Today we planned to take the Chemin de fer du Montenvers up to the Mer de Glace. We didn’t have any plans after that, as we wondered if that would be enough for a day, so we set off suitably armed and arrived at the train station for about 10am. It was a bit busy but not too busy.
The train apparently runs on adhesion with the rails whilst in the stations at both ends and then engages a rack system when climbing or descending, to cope with the gradients of between 11% and 22%. Whatever the engineering situation, it trundles up the mountainside very nicely and provides some great little glimpses of the valley through the trees. When we got to the top we were greeted by some pretty amazing views ( I seem to be saying that quite a lot on this holiday ).
One thing that got me was the apparent rate of retreat of the glacier since I was last here in 1993. When the train station was built in the 1820’s it was at the same level as the ice on the glacier. In the 1980’s a telecabine was built from the train station to allow descent of the 100m drop down to the ice level at that time. There were three steps below the telecabine to reach the ice at the time it was built. There are now 442 steps. Overall the ice is estimated to be lowering at about 25-30cm a year (and has been so since the 1920’s) but the effect is significantly greater here because this is the snout, and this is retreating up the mountainside as well as losing ice from the top, if that makes sense.
Anyway, they are apparently planning to extend the railway line about 700m up the valley to a location where they think they’ll be able to maintain access to the glacier until about 2040. Without entering into a debate about global warming and what causes it, there is no debate that this glacier is retreating significantly. Here’s a couple of comparative photos showing the glacier levels, taken from pretty much the same spot. Obviously the modern-day one was taken in summer, so the usual dump of winter snow on the top of the glacier had gone, but nevertheless you can still see a significant difference in the height of the ice..
From the train station we decided to walk down to the glacier rather than take the telecabine. Specifically, I asked the others if we could, because there is a geocache about halfway down the telecabine run which can only be accessed by walking. I think this gives better views as you descend though, despite it being a fairly rough path.
As we were walking down, we started to pass signs on the rock walls indicating the layer of the ice at various points in time. There was a very marked downward trend. When we got to the telecabine I hadn’t quite realised how many steps down there were. I’d more or less told the kids it was flatish from the bottom of the telecabine, because I don’t remember having to make a huge climb up any stairs when I’d skied down here, but that was 23 years previously so my memory has obviously faded a bit as the 1990 ice level was quite a few steps down, and I skied here in 1993.
So we descended and descended, and then we went down a bit, and then a bit more. After this we lost a bit of altitude and went down a few stairs before descending a bit. You get the picture.
We weren’t really sure what to expect of an ice cave that is carved out of the glacier each year. There’s a few photos available online but you can’t get much of a sense of it. Anyway, inside, it was great. You get a bit wet at the entry point as on days like this there’s always a bit of surface melting going on. Once inside it was pleasantly cool compared to outside, and the ice itself is amazing. What struck me most was the absolute clarity of it. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting – probably more of a mushy mass of compressed snow with boulders in, but apparently above a certain pressure the air gets more and more squeezed out and the ice takes on a beautiful crystal clarity that you can see right through, and the suspended boulders are visible at various points.
Within the grotto they seem to fit various bits or artistic lighting and carve out a few interesting little statues as well as hanging a few photos and information boards about the scientific research that is conducted into the glacier and the movement of the ice as part of the programme of creating the cave each year. It is well worth a visit, especially if you’ve never been inside a glacier before.
After the grotto we climbed back up the stairs but decided to take the telecabine back up to the train station instead of walking up the path again. We weren’t carrying any drinks or food and the kids were starting to fade a bit, so we decided on lunch here. The cafe at the train station is (not surprisingly) tourist central, but they had a decent selection of fresh sandwiches, which we accompanied with some crisps, drinks and ice creams.
Back down in town we weren’t quite sure what to do and Kas had a desire to ingest some caffeine, so we grabbed a seat at a cafe round the corner from our apartment and had a drink. I wanted to go up Le Brévent to grab what is supposedly Europe’s highest wheelchair-accessible geocache (at around 2500m). The girls all wanted to be wearing shorts as they were a bit on the warm side. So after drinks they scooted off to get changed while I rummaged around the base of the church trying to find a different geocache (unsuccessfully).
Le Brévent is the mountain that dominates the skyline on the north side of Chamonix town. It’s quite imposing as the side facing the valley is a traditional near vertical wall at the side of a glacial U-shaped valley. The local citizens have quite cunningly made the ascent fairly easy by installing a gondola and then a cable car. The gondola drops off at a mid-station which is the top of the “easy” skiing in the Brévent zone. The cable car goes all the way to the top and provides access to a single black run which descends roughly back down to the head of the gondola. The cable car is little used tourists in the summer, probably because there aren’t any specific attractions at the top, but my personal opinion is that this location was the most breathtaking of all the breathtaking views we found during the week. You get a better sense of the scale of the Mont Blanc Massif from over here because you are seeing it almost flat rather than the “underneath” view you get from the town. If you walk around at the summit you also get some great views northwards over the mountains that house some of the other northern French ski resorts like Flaine, Morzine and Avoriaz.
The wheelchair accessible cache was easy to find.
From the top we took a wander around and down the north side (along the skiing black run) to find another geocache that was only about 250m away, but which took ages due to difficulty in interpreting the location, the absence of phone signal (for getting the spoiler photo) and the fact that we had to cross a patch of snow to get to it. The patch of snow did provide some entertainment though, and some much needed cooling.
Somehow I’d sort of misread the times for the last cable car down. I was convinced it said 7pm but as we walked onto the top station at about 6pm we were informed by the arriving attendant that this would be the last one. Good job Kas had expressed some “not sure” feelings and we’d decided not to walk on any further or come back later. Our general tardiness meant we had to walk straight from the cable car base station into the head of the gondola to avoid having to walk down that bit. I guess they’d keep it running at least until everyone off the cable car had got in, but you never know.
Back down in town we got cleaned up and made the very long and tiresome trip downstairs to the restaurant right outside the apartment door. Between us we had an assortment of high-carbohydrate foods, and afterwards retired back upstairs again for some beer and Olympics (in French). The end of another excellent day.