Sitting in the shadow of Mont Blanc’s northern edge lies the town of Chamonix, a place of skiing lore and legend, famed globally for its hardcore off-piste, ski touring and mountaineering. The town squeezes through a long winding valley, starkly bounded either side by impossibly steep mountains ascending to the stratosphere above. In the basin looking up, you have to crane your neck skyward to see the summits. The mountains are massive, amplified by the relatively narrow corridor in which Chamonix sits. You are instantly and constantly reminded this is a place of high mountain endeavour, a place not for the faint of heart. There is some serious mountaineering and off-piste to be had here.
Yet, for all the imposing mountain grandeur and daunting landscapes, Chamonix also offers passage for the less experienced to explore the vast ether above. A remarkable cable car system which emanates from the town centre to another perennially visible peak, the towering 3842m Aiguille du Midi. Translated, “Aiguille du Midi” means “Needle of the mid-day” and is so named because the sun passes above its peak at noon when viewed from the local church. Among its many and varied qualities, the Aiguille once served a massive, reliable sundial for locals in a more simplistic, pre-digital age.
The Aiguille is the closest most non-climbers can get to Mont Blanc and offers unrivalled views over the massif, the glaciers and Chamonix valley, not to mention a large chunk of the Alps and surrounding countries.
The cable car holds the world record for the highest vertical climb and is a two-stage, twenty minute journey originating from the valley floor at 1035m. The first leg rises sharply over dense forests before the tree-line slowly gives way to tundra and the cable car plateaus into a gentle amble to Plan de l’Aiguille at 2317m. Here visitors can optionally exit and hike [in summer] to the top station of Montenvers railway, located at the foot of the Mer de Glace, with views of the Glacier des Bossons, Aiguille Verte, the Drus and the Aiguilles de Chamonix. Or, you can just be lazy and do like we did and take the second car to the summit.