As I said in previous posts, I am a winter maniac! I guess being born in Rio (Brazil) has turned snow into such an inaccessible weather that I cherish every snowflake I see falling! On the other hand, coming from a region where snows means chaos, Thomas is not as much of a fan as I am... Nevertheless, I managed to convince him to make the most out of travelling all year long and also planning at least one trip to a snowy place every winter. After Füssen in 2018 and Oslo in 2019, we decided to go to the Alps in 2020!
This Chamonix travel guide aims at giving you information and tips about the Aiguille du Midi and the Mer de Glace in order to optimise your visit to these attractions. Also, if you're staying longer in Chamonix and want to discover more, we highly recommend to check our other post in which we tell you everything you need to know to visit the city of Chamonix (check it here).
Chamonix is located at the heart of the Alps and is considered one of the most beautiful places in the region. It is home to the highest point in Europe: Mont-Blanc which culminates at 4.809 meters (15.780 ft). The Mont-Blanc being considered the roof of Europe, you cannot leave without visiting its top attractions: the Aiguille du Midi and the Mer de Glace.
Our golden tip for your stay in Chamonix: purchase the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass! This pass is absolutely essential whether you want to visit the Aiguille du Midi, the Mer de Glace or simply spend the day skiing. The one-day pass costs 65 EUR per person and gives access to all attractions and all ski areas in Chamonix, as well as all public transportation.
However, if you're afraid of heights or simply do not want to visit both of these attractions, we strongly advise you to explore the many streets of the cute little village of Chamonix. It is definitely not to be missed!
| For more information about Chamonix, check our post here |
HISTORY OF CHAMONIX
First mentions to Chamonix date back to the 11th century when it was part of the feudal domain of the House of Savoy. However, due to its challenging weather, it did not have any exceptional historical importance until the 18th century when two English men helped putting Chamonix on the map. Richard Pococke and William Windham visited the valley in 1741 and published an article about it, starting a furor of visitors to explore this picturesque village. From this point on, tourism only grew to be the main local activity, first with Alpine mountain guides and later on with hotels and a ski station. In 1924, Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympic games which helped to make it internationally famous and turn it into the classy old style ski resort we know today.
AIGUILLE DU MIDI
The Aiguille du Midi has been a famous destination for visitors for more than 60 years and is one of the most visited attraction in the area. The cable car takes you in just 20 minutes to the top of the mountain, reaching an altitude of 3.842 m (12.605 ft).
How much time you should dedicate to the Aiguille du Midi is up to you! We think that in order to get the whole experience, you should spend at least 3 hours. There are indeed many panoramic terraces to explore and many information to read (check map here).
The Aiguille du Midi is also the starting point for the descent of the Vallée Blanche and the Panoramic Mont-Blanc cable car which crosses the Giant Glacier to the Helbronner Point on the Italian side at 3.462 m, and offers breathtaking view of the Aosta Valley and the Piedmont. The Panoramic Mont-Blanc is a 5-km long gondola that takes you to the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif. Please note that it is closed during winter and that an ID is required. Also, it is not included in the Mont-Blanc Unlimited Pass.
Opening hours - daily from 7.30 a.m. - 5.30 p.m. (please check on the website here) | Admission - 67 EUR (round-trip)
- Purchase your ticket well in advance! In order not to waste time and to avoid long queues, we suggest you buy your tickets in advance. We bought ours directly at the Chamonix Tourist office, we must say it was very convenient!
- Wake up early! We had indeed read on different blog posts that it was sometimes packed, which could result in an awful experience. Thus, if you want to avoid queuing, we suggest you arrive as early as possible and try to catch one of the first scheduled cable cars.
- Go on a weekday! To get the most out of this experience, we recommend that you avoid going on weekends and during school holidays. Indeed, on a Saturday or a Sunday, the it can quickly become crowded as the number of people is limited.
- Make sure the weather conditions are ideal! Indeed, in order to enjoy the stunning views, you need to make sure that the sky is clear. You don't want to go up and not being able to see anything because of the clouds. You can check the real live views here on the website.
- Dress up with warm clothes! At the top, temperatures can be very low (around - 20° C in winter), therefore, we advise you to dress for sub-zero temperatures, even in summer. Please note that up in the Aiguille du Midi, there are heated indoor areas so you don't have to be exposed to cold for too long if you don't want to.
- Make sure to be in good health conditions! Though we are not exactly fit people, we are still young and in a relatively good shape. Even though, we could feel the effect of the altitude at the top section. We were easily breathless just by doing something that we would normally do such as going up a set of stairs. Many people also get dizzy or lightheaded with the ascension so take your time to adjust yourself to this different environment.
