Living above the clouds
CHAMONIX, France — For $75 you can live on top of the world for two days.
That’s the cost of a multi-pass that gives you unlimited access for 48 hours to the cog railroads, cable cars, gondolas and chairlifts that dot this extraordinary alpine region. None compares to Aiguille du Midi, which, at 12,602 feet, is advertised as the highest funicular in the world.
Imagine a Harry Potteresque tower looming over glaciers and sheer cliffs, with a maze of outdoor terraces around it, and Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest mountain as its backdrop. How someone built this thing and the lift that climbs to it, I really can’t imagine.
In 20 minutes, we soared from a village in mid-summer to a snow-encrusted mountainside in what felt like mid-winter (the temperature at the top was just over freezing when we arrived at about 9:30 a.m.) As the funicular rose rapidly, more than 9,000 feet in all, we climbed with it. Over pine forests. Over snowfields. Into clouds. Above the clouds. Even above a few airplanes.
Tea and sugar and chocolate bars allowed Kathy and I to fight light-headedness, and we lingered for nearly four hours, watching rock climbers scale and rappel off of pinnacles within yards of some of the outdoor terraces and taking in a 360-degree panorama like none I’ve ever seen, even when I was young enough to climb to this altitude and higher.
It felt like redemption of sorts for this 61-year-old to sit atop the clouds again. The last time, five years ago, my brother Dennis and I tried and failed to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland, getting no closer than to reach the ridge of the Breithorn, exhausted and clinging, frozen, to a rock saddle not far below that mountain’s 13,661-foot summit. My rock climbing days were over.
Today the Matterhorn, far in the distance in Zermatt, was one of dozens of massive alps poking through the clouds in air cleared by a whistling west wind, which wasn’t alone in bringing tears to my eyes. Age may make it harder to see as well, but it’s a great motivator in helping us see more clearly. And though I couldn’t climb to Aiguille du Midi, I could enjoy every minute of being there and marvel at the engineering feat that allowed some much older than I to take in its breathtaking views and, if they chose, hop on three smaller gondolas over the glacier to Italy.
Though nothing could match Aiguille du Midi for adrenalin and drama, the multi-pass also offers unlimited access to trails above the treeline here. In 48-hours we took six five 60- to 70-person cable cars, a four-person gondola, a cog railway, and a chairlift. The rides left us time to hike to a high mountain lake, where campers had pitched a half-dozen tents, and, the next day, to traverse an above-treeline, four- or five-mile trail from the Planpraz lift to Chalet de la Flegere, the whole way overlooking Mont Blanc and its family of 13,000-plus-foot alps. Wow!
I’ll come back to this enchanted valley. I hope you get here first.