Carol writes: We decided to extend our stay in Annecy, France, in hopes that the rainy weather would blow out and we could make a dash into the mountains to Chamonix, host city of the 1924 Olympics and best known for its location at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps at 15,771 feet. On arrival in Annecy, we questioned our campground host about the weather for the next few days and she told us Monday would be the day to make our drive to Chamonix because conditions were predicted to be “merveilleux, exceptionnel!” Sure enough, Monday dawned sunny and clear and so we headed off into the French Alps to Chamonix, sister city of Aspen, Colorado. Just as our campground host had predicted, the day was gorgeous with a brilliant blue sky and not a cloud in sight.
Having lived in Colorado for over 23 years, Al and I have enjoyed countless spectacular snow-covered Rocky Mountain views, but the Alps have taken mountain grandeur to a completely different level. The Alps were created by the collision of the African plate pushing northward against the stable European and Asian plates, then sculptured during five ice ages over the past 2 million years. On the drive up below snow line, we observed many examples of rock layers that showed extreme folding caused by constant immense compression.
Our Rick Steves guide book has anointed the Aiguille du Midi ski lift in Chamonix as perhaps Europe’s most spectacular and popular lift, so that was where we headed as soon as we got parked. After a short walk to the chair lift, we packed into the gondola along with about 40 other people,
and made a hair-raising, high-angle ascent up the mountain, quickly leaving Chamonix farther and farther below.
In 20 short minutes, we had ascended 9000 feet to the top,
where we navigated up and down a well-planned series of large viewing platforms
which provided incredibly breathtaking, heavenly views of the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps in the distance as far as we could see,
with marvelous, eternally white Mont Blanc just behind us.
The views were sensational and the crisp, thin mountain air was exhilarating. Incredibly, we saw a handful of expert daredevil skiers and hikers out on the snow in the distance. Some were skiing unmarked trails and others were hiking across what looked to be extremely dangerous ridges of snow.
Then there were the “crazy” paragliders who get their thrills by jumping off cliffs and floating serenely down to the town below. I had a brief conversation with a friendly paraglider during the gondola ride up. I had noticed a bag of equipment that he was carrying and had assumed it was a backpack for hiking down. When I asked if he was going to hike back down, in an understated manner he told me, “No, I am going to fly.” Talk about extreme sports!
One of the most interesting terraces was reached by going through short stretches of ice caves, which provided excellent background for some fun pictures.
Both Al and I were a bit surprised to find that the more than 12,000-foot altitude affected us more than we thought it would—no doubt due to the steep and rapid ascent in the gondola, in addition to the fact that we have probably lost a bit of our high-altitude conditioning in the two months we have been near sea level. So…we decided to get off our feet and enjoy an extra-long snack at the top. At every viewpoint and also in the restaurant, our ears heard conversations of a very diverse international crowd. We shared our table with a vacationing family from India. In an interesting give-and-take, we discussed various aspects of life in India, in addition to a few weighty subjects such as the global economy, the world nuclear threat, and India’s growing middle class. That extra dimension of foreign travel—meeting and talking with people from all over the world—is one of the rewarding aspects of our travels.
At the end of the day, we felt the 3-day wait for good weather was well worth it, and we felt blessed to have been able to see the Alps on such a picture-perfect day. I will never forget our glorious day at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, just below the peak of Mont Blanc, surrounded by the marvelous panorama of the stunning Alps.
“Happiness is a direction, not a place.” Sydney J. Harris