HISTORY OF THE AIGUILLE DU MIDI
The Aiguille du Midi literally translates into "Needle of the Mid-Day". But why is it called this way? The Aiguille du Midi takes its name from its geographical position. At the time when Chamonix's bell tower did not have a clock, the mountains were used as landmarks by the inhabitants to find out the time of day. Very quickly, they noticed that around midday, the sun was above this specific peak, and baptized it "Agouelye de Mi-Jorn" in Savoyard, later translated as the mythical "Aiguille du Midi".
As early as 1904, engineers Wilhelm Feldmann and Emil Strub imagined linking Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi using two funiculars and three sections of "mountain lifts". The first cable car was built between 1909 and 1927 and consisted in two sections. The first section was opened on 1 July 1924 and was the first passenger cable car in France. The second section was opened in 1927 and ended at an altitude of 2.404 m, at the foot of the Aiguille du Midi. As the first cable car did not reach the summit, a third section had to be built. Construction work began in 1938 but was abandoned in 1947, after WWII, and was replaced by the more direct route we know today.
The current cable car was built in only 5 years from 1951 to 1955. The first cable car was used to facilitate the construction of this more modern cable car by transporting men, materials and tools to the top. Consequently, as early as 1954, the first section was inaugurated, followed by the second section reaching the summit in 1955. At that time, it was the highest cable car in the world.
EXPLORING THE AIGUILLE DU MIDI
The Aiguille du Midi includes two sections: the first one from Chamonix to the Plan de l'Aiguille (2.317 m or 7.706 ft) and the second one taking you to the upper station (3.777 m or 12.392 ft). One of the peculiarity of the second section is that it has no supporting pillar, which at the time of its realization in 1949, constituted an architectural prowess. Back then, it was the highest and longest cable car in the world (3 kilometers without pylon).
After a 20-minute ride, you are now at the top of the mountain! The views around you are breathtaking! Once up there, a feeling of freedom, of vastness emerges and an endless horizon opens up before your eyes! What a great spectacle nature offers!
FROM ONE PANORAMIC TERRACE TO ANOTHER
At the top, there are different panoramic points worth checking. At the departure/arrival cable car station, and while taking a moment to adjust to the altitude, you can check the "History Area" which gives a historical perspective of how this architecture wonder has been dreamed of, planned and built. We can witness how it works too since the engine of the lift system is showcased through a glass window. There is also a new "Ascent Area" with a thrilling video of a fly over the Alps mountains.
The facilities of the Aiguille du Midi includes many terraces! The first two panoramic terraces are located just above the cable car station and offer stunning views over the valley below and the peaks around you. It is absolutely breathtaking! Then, you can cross the passerelle in order to access the main part of the Aiguille du Midi's complex: though this bridge does not seem to be a big deal while you're on it, if you see it from a different perspective you'll realize that the void is just beneath you!
The tunnels were carved into the rock of the Aiguille du Midi itself. If you continue to the left path, you'll be able to check the access where mountaineers and skiers take to reach the steep and extremely exposed ice ridge to descend and ski over the glacier below. The passage tunnels carved into the snow are also a detail worth checking!
This 32-meter long tube is one of the newest features of the complex, opened in 2016 to celebrate the 60th year of its operation. It was built to conclude the 360º path encircling the peak and offer unique views in all the directions around it. Made out of steel and glass, there are 5 windows to offer stunning perspectives of the mountains.
After crossing the Pipe, you'll then get to the "Cosmiques terrace" with benches and bigger windows to sit, relax and look over the Vallée Blanche and the Cosmiques Ridge. There is also a current exposition called the “Hypoxia level” explaining the effects of the oxygen reduction in high altitudes on the human body.
After checking everything, it is time to go back to the tunnel of the Aiguille du Midi and take the lift, the final step which will bring you up to the Aiguille itself, at an altitude of 3.842 m (12.605 ft)!
STEP INTO THE VOID
Now we are at the highest point of the Aiguille du Midi complex. Located at 3.842 m (12.605 ft), the "Summit Terrace" is the closest you can get to Mont-Blanc on a lift system. Needless to say, the sights from here are superb: all the peaks, the snow and glacier around make this an unforgettable experience which now will be almost complete with the last attraction: Step Into The Void!
