Poking about in a little loft room, not much bigger than a pantry we enjoy our one night in Paris, setting up for the experience of a lifetime, exploring the valleys and passes of the Mont Blanc Massif. The train is on time and there are many other hikers assembling on the platforms, packs and equipment on backs. It’s been a year in the planning and to say I’m a little apprehensive would be an understatement. I love mountains, but not exposed heights, it a conundrum I’ve been working on over the southern summer, pushing into longer, steeper, higher and more exposed walks.
While train travel is a wonderful way to get around Europe there is no simple A to B routes and most require multiple trains, today its 3.
Leaving the busyness of Paris behind and with two huge suitcases and backpacks safely secured we watch the city disappear into the haze and the flat lands of France’s food bowl take centre stage. For what seems like an eternity the ground remains flat, straw coloured with the occasional village whizzing by. I start to wonder whether there are any mountains in France at all, let alone those that boast to be Western Europe’s highest.
Changing at Bellegarde the first hint of hills is before us and almost immediately on departure we start climbing, now this looks more promising. Soon mountains break out before us, beautiful in their shape and colour and so different to the well-aged and rounded peaks of Victoria. Towering above us needles pierce the sky, necks craned at the window to see their craggy snow sprinkled pinnacles and these aren’t even the pre-alps let alone the alps proper.
In the distance snow peaks emerge, as outside the window people play and swim at the lake, lapping up the early heat of a northern summer. Hot air rushes in and fills our lungs as the train disgorges us onto a small platform. As an Australian who only knows snow to be associated with very cold weather there is a strange sensation taking place as I sweat in the midday sun, looking at snowy peaks.
I can’t comprehend the feeling at first. It should not have been any surprise it would be hot outside, yet it was. Just the visual panorama of the mountains and the snow was enough for me to unconsciously prepare for it t be cool.
St Gervais is the start of the Mont Banc Express a rack railway, that draws you steeply up the valley to an altitude of 1030m and the quaint, picturesque town of Chamonix. The gateway to the Alps on the French side, Chamonix is our home base and final destination for the day.
Chamonix sits deep in an ancient glacial valley flanked on one side by the spectacular Mont Blanc Massif and the other by the rugged and steep slopes of the Le Brevent, stretching from the Aiguillette des Houches to the Col de Balme and the Swiss border. It is a thriving village that swells across the winter season as Europe’s premiere playground comes alive and maintains quite a crowd in the summer as well, bikers, hikers and runners transforming the environment into the ultimate adventure experience.
Glacial melt water rushes through the village, a swirling whitewash tamed by the retaining walls that protect the town from its unleashed power. Quaint bridges cross its seething froth and one can stand there and imagine the first pioneers who attempted to settle this land. Listening to its thunderous voice as it makes it way down the valley, it’s quickly forgotten by the festivities and summer holiday atmosphere of main street just metres away.
The first successful summit attempt of Mont Blanc by Jacques Balamt and Dr Michel Paccard was made from this side hiking up the Montagne de la Cote to the beach head of the Les Bossons and Taconaz glaciers and then making the treacherous traverse across them to the slopes of Mont Blanc.
In the 18th and early 19th century the Mer de Glace the largest of the regions glaciers spilled down into the valley and the hamlet of LesBos. in 2017 while still a mighty see of ice it is a shadow of its former self, having retreated more than 2kms up the valley
Chamonix is well serviced by the Mont Blanc Expressway traversing all the way to the Swiss border. With Geneva only 45 minutes away, express shuttles are a common site and with the Mont Blanc Tunnel connecting France and Italy it’s a short journey to experience the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Massif, or Monte Bianco and there famous gelati.
Chalet Chamonix is beautiful with spectacular views of Mont Blanc and it surrounding peaks only minutes from the Aiguille du Midi which whisks people to its needle top via cable cars and long unsupported cables, not for the faint hearted but in good weather a safe and outstanding experience.
We’re blessed to be assigned a room with a balcony that looks over the massif and given the clear weather, I lay my eyes on the snowy domed summit of Mont Blanc with certainty and shed a tear of joy that I am here and tomorrow we will begin experiencing some of the fantastic walks and views the region has to offer.
The remainder of the afternoon is ours and we waste not time acquainting ourselves with the village and in particular the plethora of outdoor stores. Most of them are name brands we all know or re-sellers of such, but one I really took a liking to was Technique Extreme, a French brand very reasonably priced and what seemed like good quality. The fleece I purchased performed well throughout our walks
This local store became my favourite while in Chamonix