Dispatches from the top of Europe

We focused our summer holidays this year on tourist activities around home. Because why go so far afield when we have some great things to do within a few hours of us? So we made the most of a visit from my mom to tick some big ones off our bucket list. And this was a big one both figuratively and literally – Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe!

Mont Blanc is home to the steepest vertical ascent in a gondola in the world, which takes you up to the “Aiguille du Midi”, a mountaintop viewing point at (nearly) the summit of the mountain. It starts in Chamonix, a little French tourist town at the base of the mountain, about an hour’s drive from our place.

When we arrived at the Chamonix kiosk, it was already packed. People of all kinds were milling around – some with full mountaineering gear. I was feeling a bit underdressed in jeans and a sweater, even though it was one of the hottest days of the year: we had escaped from temperatures nearing 40C back home.

We bought our lift tickets and were told to come back for boarding in 2 hours. The town didn’t hold much excitement on an early morning, but we managed to fill the time wandering around, checking touristy shops and grabbing a couple of crepes at a cafe patio that we shared with a bunch of wasps. Some North American tourist at the next table over said “I can’t wait to get home and eat inside for once” – because a couple of wasps outweigh a beautiful outdoor mountain vista patio? Dude.

Back at the line up, we waited another 20 minutes owing to delays. At last it was our turn, and we were driven through the doors and jammed like sardines into the gondola. We were the last ones on, with standing room only and nowhere to hold on – but we lifted off safely and flew up into the sky, watching our car get smaller and smaller in the parking lot below. Once or twice the gondola shuddered, throwing us around and eliciting “whoas” from the group. I’m not good with heights and might have peed a little.

The first leg of the trip took us over the tops of trees and grass, landing at a midway station at the base of the glacier field. We were already nearly 2000 m high and the air was fresh as we exited the lift to transfer onwards. We stopped at a viewing platform to look out across a sweeping wall of rockfall and dusty glaciers. And to take some selfies.

We boarded like sardines again onto the next lift, this time getting a coveted spot at the front of the chariot, where I was able to get a video of the ride (sorry about the reflection of my hot pink phone cover). This was the leg that took us nearly vertical, up another 2000 m into the clouds.

We arrived at the peak and stepped out onto a walkway in the sky, officially 3800 m up. And wow, could we tell. The air was thin and cold, gusts of wind whipping up from the glacier peaks and misting us with droplets of clouds. It was challenge to walk up the few flights of stairs to the viewing platform, suffering from a lack of oxygen and our legs feeling like lead. But we made it, looking out from the top of the world at the nearby frozen giants and into the etched valley below. A plane flew by, well below us.

So once we had our fill of taking panoramas and selfies, what else could we do but visit the cafeteria at the top of the mountain? So we spent the rest of our visit snacking on some overpriced sandwiches and drinks before heading back to the gondola for our scheduled ride home. It was another long wait in an overcrowded hallway, this time punctuated by mild dizziness, and I’m pretty sure it also gave one of the kids a chance to let off a bunch of farts, because some vapors were following us around and it wasn’t pleasant. But we eventually re-boarded and floated back down through the clouds, as our magical trip to the highest food we’ve ever bought was over.

Mont Blanc panorama

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