On the top terrace, there is a sheltered area for you to warm up while still being able to enjoy the view through the windows. If you're brave enough, you can queue for the unique experience of stepping into a small chamber made out of glass (floor and ceiling included). The Step Into The Void is made of 3.6 cm thick glass panels granting a clear panoramic view in all directions, including the 1.000 meters (3.280 ft) of free air directly beneath your feet! No need to panic, the chamber can take weights up to 1.500 kg. You are not allowed to take cameras with you, a staff member will take pictures with your equipment instead, which led us to having terrible pictures. However, a valuable tip to guarantee better shots is having someone waiting for your turn from the terrace outside and take your picture from this different perspective showing you floating above the valley (see photo below).
The facilities of the Aiguille du Midi have been built in such a way that it allows visitors to always feel immersed in the surrounding mountains. Though we had limited time since we wanted to also cover the Mer de Glace on the same day, it was a moment that neither I nor Thomas will ever forget!
MER DE GLACE
1. TRAIN DU MONTENVERS
To reach the glacier, first we have to go up the hills! To do so, you can head to the Montenvers train station located just behind the Chamonix one. Hop on to one of the vintage-looking red railway trains for a 20-minute ascension journey through the forest, tunnels and viaducts. Occasionally, there will be nice sights to the valley below. Nevertheless, the best one is yet to come: when you arrive at the top in an altitude of 1,913 m (6.276 ft), you will set eyes on the Mer de Glace glacier below you between high mountain peaks (check map of the Montenvers area here).
At the top, there is a bar and a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the glacier, the Crystal Museum with a collection of gems and crystals collected in the massif (in the 18th century, the first alpinist were actually crystal hunters) and the emblematic Refuge du Montenvers Hotel. Opened in 1880, this resort welcomed the first mountaineers visiting the glacier to explore this exotic wonder of nature. It is worth remarking that back then the glacier reached the same level as the hotel but, with the effects of climate change, it has dramatically reduced and now, to reach the glacier, it is needed to take a lift down and still go down hundreds of steps.
2. MER DE GLACE
This glacier is one of the most unique places we have ever visited but also the saddest. Formed over the north face of the Alps mountain range (with no direct sun exposition), the glacier is the result of the accumulation of snow in winter which overcomes its melting during summer over centuries. Under its own weight and with a melting/refreezing process, the snow starts turning into a think layer of ice. The Mer de Glace is actually an affluence of two different glaciers, Géant and Leschaux, which flow from the Tacul massif of the Mont-Blanc.
With an average thickness of 200 meters, the glacier used to be visible from Chamonix. However, since the end of the 20th century, it is melting and retreating at an alarming rate and we can see this on the way down to reach the glacier and access the Ice Cave. Whereas in 1988, it was possible to reach the glacier only taking 3 steps down from the bottom of the lift, nowadays it is necessary to go down almost 600 steps! And all along the way down, there are plaques showing the level of the glacier over the years and we can see how the level is decreasing every passing year as a live and sad testimonial of the global warming.
3. ICE CAVE
This is one of the most otherwordly experiences we have ever had in our lives: going into the glacier to see how it looks from inside. And you will have this impression right as you step into the first gallery and look to the solid blue ice walls all around you. As you advance, look to the ice walls and you can see rocks, leaves and pieces of wood which have been locked in ice for decades, even centuries. This ice cave is a family business going on since 1946: every winter they carve a new cave into the glacier with new features such as sculptures, an ice bar and even a throne. The sad news is that recently they reached rock bottom, literally, as they were digging to build the ice cave for the 2019 season, raising an alarm of how fast global warming is affecting the world and endangering the future of this family business.
Chamonix is the gate for an impressive natural park. Though we can see this when we arrive in town, looking to all the mountains enclosing it, taking a lift up the mountains immerse ourselves in all this winter mountainous kingdom of the French Alps. And everything seems small when you're surrounded by the highest peaks of Western Europe. It is without a doubt an experience worth going for and, thanks to the Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass, all the different attractions can be all done in one day with a single card! There is also a bittersweet aspect on this visit: when we can see that all this beauty of mother nature is slowly disappearing due to global warming and all the effects of human kind on the world climate. Hopefully, we'll change our habits and be able to save this winter wonder so future generations can still relish it!
If you're staying longer in Chamonix and want to see more, we highly recommend to check our other post in which we tell you everything you need to know to visit village of Chamonix and to ski in the Mont-Blanc Natural Resort (check it out here).
And now it's your turn to share your experience, thoughts and also tips to visit these two top attractions of Chamonix. Have you already visited them? What did you think? We look forward to reading your comments in the section below.