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Friday, October 6, 2017

Into the Void at Chamonix

I put some pictures up on Facebook yesterday of our stunning day in the French Alps above Chamonix as was too tired to think about doing much more.  But I wanted to take a moment and write a bit about our day because it was truly one of the most amazing days we’ve ever experienced. We were so lucky with the weather. No clouds, mild temperatures in the valley, bright sunshine and glistening blue sky. Being here in neither the summer nor winter seasons also means fewer people, but unfortunately it also means that not all attractions are open because this is when the big maintenance takes place to prepare for the upcoming winter season. Even so, the autumn color and a lack of crowds made it all very worthwhile. 
We had intended to take the cable car to the top, look around up there, take the car back down one stop and then hike across the valley to Montenvers where the giant Mer de Glace glacier is and take the cog train back into Chamonix. Alas, when buying our tickets we found out that the train was closed. Big disappointment because then it meant that if we chose to hike across the valley, about 2 hours, the only way we could get down would be to hike down, another 2-2.5 hours. We pondered doing it but with my recent tendinitis and neither of us being in the best shape, and not really knowing what the difficulty level of the hikes would be, we really wondered if it would be the best idea. We then realized that you could hike back to Chamonix from the stop of the cable care so we decided to do that. Unbeknownst to us at the time, that hike is one of the most difficult terrains of the entire region and the longer, more scenic hike might’ve been easier. We’ll never know because we are not going to go back up and try again today!
So, once on top after a quite dramatic cable car ride where the car swings in quite a lively manner high above the valley and scales the mountain in an almost vertical climb, there is a lot to explore. On the back side, views of Mont Blanc come into view and you really can see for miles and miles. The French Alps are quite different than the Swiss Alps and while Mont Blanc is the highest peak in Europe, it’s rounded top makes it look much less dramatic.  Still, the glaciers and fields of blinding white snow were impressive. And your breath was literally taken away. The air is very thin on top and you have climb stairs to get to all of the best viewpoints. It was a bit dizzying for me and I felt light-headed for much of the time we were up there.
The top of Aiguille du Midi is pretty great. Several people commented on one of the photos I put on Facebook yesterday as it shows us standing in a glass enclosure that juts out from the mountainside. It’s called Into the Void and you literally walk on a glass walkway and then step into this void where it does feel like a void. You have to slip into these giant felt slippers that go over your shoes in order to protect the surface of the glass. It was indeed freaky to step out over this glass floor with the sheer drop off below you. But once in, you are mainly mugging for your camera and not thinking about how weird it all feels. 
You can also walk into the glacier and some mountain climbers were just coming off the mountain into the opening as we were standing there. TOUGH CLIMB. From the platform at the very top, the wind was whipping and it was freezing cold. Oddly enough, just a bit lower and at a slightly different angle, it warmed up and wasn’t windy at all. The views were magnificent and you really do feel the grandeur of something so much bigger than you surrounding you. Your brain is released from all the stress and noise of every day life and it’s a glorious experience.
We finally made the decision to get on our way, still thinking that we might try the 5 hour hike. Then we realized that you could get to Chamonix so decided that was a better idea. After about 45 minutes a beautiful little restaurant greets you with inviting food and drink so we paused to enjoy a drink in what may be the prettiest place I’ve ever had a glass of wine. By this level, the sun was heating things up and so it was delightful to watch the cable cars, marvel at the para-gliders, and soak in the grandeur of this mountain range. The Red Mountain range that was across from us, reminded us of the cliffs of Utah with their color scheme. 
And the craggy tops of many of the peaks were a bit of a surprise as well.
Now it was time to get serious about getting down off the mountain and we started what would prove to be a very challenging afternoon. Steep, rocky, difficult footing, narrow, tree roots, slippery...it had it all. The views were amazing as we paused to look back and up, with the autumn color spreading out in all its glory. After a full hour I needed more fuel so we stopped to finish off the picnic lunch we had packed. I was also very aware of drinking enough water plus I figured the more I drank, I less I’d have to carry! I can honestly say that the next hour was pretty rough. We were both starting to have some significant pain, Doug in his knees, and me in my calves and the big toe of my left foot. My new shoes were awesome however and I’m sure were the reason that my tendinitis didn’t flare up. The sun was hot. I was down to a tee shirt and was working up a pretty good sweat. We were having to stop and rest at pretty regularl intervals and the path ahead just seemed endless. The town still looked super far away and we remained at a fairly good height meaning more and more downhill. We kept hoping that it wouldn’t be so steep but then again, we were walking down a mountain side! That last hour was indeed really hard. Doug’s legs were super shaky and he felt unstable much of the time. My big toe was killing me and my calves were yelling at me. We employed variations in our stepping techniques, trying to go a bit side ways, attempting to somehow take pressure off of the parts of our bodies that had endured the most stress. Finally, we saw the path that would lead us home! We were never so glad to be off a mountain trail as we were right then and 
The walk back into town on a level surface actually felt good. I was able to stretch my calves a bit more and Doug was able to find some stability in his knees. Finally we were home. We both collapsed for a couple of hours.A hot shower and finding a good restaurant were essential tasks for the evening. We both felt better than we had expected to and the restaurant we found was an excellent value with just the food we wanted: Fondue! The Savoyarde cuisine, the cuisine of this region, is stuff we both love. The salad of the region was an excellent starter, the fondue was plentiful and delicious and a light dessert capped it all off. The lovely bottle of red wine was the perfect accompaniment to a delightful evening. We were even able to sit outside even though by the end it was a bit chilly. 
Perhaps it’s a bit obvious to state that we fell into bed and slept really well. This morning there is a bit of a soreness in my legs but overall I feel better than I expected. It was a very memorable day only marred slightly by the hour I was concerned about whether or not we’d get off that mountain in one piece!
I do know that going down a steep hill is harder on the body than going up but we couldn’t bear the thought of just riding the cable cars up and back without at least hiking a little. I had to laugh when looking at our guidebook later. It said, “Don’t hike down to Chamonix from plan de Aiguille. It’s a very steep path.” Oh well. We made it and now I’m glad I did!