Friday, July 27, 2018
Overnight accommodations: Le Vert Hôtel, Chamonix
Places visited: Absolute Chamonix Paragliding; Poco Loco (lunch); Mont Blanc Natural Resort cablecar to Plan Praz; Spar (grocery store); Aiguille du Midi; Le Vert Hôtel (dinner)
We woke up around 6:30am, packed up, and had breakfast at 7am. The very friendly lady who runs the hostel provided us with cards that give free access to all public transportation in the Chamonix valley. We left the hostel and walked down to the train station, and then took the train three stops to our hotel.
We dropped our bags there and headed towards Aiguille du Midi, and decided to stop by a few different paragliding companies to see if they had space. We ended up at Absolute Chamonix Paragliding just as they were opening for the day. The wonderfully personable lady who runs the desk helped us sign up for their last flight of the day off of Plan Praz at 11:30am for 110 euros each. They do other locations in the afternoon (for more money), since the thermals around Le Brévent get rough later in the day. We went around town after scheduling our flight, visited some souvenir shops, and had a delicious brunch snack at Poco Loco before walking over to the Mont Blanc Natural Resort cablecar to meet our tandem paraglider guides. At the recommendation of the paragliding scheduler, we bought a cablecar multi-pass rather than individual tickets. Otherwise, we would have had to buy a one-way ticket up to Plan Praz as well as a round-trip ticket for Aiguille du Midi; it was cheaper to buy a pass than pay for both tickets.
We met our guides, Caroline and Lionel, and took the cablecar up to the top of Plan Praz. They set up the gliders as we watched a few people take off; Caroline then strapped me in, gave me directions, and then she pulled the glider up into the wind and we took 2-3 steps forward down the grassy slope before we were airborne. Toby and Lionel took off a few minutes later, and we were in the air gliding along for the next 20-25 minutes. Toby had a smooth ride down, while I opted to experience some trick flying (like spiraling 360s where we were parallel with the glider. Caroline and I landed on our feet, while Toby and Lionel landed seated.
After that exciting adventure, it was around 12:30pm, so we went to the Aiguille du Midi’s cablecar to get our number in line, kind of like a deli. It was on car #53, and we were given car #67, so we went over to Spar to grab more snacks and some presents for folks back home. While we were hanging out in the shade (and I was drinking a beer – public consumption is legal in France), we saw Robyn walk by! We flagged her down and we sat chatting for the next half-hour while we waited for our number to come around. When our cablecar number came up around maybe 2:30pm, we exchanged Instagrams and took a fun selfie before running off to get on the car. And thus began a really intense, slightly hellish 4-5 hours…
We got in line for our cablecar #67, and were shuttled along through a long queue of others who would also be jammed like sardines into the cablecar. Once the cablecar arrived, people disembarked and we climbed in. It was very hot in the cablecar, as it’s basically a big glass box on a wire, and they jam as many people as possible so there’s no such thing as personal space – think the subway at rush hour. The cablecar that covers the first section took off pretty quickly, gaining 1280m/4200′ in a matter of minutes. Going over the support pylons was intensely nerve-wracking – the cablecar shakes and shudders like it’s going to fall off, and then there’s the sensation of falling for a second after the car goes over the pylon. We got to the midway station, disembarked, and queued for the second section’s cablecar.
We were all shoved into yet another cablecar to ascend an even steeper section of mountain to get up to the Aiguille du Midi. With the elevation gain, the wind speeds increase to make the swinging very noticable; to make matters even worse, this section only has 2 pylons for a gain of 1460m/4789′. The cablecar swayed and swung and had lots of belly dropping moments. Listening to the collective cablecar gasp, swear, and sigh together was slightly reassuring to know that it was scary to them too. We arrived at the Aiguille du Midi and everyone poured out of the cablecar, eager for solid ground. However, Aiguille du Midi is at significant elevation (3842m/12,602′), so in short order, everyone had mild symptoms of altitude sickness/hypoxia – headache, shortness of breath, lower oxygen saturation (only 65% oxygen available in the air, as opposed to 100% at lower elevations), mild nausea, light-headedness. It felt like the bare edge of a panic attack, where you just can’t get enough oxygen and you’re breathing too fast. I checked mine a number of times on my phone and it was as low as 90% saturation. We saw at least 3-4 children between 6-12 years old have complete panicked meltdowns as they tried to manage the symptoms; and with the return cablecar system, you were not allowed to leave earlier than your assigned cablecar, so we were all stuck waiting.
