Chamonix & Mont Blanc

After a long flight from Hong Kong to Lyon, we picked up our rental Renault Clio and drove the three hours to Chamonix in the French Alps. Chamonix is so easy to get to, with a motorway all the way to the edge of the town, that you don't sense the vastness of the Alpine range. What you do sense, of course, is the beauty of the Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain, whose smooth white dome dominates the town.

Actually, even more impressive than the Mont Blanc is the Aiguille du Midi (photo), a sharp "needle" of rock on the flank of the Mont Blanc. The highlight of our stay in Chamonix was the cable car ride to the top of the Aiguille - from there we could see rock climbers at work and helicopter rescue teams searching the slopes of Mont Blanc (many people die here every year). It's possible to take another cable car across the snowfields and then down into Italy, but we had not enough time (yes, our summer vacation is too short!). Other mountains tower over Chamonix, and several huge glaciers run down the southern slopes and feed a fast river at the valley bottom.

We were lucky enough to have been loaned a tiny wood cabin for our week at Chamonix - the cabin was on the south edge of the town, near the entrance of the long tunnel that passes under the Mont Blanc and emerges in Italy a few miles southeast.

Chamonix itself is a very charming town, at least in the old center. There's a couple of pedestrian streets, plenty of outdoor restaurants, muscular men (and one woman!) carrying rock climbing gear and always the mountains rising into the clouds on all sides. In fact we had cloudy weather most of the time in Chamonix but sometimes the town would be in sunshine while clouds hung on the mountains. We also had a couple of really good days which we used to take cable car rides up to the peaks.

One of our first hikes took us along the northern slope of the valley - the photo below left looks east, up and across the valley towards the Mont Vert and the Mer de Glace (the Sea of Ice is actually a glacier). About 30km further up the Chamonix valley is the border with Switzerland.

In the photo above right we are overlooking the Mer de Glace. The glacier is much wider than it looks - the sides are covered by rocks ground off the valley walls. The lines are like rings in the trunk of a tree, so you can get a feeling for how much the glacier moves each year - several tens of meters. You can also see some crevasses forming as the glacier flows over a bump in the valley floor - the crevasses could easily swallow a bus...

In the photo above right we look south from Chamonix center - the Mont Blanc is the white dome in the center and another glacier can be seen. After one week in Chamonix we headed into the heart of the French Alps to Les Deux Alpes, where we were to meet my mother, Jo..