Something mountainous was definitely on the cards for the trip, and after discussions with various Swiss residents about where might be best, I headed for Chamonix Mont-Blanc back in France on some more rather exiciting motorway — the Autoroute Blanche, which takes you through more tunnels and viaducts. One night of heavy rain sent me scurrying to an hotel instead of braving it outdoors, and the following day, I took the cablecars of the Aiguille Du Midi, a mountain pointing to the south of France. The cablecar up to the top is one of the steepest in the world, climing to over 3,000 metres in just 20 minutes, in two ear-popping stages. It is not cheap, but the views from the top were amazing, and I spent hours snapping happily away.
Once you get to the top there are further excursions possible: they try and sell you elevator tickets to the top of the mountain for example.
But more interestingly, after the huge, 80-person cable car that hauls you to the top of the mountain, there’s the chance to take a 5km expedition in tiny cable cars that take you all the way to Italy across the Alpine border. The cable cars drop you off at Hebronner, where the staff in the mountaintop restaurant speak Italian. I spluttered ‘un’espresso doppio per favore’ and got what I wanted but fell far short of ‘cor, that sandwich looks great, I’ll have one of those’ and certainly didn’t understand it when the lady behind the counter told me how much it cost. It was startlingly cheap compared to the caff on the French side of the mountain, and they were actually slicing ham there and then. Got hopelessly confused about whether I wanted my sandwich caldo or fredo: caldo sounds like cold, but means hot.
In addition to walking around the platforms and terraces intended for the grand-publique, there are doors in the mountain which lead directly onto the slopes of the Alps. There were various thin, outdoorsy-types up there with crampons and skis taking their lives into their hands and roaming the high alpine plains. The cablecars swept me past a mountaineer climbing a bare rock face who waved (hopefully not waving for help–he was much higher by the time I returned). On the Italian side of things, the warnings on posters were still as severe (“Taking life into own hands, very dangerous, no safe paths, not beginners’ slopes”) but whole families with small children were sauntering out into the snowy wilds. Scary.
Somewhat overawed by the staggering scenery, I was uploading photos of it direct from my cameraphone to Flickr — no idea how much that technological gimmick will end up costing me. I was also carrying out text conversations with Paul and my brother, and even fielding a security phone call from my bank who had noticed odd spending patterns on my visa card (motorway tolls). Bro was warning me that climbing quickly to high altitudes and staying up was likely to be very bad for my health, so after 5 hours wandering around at the sub-zero temperatures of the mountain top, I took the cable-car back down to the sweltering heat of the valley floor and went to find a pitch for the tent that night. Stayed at a very nice 3* campsite called La Mer de Glace — the Ice Lake.