Our first full day in Chamonix began quite slowly for me and the girls. Not so for Kas, she had some running planned and set off at about 8:30am to go find a mountain to run over. We’d arranged to pick her up again from St Gervais les Bains at about 1pm. She was only planning to run 13 miles or so, but because the route took her over the top of the ski domain at Les Houches she was expecting it to take at least 4 hours.
I’d been noticing on the way down to Chamonix that my eye was getting progressively worse and I’d picked up some antiseptic eye drops from a local pharmacy in Reims on Saturday morning, but it didn’t seem to be helping much, so as we’d got a morning of waiting for Kas, essentially, I decided I needed to get it looked at.
We made the assumption that health services might work a little bit like the UK, so planned to drive to Chamonix’s small hospital to see what was what, because in Milton Keynes there’s a walk-in centre that caters for non-critical stuff outside the hours of normal doctors’ surgeries.
As we walked out to the car we noticed loads of people paragliding down off the mountains.
It turned out that the procedure in France is that you dial the emergency health care number (112) free from any phone and they will connect you to someone. I managed to get through a few layers of phone call on the payphone at the hospital before eventually getting connected to the local doctor who was on call that day, Dr Pache-Ville, from Les Houches. Her English wasn’t great but we managed to converse in garbled Franglais well enough for me to establish that I could drive straight to her surgery and see her. So me and the girls did just that. It was, after all, only 10 minutes away. She prescribed me some antibiotic eye drops and cream. Drops to be applied 3-6 times a day and cream every night at bedtime. For seven days. That’ll be €49.50 please.
The “on call” pharmacy for the weekend turned out to be one in central Chamonix, so we drove back into town and walked into the pharmacy to get my goodies. That’ll be another €17 please, including some sterile eye wash that I couldn’t quite understand what to do with.
After all this exploration of the French healthcare system it was time to go and fetch Kas. She’d been doing some running in three dimensions.
The road from Chamonix round to St Gervais takes a half hour or so because it has to go around the mountain that Kas was running over, so we headed off and I got Ami to navigate a little bit on Google Maps to try to get us there. We’d agreed the location to meet Kas at “the church” in St Gervais, but neither of us had any idea what the location would actually look like on the ground.
What it looked like was a church in the middle of a busy little town, quite close to a small square filled with market stalls. We had to do a lap of the town centre before I realised that the car park I’d driven past was the closest parking to the church, but it was both free and underground (i.e. out of the sun). Did I mention anywhere that the weather was warm ? Or “hot” is probably closer to the truth. It had been warm all the way down and the bright, cloudless and warm weather had stayed with us into Sunday morning.
Anyway, back at the plot, there were quite a lot of cafes and restaurants around, so we picked one and sent Kas a text telling her where we were. “Quatre persons” I said to the waitress. “J’attend ma femme”
We ordered a few drinks and then received a menu which indicated we were sitting at the “restaurant” bit and if we wanted to just eat snacks we’d have to move over to the “snack bar” bit. We waited for Kas to arrive and drank our drinks quite slowly before asking about this though. They weren’t exactly busy so it’s not like we were denying anyone else a table.
Once Kas did arrive the kids didn’t seem particularly bothered about eating anyway, so they had a restorative ice cream and we jumped into the car to return to Chamonix for the afternoon’s planned event – a trip up the Aiguille du Midi. Kas had run over the top of a mountain and had needed to run a couple of miles further than planned due to the non-availability of a path in a location where the maps said there was one, so she was a bit kippered and needed a quick wash-and-brush-up first.
Aiguille du Midi does a great impression of looking like a Bond villain’s not-so-secret hideout. It is a spectacularly huge mountain sitting right above the town of Chamonix (2700m above the town, in fact). It is accessible by the two-stage cable car from the town centre. This forms a part of the Chamonix skiing lift system and so can be accessed using one of the multi-pass options. We bought ourselves some 3-day passes and then joined the back of a queue waiting to get up the cable car. It was busy. We were told there was a minimum wait at the top of two-and-a-half hours because it was so busy. We didn’t want to rush back anyway, so we jumped on our assigned car and began the fairly awesome journey up. The first stage takes you from 1,000m above sea level in the town to about 2,400m on the Plan d’Aiguille. You then change to the second stage cable car, which speeds you up and over the now distinctly high-alpine terrain to the head station at about 3,750m. Yes, you read that correctly. The height difference between the town and the mountain is three times the height of England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike. You’re not finished there, though. Because there’s a lift that takes you up a further 70-80m inside a rock pinnacle and up to the upper viewing platform. There are actually two rock pinnacles with buildings on. The cable car comes into the slightly lower one.
The view from the top can only be described as breathtaking. The world of the town below you looks very small, and you are surrounded by much taller peaks. Aiguille du Midi is one of the lower peaks in the Mont Blanc Massif, so everything else up there is higher, including the “big one” itself, which is a full 1,000m higher than the Aiguille du Midi. It doesn’t seem to be, but then I guess that’s the old “small but close” versus “large but far away” debate.
It’s called the Aiguille du Midi ( “The Midday Needle” ) because by all accounts if you stand outside the front of the church in town then the sun is directly over the top of the peak at about midday. I don’t know whether the church was deliberately built where it was to achieve that effect, or whether it was random. And it makes you wonder what the mountain was called before the church was built. It also made me wonder whether that’s midday CET or midday CEST, but then I’m just weird like that. We were unable to put any theories to the test, because the only day we were in the town at midday happened to be the only day when it wasn’t sunny.
We noticed that late in the afternoons the mountains can start attracting a bit of cloud, and today was no exception, so our visibility was drifting in and out a bit, but I think this made the experience better.
Unfortunately, something else that was drifting in and out a bit was Izzy’s breakfast. She seemed to get an attack of altitude sickness. Either that, or she suffers high-anxiety. Entirely understandable from up here. So Izzy and Kas missed out on standing in the glass box, as it was due to close at 5pm. Me and Ami just made it. While we were up at the top part, we also assessed the necessary materials for the earthcache that is placed up there ( Aiguille du Midi ), and did all the requisite photos.
From here we decided to go meet up with Kas and Izzy, who were by now queuing up in the very busy mountaintop restaurant attempting to buy chips. Ami and me arrived just in time to get chips too, and to our amazement, we discovered that the world famous Gardner parking karma seems to work with tables in mountaintop restaurants too.
Izzy didn’t eat many of her chips. She was very pale. Oh dear.
So I dashed back out onto the roof of the restaurant to grab another cache ( L’aiguille du midi ) and take a few more photos before we decided it was all a bit much, and we’d better get Izzy back down to somewhere where the air was a bit thicker. It was a shame really, because she missed out on quite a lot up there, but it is understandable, and I have to admit that I felt a little unsteady up there too.
Sadly, while we were queuing up to leave (and discovering that the cars were running later than we’d been advised) Izzy needed to barf again. This time they didn’t quite make it to the toilets and Izzy’s jumper took a bit of a beating, so when they came back I tried in my best broken Franglais to talk us onto an earlier ride down. The guy was very sympathetic and put us on the next one, although by this time it was only a queue jump of one place anyway.
As soon as we got below the mid-station Izzy started to perk up again and she was OK as soon as we were at the bottom, albeit a bit dirty and in need of feeding. By this time it was 7 pm.
The feeding in question involved crepes at a small restaurant on the main street. Izzy decided she didn’t much like hers though, so she basically just licked the nutella off the top. She had some more stuff at home.
What turned out as a slow morning for me and the girls turned into a fairly spectacular afternoon, and once we got home we made do with a couple of beers, some Olympics coverage in French, and an early night.