Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Reaching dizzying heights at Chamonix-Mont Blanc

The view atop the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842 metres took my breath away in more ways than one. The 360 degree view of the French, Swiss and Italian alps left me gawking. I couldn't believe I actually saw the Matterhorn all the way out there in the Swiss Alps after hearing from travellers how they spent three days at Zermatt and could not see the Matterhorn! I was also breathless from the altitude. I found myself taking my time climbing those steps between the many viewing terraces at the Aiguille du Midi, right next to Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak.

We had planned on doing a quick up and down trip on the cable car from Chamonix but once we were up there, I found it very difficult to leave as there were so many things to see. So a short stay of an hour or two turned into four or five hours, even as we felt the altitude in our heads.

It was a calm, clear day and we could literally see forever, as you can see from the photos below. The gondola to the Italian side was also up and running because there was no wind - repeat visitors have mentioned that they were not able to get to the Italian side because of the wind.  I could see why because it was a really long stretch of line between the Aiguille du Midi on the French side and the Punta Helbronner on the Italian side - it stretched over three miles with no solid pylon, propped by a "suspended pylon," a line stretched between two peaks 1,300 feet apart (according to Rick Steves). It was hard to pass up the opportunity to sail across the "Mer de glace" and the French-Italian border in a private gondola on a 40 minute ride.

Looking down from the gondola, we could see the crevasses on the glacier and the footprints of the hikers, some even going to the edge of the crevasses to look over. We saw the source of the Mer de glace that we saw the day before in Montenvers, when we were at the foot of the retreating glacier. It was sad to see in Montenvers how much ground the glacier had lost at its tip but up near the top, all seemed well.

When our heads could not take it any more, we took the cable car back to Chamonix with only a brief stop at the transfer station. It was particularly delightful to return to a delicious French dinner at one of the many good restaurants in the town. After two and a half weeks of German and Swiss food, it was wonderful to come back to finer cuisine. - no denying it, the French knows how to eat.

This was the last stop of our amazing Alpine tour (Rick Steves' My Way) - a brief but awesome taste of the Alps. Here's hoping that one day we could return to some of these places. I have nothing but praise and appreciation for our tour leader Mary, who worked with us to make sure we did the right things on this "My Way" tour, giving us good tips and advice based on our individual needs and not expediency. Thank you, Mary.

Panoramic view as far as the eye can see at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, beside Mont Blanc - the Matterhorn is near the centre, a triangle in the last row of mountains (photo above) and in the photo below, second on the left. For some reason, it is called "Cervin" in French.

Close up of the Mattherhorn behind the larger mountain on the left

Mountain climbers coming down the slope of Mont Blanc


Rock-climber in the foreground of these mountains that are all part of the Mont Blanc massif

The Aiguille du Midi is rock-climber's dream

This is the ridge between Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc, another challenge for climbers

View of same ridge from Aiguille du Midi looking at Mont Blanc

This rock itself looks like a man climbing the mountain

Black birds near the top

Our ride on the gondola took us over the Mer de Glace (sea of ice) which goes all the way down to Montenvers

Gondolas go back and forth between Aiguille due Midi in France and Punta Helbronner in Itay with a "pause" in between on this rock (below)


Punta Helbronner in Italy

The view on the Italian side


View of rock being climbed from the gondola

The ice tunnel leading to the point of arrival of the climbers

The view of Chamonix from the top at Aiguille du Midi (above) and view of the same valley from Montenvers near the foot of the glacier - what a height we have travelled!

The receding glacier at Montenvers  - gondolas take people down to the ice cave below which has itself treated

The human face on the mountain across from Montenvers

View of Chamonix from the covered bridge

This marks the end of our Alpine tour. Watch out for Thailand and Hong Kong coming up next (posts in a couple of months)

Monday, 16 October 2017

Awesome alpine hike - Switzerland

After a scenic four hour drive from Fuessen, we arrived in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the gateway to the Bernese Oberland with its towering Alps. Our hotel is up in car-free Wengen, high above the valley, and we have to take a train up there with our luggage. It was worth the extra trip as our hotel room had a magnificent view of the entire valley, and right above it, the snow-capped mountains with the Jungfrau massif as its centrepiece. 

We debated months earlier whether we should take the Jungfraujoch train up to the top and after due consideration, decided against it given that we only have one day to spend here. It was a toss up between the much touted Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg alpine hike and the train ride to the "Top of Europe". The train ride included a good hour inside a tunnel and we thought we would have a much more intimate experience with the area on a hike than on a train.  Certainly the "Top of Europe" is worth seeing, if we have lots of time and haven't already seen many glaciers this past year in the Yukon and Patagonia. Hopefully we can visit the region again and have more time to spend here. No regrets about that decision as we had a most awesome hike with mountain views all the way along the trail. We were glad we were not just seeing the mountains from a train window.

Based on our experience, given luck with the weather, late spring or early summer is definitely a good time to do the alpine hike - it's hard to beat the beautiful alpine flowers carpeting the sides of the valley. The hike from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg was easy and scenic, surrounded by views of the Wetterhorn, the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau along the trail. I would highly recommend the two hour hike (of course much longer if like me, you want to take photos of every Alpine flower along the trail).  What's so great about these Swiss alps hikes is that there is always a train at the end to take you wherever you need to go, not to mention a civilized lunch when you're hungry!

As we still have some time in the late afternoon, we visited Gimmelwald, a quaint little village hung on the cliff on the east side of the valley wall, the first stop on the cable car ride up to the Schilthorn.  We would have liked to go up to the Schilthorn but didn't have enough time that afternoon, which is just as well, as fellow travellers reported that clouds have rolled in and they could not see much up at the top although they got a beautiful view one stop below. Mountains are tricky!  

This is definitely on my list for return trips!

Lake Thun on the way to Lauterbrunnen

Lauterbrunnen with its amazing waterfall right in the middle of town and surrounded  by tall cliffs and mountains

View from our balcony at the Hotel Belvedere

The view down the valley from Mannlichen at 2,343 metres, the beginning of our hike

The view of the other side from Mannlichen
A hiker can't help himself when he saw the awesome massif!  I can totally empathize!
The Eiger and Monch in view on many parts of the trail - Jungfrau was just around the corner (below)

And here are all three in a row - Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.  The train goes through a tunnel under Eiger and Monch and emerge at Jungfraujoch, the ridge between Monch and Jungfrau
The reasons why spring is a good time to visit...

Flowers sprung up in every nook and cranny

The Wetterhorn was nearly always in view with a lovely foreground of alpine flowers

As we neared the end station, Kleine Scheidegg, the view of the big three - Eiger (3970m), Monch (4107m) and Jungfrau (4158m) was awe-inspiring

When we got to Gimmelwald, we got a view of the mountains from the other side of the valley.  Jungfrau, centre left, looked different from this side.
Gimmelwald had some quaint houses!

Watering trough

The Swiss are known for their tidy wood piles, as we could see here...

A complete collection of cowbells in Gimmelwald!
No cars can reach Gimmelwald - steep trails everywhere...
Love this "little" peak - Silberhorn at 3,95m, a "satellite" peak of the Jungfrau

Next post:  Last stop on our Alpine Tour - Chamonix Mont-Blanc