man power began this mammoth task in 1911.
We experienced a whirl of feelings of isolation, peacefulness, excitement and awe. We were enjoying the euphoria standing on a high summit for the very first time.
Admiring Mont Blanc from the open terrace
Spending our days in the mountains, we always descended back to town in the evening with devilish appetites. In any ski town, especially the Alps the food is hearty and nourishing. Whilst there were plenty of burgers, crepes and pizzas around the town centre, there was also the local haute savoie cuisine of fondue savoyarde, diots, farcon, tartiflette, goulash, soup and raclette. Cheese, potatoes and meat are staples in the alp diet. Reblochon is a small cheese produced in the French Alps at an altitude of 500m and above. Chevrotin goat cheese is produced at the foothills of the Alps including Mont Blanc.
After a day of skiing it is a local tradition to indulge in Après-ski which means head to a bar in your ski gear and unwind before dinner. Most often than not, Après-ski crosses over into dinner and it did for us almost each night. My favourite dish was the raclette which is melted cheese poured from the rind of the cheese over potatoes and various charcuterie (cured meats).
Those that have seen Mont Blanc leave Chamonix somewhat mesmerised, the king of the Alps is the inspiration of many desserts. This easy Mont Blanc recipe is sourced from Rachel Khoo’s The Little Paris Kitchen’ recipe book.
Baking Mont Blancs
The meringues are coated in sweetened chestnut cream (creme de marrons) and a glacier of whipped cream, resembling mini Mont Blancs. The chestnut cream is robust and rich in taste, perfectly suited following a day in the Alps.
Just as the alps cover France, Italy and Switzerland there are three distinct methods of baking a meringue. I wonder if there is a story behind this? This recipe calls for the French meringue. Chestnuts were out of season in Perth and so I used a can of Chestnut puree made in France.
Chamonix Tourist website – http://www.chamonix.com/
Aiguille Du Midi Mont Blanc Cable Car – http://www.compagniedumontblanc.co.uk/en/site-overview/aiguille-du-midi
Mountain Guide’s account of Skiing – http://rosshewittblog.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/the-north-face-of-aiguille-du-midi-mallory/
Rachel Khoo’s Blog – http://www.rachelkhoo.com/
Previous posts from our European Holiday