Mountaineering – and Mont Blanc
www.chamonix.com/tourist-office. The self-styled ‘World Mountaineering Capital’, Chamonix and its complement of a dozen or so villages stretches along a narrow glacial valley sandwiched between the Mont Blanc massif and the Aiguilles Rouges. The town itself is no beauty, but the mountain scenery is unequalled in Europe, and it is well-worth battling the crowds and queues for a glimpse of its majesty. The Musée Alpin, avenue Michel-Croz, gives a brief history of Mont Blanc and its conquerers. The first were Paccard and Balmat in 1786.
An early morning start, warm clothes and nerves of steel are a distinct advantage for the exhilarating two-stage télépherique ascent to the Aiguille du Midi (3,842 m). This jagged granite needle commands superb views up to the snow-capped summit of Mont Blanc (4,807 m), and across the massif, but clouds tend to obscure the view after midday. The round trip takes a couple of hours, or there is another télépherique which swings on over the Vallée Blanche and Glacier du Géant towards Italy, part of an aerial circuit of the peaks. The other popular excursion is the Mer de Glace, a 14 km-long glacier reached by rack railway.
In winter, Chamonix is dedicated to ‘le ski’. In fact, with all the major ski areas above 2,000 m, the lifts stay open into April, and snowfields such as Grands Montets (3,275 m) can have fresh snow in late May. In summer Chamonix attracts walkers and climbers; there are 310 km of marked trails around the town, colour-coded to represent degrees of difficulty. Both the tourist office and Maison de la Montagne, place de I’Eglise, which houses the Office de Haute Montagne, weather station and Bureau des Guides, can supply information, maps and assistance with route planning.
One of the best short walks is the two-hour trail along the Grand Balcon Sud between Le Brévent and La Flégère, and the Bureau des Guides offers daily guided treks (sign up the day before) as well as leading assaults on the peaks. The summer equivalent of a winter skipass is the Pass’Sports et Montagne, a book of coupons redeemable against a variety of activities from rafting and tennis to summer bobsleighing. These are on sale at the tourist office.