When I arrived in Frankfurt, my friends Karen and Courtney gave me the choice of going to Berlin or a place called Chamonix, which they said had “mountains”. Being a wanna-be mountain man, we took the train down through Germany into Switzerland, going through Lousanne. The train ride from Lousanne to Chamonix is spectacular. It climbs through the mountains and snakes through many small towns that are situated at impossible places on the valley. Eventually we made it to Chamonix (1035 meters above sea level).
The realization that I was standing next to Mont Blanc (4807m) hit a chord in my soul, and the mountains called my name. The view of the Glacier des Bossons and Glacier de Taconnaz, two ice floes that reach down from Mont Blanc towards the valley for quite a ways have a way of just drawing your eyes up regardless what you are doing. Although Chamonix is mostly famous for its alpine environment, many high quality hikes can be done in non-extreme conditions.
The hike from Chamonix up to le Brévent (2525m), the peak on the other side of the valley from Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi (3842m), had a good amount of vertical gain but after living in Nome, I just can’t get enough of tundra environments on the top of mountains. Well above the tree line, at this elevation you get a nice view of Mont Blanc, which unlike the view in the valley actually looks quite a bit taller than the other mountains. The trail head is located at the base of the le Brévent lift, kind of up the hill and to the left if you’re at the base of the lift.
Taking the tram up to Aiguille du Midi is the must-do of Chamonix. You can see for miles over mountains in every direction and Mont Blanc visually slaps you in the face. The view of the very top of Vallée Blanche is spectacular, surrounded by numerous spire-like peaks. There is a very good write up in Aiguille du Midi by Biker describing the experience of getting to the top.
I recommend not going all the way down the lift to Chamonix after "doing what tourists do" at the top of Aiquille du Midi. The hike north along the valley from the half way point of the lift is very easy and has a good trail with good views. About 2-3 miles north along the valley towards Argentière lies the bottom end of Vallée Blanche, and in the summer the mouth of the canyon gives an awesome view of the Mer de Glace, a truly massive glacier that is fed by a large area behind Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi, among other sources. A tram car runs from the valley up to the glacier at Le Montenvers (1913m), and there are a couple restaurants and gift shops, along with a lift that goes down the substantial cliff to the glacier. If you hike up the valley a little ways you can climb down a ladder bolted into the side of the cliff and go up and touch the glacier, ‘cause touching glaciers is cool. There are trails that lead up the glacier back towards its feeding sources, but were a little out of scope for my trip.
The best view of Mer de Glace is from Lac Blanc (2352m), an alpine lake on the other side of the valley. It is a fairly long hike, but if you take the Brévent lift half way up to Planpraz (1999m) then walk north along the valley towards the top of the Flégère lift following the signs to Lac Blanc, it’s only around a couple hundred meter climb and somewhere between a 14 and 16 kilometer hike, depending how you walk back. Located at the base of Glacier du Belvédère, the lake is not visible under the snow for most of the year, but in early June, it was visible around the edges, showing beautiful blue water surrounding a large patch of snow. There is a refuge by the lake that makes really good omelets.
As for the price of staying, I really recommend Gite le Vegabond, a English speaking hostel run by two Irishmen, chock full of interesting characters. Located on the west side of the river, it’s just west of the train tracks on the mains street on the south side of town, toward Les Pélerins. A bed for the night costs only 12 euros, and happy hour at the pub runs from 4:30 to 6:30. The social life of Chamonix is very impressive, with numerous bars, several clubs, and hopping Saturday nights.
Chamonix is beautiful all times of the year, and has easily the most incredible views I have ever had the pleasure of partaking in. Talking to some of the locals in Gite le Vegabond as they cheered on the English team in the World Cup, a Kiwi summed up his opinion of the place, “I came for a vacation and didn’t really ever leave. I try to leave every once in a while, but then I look up.”