Hanging Out over the Alps
Sure, you could hike up or ski down the French Alps, both adrenaline rushes in their own rights. (In fact, if you suffer from severe acrophobia, you really should keep your feet on land with one of those two options.) But if vertigo doesn’t typically bother you, hop on the world’s highest cable car for the ride of your life. As it ascends 3,842 m (12,604 ft.) up to the Aiguille (“needle”) du Midi, and then into Italy, you have the most astounding panoramic views of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s tallest peak, at 4,810 m (15,780 ft.). At several points during this exhilarating full-day journey, your cable car is suspended 500 m (1,640 ft.) above the ground.
The skyward route begins in the celebrated town of Chamonix, where skiing was allegedly invented and the world’s first Winter Olympic Games took place in 1924. Not far from the meeting point of France, Italy, and Switzerland, this alpine valley framed by rows of towering snow-covered peaks is a near utopia for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
The cable car’s steep ascent immediately displays the region’s spectacular views. But this first part of your trip, a 9-minute run to the Plan des Aiguilles at 2,300 m (7,546 ft.), is relatively relaxing compared to what comes next. During the ride’s second segment, as you soar to the Aiguille du Midi station in about 10 minutes, your pulse will undoubtedly quicken and your stomach might drop as you climb such great altitudes so quickly. You traverse the Les Pelerins glacier and travel up the north face.
When you reach the top, you’re on Piton Nord, where you find a cafeteria and one of the world’s highest restaurants called “3842” (which is, of course, the altitude of the Aiguille du Midi in meters). Before or after getting a bite to eat, walk upstairs to the Chamonix Terrace for breathtaking views of the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps. When you’ve had your fill of the scenery here, walk across a perilous wooden footbridge covered with ice and snow to Piton Central. On this peak, you can take an elevator inside of the rock straight up to the Summit Terrace, about 100 m (328 ft.) from Mont Blanc’s peak—the closest you can get without climbing. On a clear day, you can see the Matterhorn, Monta Rosa, and the Grand Combin. There’s just one more lookout point that you won’t want to miss, Mont Blanc Terrace, where you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of intrepid climbers scaling the summit.
Before heading back down to town, you can travel another 5 km (3 miles) through the air on the panoramic Mont Blanc gondola over to Pointe Helbronner, Italy, at 3,462 m (11,358 ft.). The three cable cars that run along this route provide a rare look at the high mountain landscape with its jagged snow-covered crests and valleys, and vast icy expanses sparkling in the sunlight. You might even see trekkers traversing the Valle Blanche glacier. You can disembark the cable car and explore the station’s terraces without your passport, but remember to bring it along if you plan to spend more time in Italy. If you’re planning to return to Chamonix, you can go back the way you came and make it in time for dinner.
Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, 35 Place de la Mer de Glace ( 04/50-53-3080; www.compagniedumontblanc.fr).
When to Go: Mid-May to mid-Oct; that’s the only time the route to Pointe Heilbronner operates.