As we poured into the Aiguille du Midi, we were given the number for our return cablecar and approximate time; we were told #46 and 5:05pm, which gave us ~90 minutes to tour around. We went to a number of different observation decks with amazing views of Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc du Tacul, and Mont Blanc. We were able to watch dozens of mountaineers coming down from their ascents up Mont Blanc – it was a beautiful day with very few clouds and no thunderstorms forecast in the afternoon, which is a rarity here, based on our experiences. There was a base camp just beyond the Aiguille du Midi with 10-12 tents set up there, and a dozen different mountaineers ended up taking the same cablecar down as us (sometimes it was a challenge to avoid being poked by their ice axes).
Apparently, the quickest route up to Mont Blanc is to take the cablecar up to Aiguille du Midi, and then mountaineer to the ridge of Mont Blanc du Tacul, to the right of Mont Maudit, and then up to Mont Blanc, and then go back in reverse. According to someone on the observation platform who was considering it this year, it was a dry year so the snow and ice didn’t hold together well, making it a very challenging and technical year. There were a number of collapses and snow/rock falls; a ladder had to be installed over a large ravine in the snow on the way up to Mont Blanc du Tacul to allow people to summit at all.
After we’d had our fill, it was maybe 4:50pm. We went to the waiting area near the return cablecar queue. It was rather like the cablecar itself – hot, packed with people, and no personal space anywhere. We drank all of the water we’d brought with us, had a snack, and waited for someone to leave so we could grab their seat on a hard wood bench. There was a cafe and a restaurant there, but as expected, it was incredibly expensive (think 7-8 euros for a can of soda) so we were stuck with what we had.
We were waiting until maybe 5:30pm for our number to be called, and then we had to queue for another 15 minutes to get on the cablecar. And once we got down to the midway point, we had to disimbarce and wait another 15 minutes for that cablecar to arrive. It was not a display of people at their best but everyone kept themselves under control; a few people did try to shove their way through the crowd to get closer to the front of the line – they were met with a very firm wall of bodies. We arrived back in Chamonix at maybe 6:30pm, and decided that we never wanted to see people again so we returned to the Le Vert Hôtel to eat dinner there.
We walked part of the way back, and then caught a bus for the last bit. We dropped our stuff in our room and went straight to the pub for dinner. It was a british-style pub, and when I ordered a beer, they brought me an imperial pint, which is 20 ounces; it was definitely more beer than I was expecting! Their main menu was mostly little plates, so we had 4 different entree and appetizer dishes for dinner. The food was delicious, though the service was a little bit hard to come by so it took another 30 minutes after our meal to pay and leave.
After counting up our money, we realized we’d need a bit more euros for our travel tomorrow. So we took a walk to an ATM, following the directions of our server. However, the server probably doesn’t walk to the ATM like we were, so he didn’t provide any scale. We had no idea that we’d signed up for a 20-minutes-one-way walk. We were able to get the cash we needed (and look around for the full moon eclipse that was covered by the mountains so we couldn’t see it anyway), but we didn’t get to bed until 11pm. Unfortunately, we also had to get up at 4:45am to leave time to get clothes on, pack up, and walk the 25 minutes to our 5:45am Ouibus. But the room was comfortable and affordable, and a welcome sight after spending the majority of the past two weeks in shared sleeping spaces. Privacy – what a concept!