Sunday, July 12, 2009

Chamonix - 07.10-11.09

It is not particularly easy to get to Chamonix by train. But I guess it isn't that easy by car either. (I noticed in our car rental agreement that if you were renting a car for the Alps in Winter, there was a $75/day snow tire charge. Yipe!)

It took three trains to get to Chamonix from Lyon. No matter what it takes two, as the train in Chamonix is just two cars long and has to climb up into the valley. Fortunately, all the transfers were pretty much right across the track and were not an issue. Although we did almost get off one stop too early on the Chamonix train, but it would have been OK, because it would have only been an extra ten minutes of walking.

When we arrived, it was late morning and Mont Blanc was mostly in the clouds. We went to the hotel to see if we could check in early which we could. Then we explored the town a bit before buying a lunch (bread and cheese) and some pastries to eat on our hike. A quick stop at the tourist info center to pick up the hiking map and we were on our way. Since Jennifer hadn't hiked in a while and we weren't willing to spend money to take a lift, we decided on the Petit Balcon Sud hike. It is across the valley from Mont Blanc and offers views when the clouds cooperate. There is a bit of steep hiking early and then the route traverses along the hillside before dropping back down into the valley.

We had a bit of difficulty finding the start which was near a gondola. (And tempted us to pay the ten Euro fee for a one time lift to the top.) But we found the trail head above and behind the lift station and we were hiking on trail. Before long, we started noticing wild strawberries on the trail side. They appeared ripe and we were eating some as we went along. These were the best strawberries I have ever had in my life! Jennifer said they were at least ten times better than the next best strawberry she ever had. They melted in your mouth and were super sugary with lots of strawberry flavor. They almost tasted artificial. I likened them to strawberry cotton candy. Our strawberry picking caused our hiking to slow dramatically.

Higher up we got some views and enjoyed them while now also scavenging for blueberries (or Myrtilles.) We then started the traverse in mostly forest with the occasional clearing for views. At one point we made the decision to climb a different trail to reach the Chateu de la Floria. It wasn't very steep, or much out of the way, and would be a good place to have lunch if you didn't bring stuff from the Patisserie in town. They do appear to have a few tables out for people who do bring their own food as well. (We don't read French signs all that well.) We stopped to eat our snacks while enjoying the view and then continued on.

We saw plenty of others on the trail and this always warrants a "Bonjour" to the others. There were plenty of people including mountain bikers riding down from the top and probably many hikers also hiking down from the top as well. (People do not hike uphill in Chamonix.) A short while after the Chalet, we were heading downhill and back to the valley. Since we were no longer in Chamonix proper, we had a 20 minute walk on a trail back into town.

Once back in town we explored the shops (especially the climbing/skiing gear) and decided on where to eat dinner. Since it had actually gotten a little cooler ~14°C we opted to finally get onion soup, and as a main dish, fondue. While onion soup is reportedly the only dish 'invented' in Paris, Fondue is an Alps staple (although probably more Swiss than French.) There were plenty of people at the restaurant eating Raclette, another traditional melted cheese dish. We walked around town a bit before retiring to the room for the long day we had planned for Saturday.

We awoke early to hopefully get on the first gondola up to Aiguille du Midi. Usually by the afternoon there are long lines and reservations are recommended. We had visited the ticket booth after our Friday hike and found that you did not need reservations for earlier gondolas, the first of which is at 6:30am. (Tourists, and most French are not usually up at this time.) So we headed over to the lift house and got on the second gondola up. We were the only tourists on a gondola full of alpinists heading for various destinations on the Mont Blanc Massif. There are two gondola rides to Aiguille du Midi. The first takes you to plan de l'Aiguille which is at 2233m. (Chamonix is at 1036m.) So the first gondola brings you up about 1200m. You then shuffle through the gondola house to the next gondola which brings you to about 3800m and the gondola house up top. There was a thermometer outside the second gondola and by the time we got to the top, it was around -5°C.

We immediately walked out onto a bridge (from the gondola house to the actual Aiguille du Midi) where the wind was blowing and it was very cold. We went back inside to warm up. Since there was no breakfast available in town, we were planning on eating breakfast up there. So we ordered some pastries and hot beverages and attempted to warm up a bit. The elevator was not yet running to the 3842m platform, and we would just have to wait anyway. We were also contemplating taking a gondola over to Helbronner Point but that also was not running at such an early hour. We went back outside to the viewing area above the restaurant to look around. It was cold and windy. We noticed that the elevator appeared to be opening and we got in line for it. (It was three Euros more per person.) The views from the observation deck were amazing! We were gifted with dramatic skies to enhance our experience. We stayed up top for a bit while snapping some photos, and then headed back to the warmth of the gondola building. We poked around the gift shop and wished we had not already mailed postcards as there was a post box there. We then debated the option of taking the gondola to Helbronner.

I was feeling a little queasy due to the altitude, but was starting to adjust. However, I could not adjust to the cold. Being this was the only time we would experience this type of cold, I did not really pack for it. I was wearing a (wool) short sleeve T-shirt, a light sweater, and a lightweight shell jacket, no long underwear, and nylon hiking pants. Jennifer did a bit better by having an additional layer than me and a nice wool hat. (I wore a thin hat that I felt would be more easily packed. We both wore light liner gloves.

We took a walk over to the gondola to Helbronner. I pointed to where it went, and Jennifer thought it to be less spectacular than she had originally envisioned. So we decided to head down and start our hike of the day.

Today's hike would be started at the midway gondola station. And was the Grand Balcon Nord trail. We were going to hike it to view the Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France. In the Winter, it is the main part of a 13 mile ski run back to the valley from the Aiguille du Midi. Before starting on our journey we made a side trip to Lac Bleu, a small tarn a few hundred meters from the gondola stop. After that stop we purchased a Toblerone at the hut and made our way to the trail. Once on the trail, it is about a 4km traverse over and then some hiking up over a ridge to view the glacier, as well as a hike down to the restaurants, hotels and train station at Montenvers. The hike over was wonderful. We would pass different types of rock on the massif. There was interesting flora, but the fauna seemed to escape our sights (other than birds.)

After much traversing we hiked up some switchbacks to our high point on the eastern part of the trail where we got our first glimpses at the Mer de Glace. We simply do not have valley glaciers like this in the lower 48 in the US. It was a wild site. We stopped to finish our Toblerone, and watched a party of French hikers below us picnic on cheese, baguette and red wine. In the stereotypical fashion, they also were smoking cigarettes. We hiked down to the train station and got some sandwiches for lunch before continuing back to town.

The route back to town was uneventful. Although we passed the area where you can take bob-sled runs. There was also an adventure park set up with numerous zip lines that kids were whizzing around on. It looked like a fun time for families.

Once back in town we stopped by the first day of a three day international climbing competition. We watched as the climbers ascended a difficult overhanging tower. Men were on one route, and women on another. We tried to stay long enough to see a woman complete the route, but none were successful. A handful of men were successful, and we also witnessed a lot of falls.

Back in town we did more tourist shopping and purchased bread and cheese for our train lunch the next day, as well as some pastries, as we were leaving before the shops would open. After returning the goods to our hotel we went out to dinner. We had already picked the spot the night before as it was the only place that served a vegetarian Tartiflette that Jennifer could eat. While not exactly traditional, it was a bowl of gooey cheesy potato goodness. After dinner we went to an ice cream shop and then prepared for the next day.

Overall, it was nice to be in the cooler climes of the Chamonix area for a bit. Our hotel was probably the best we had on the trip as well. We had a view of the massif from our balcony. (We had a balcony!) It was also very clean and bright, and about a eight minute walk to the train station.

Pics are here.

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