The weather has been toying with us all the morning, the earlier trip to the Aiguille du Midi had been delayed and now storms were forecast for the afternoon. Of course the weather earlier in the week had been perfect as we watched paragliders climb on thermals, caressing the sides of mountains. It was starting to feel like a case of “should have been here yesterday”
My dream was to paraglide over Les Bossons Glacier, look down on this magnificent beast, its seracs rising like spikes on a spine. Gaze deeply into it’s blue heart and be in awe of it bottomless crevasses. This was the last day we would to do that. The area is off limits once the season switches to summer. It’s a safety precaution to make sure rescue helicopters have a clear path to the peaks should someone get in trouble and this pretty much happens every year.
Our pilots arrive, they’re speaking French, but the looks on their face betray them and we’re not filled with confidence this is going to come off. Parachutes, us, climbing gear and a stack more people are packed into the cable car like a freight transport and whisked back to the Plan de l’Aiguille.
Bundling out we realise we are not the only newbies trying out paragliding or parapete as it is known locally. Storms present in the distance but are no immediate threat, we kit up on the launch site but the wind is fickle and mostly blowing in the wrong direction. Paragliding needs quite specific launch conditions particularly with newbies. Intently watching the weather vane it spins like a roulette table sometimes favourable but mainly not, we wait in anticipation, hearts in our throats, when we engage our minds in what we are about to do.
No one’s taking off from here, even though the favourable winds catch the chute fluttering it for a brief moment before flitting away. The other group heads to the intermediate launch site. Rocky, steep and short, all it has going for it is the wind direction, but even then it is light.
One group decides to go for it, running down the steep incline, parachute gulping air and feebly trying to bellow, but it’s not enough and a crash into the rocks is the subsequent end. Bruised and grazed and with a stubborn wind that won’t turn, the window closes. With slumped shoulders we take off the helmets, turn off cameras and nurse our disappointment.
Our consolation is lunch over looking spectacular mountain valley’s. It’s hard to feel disappointed when you stop and think about how amazing it is to be on this trip in the first place. Never one to waste a walking opportunity and with the clouds slowly moving in our direction we decide to walk the Balcon Nord, the North Balcony that narrowly meanders along the Mont Blanc Massif into Montenvers and the jaw dropping Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice).
As a boy scout I had drummed in to me, be prepared and we weren’t for this walk, but the tug of adventure was stronger. So in a foreign landscape with little walking gear and cloud closing in we step off into the unknown. With the whirring din of the cable car fading in the ever gathering grey, peaks soon shroud themselves in mist and there is an eerie silence, even our feet plodding on the moist ground barely make a sound.
The tack is well worn and now completely engulfed in the cloud, we hear the ghostly sounds of livestock below, their song, carried on the wind. Occasionally a break in thickness lets us see Chamonix and we locate where we are.
High above, great mountain peaks hang, walking through historical rock falls one needs to control the fear of what might greet you out of the fog, hearing before seeing is a lethal combination. The cloud journey’s with us a like strange acquaintance never sure whether it will turn against you.
The track takes a dramatic turn as it loses altitude, guiding us a like missile in super slow motion to our target. The monochromatic balcony is well past and we find ourselves undulating along little ridges many 100’s of meters in the air.
Foot placement becomes more important as we skirt rocks and bushes, with open drops below. Our cloud friend has turned to rain, and the track turns slippery as we navigate our way into Montenvers.
Descending out of the cloud, the vista breaking before us takes our breath away, the gaping chasm coming into view. perched on it flank is a sizeable refuge, but it just serves to further impress the scale of this behemoth. With a new focus we bound across the last of the rock and lay eyes on the Glace de Mer, or at least a small bit of it.
Like a snake carving a mountain path neither its tail or its head can be seen. The moraine carried down at different speeds across it girth give it a distinct scaly pattern and one cannot even imagine the depth of its belly. It’s mesmorising and occasionally it gives its imperceptible movement away with cracks and creaks.
The Mer de Glace and its upper glacial flows stretch for 12km, it is considered the longest glacier on the Mont Blanc Massif. This makes it the second longest in the Alps after the Aletcsch Glacier in Switzerland. From Mont Blanc itself, it passes Montenvers on its way to the Chamonix valley. In the 1800’s the glacier descended all the way down to the hamlet of Les Bois. However as with most glaciers around the world it is in recession. From the 1930’s it has receded some 30 cm a year, the equivalent of losing 700 million cubic meters of water.
The evidence of this is apparent if you take the option to descend into the grotto, the cable station now 400 or more step above it current surface. It was an attraction we had a looked forward to experiencing but the poor weather had shut it down too.
A quick look around the visitor centre and the Montenvers train pulls in. The weather has set in and while we have enjoyed the walk, a warm shower and finding a nice place to eat take our attention.
Thank goodness there is a train to get us down… Maybe we might get back here sometime