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Report 2015: Alpine Adventures and Other Travels in the Rhone, Rhin and Rhön

By wendy lynn from California USA, Summer 2012

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Page 7 of 21: Mont Blanc

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Mont Blanc

Today we leave Valle D'Aosta and head for Annecy via Chamonix and Mont Blanc. We discover that a big downside of staying at a B&B is that you can't get an early start if you want breakfast. Le Maison doesn't serve breakfast until 8:30am. We should have just skipped breakfast and left early, but things are harder with three kids (and we get breakfast with the room) so we opt for food and a slower start.

The weather the last few days had been very clear but today we see a few clouds. We worry about visibility, as the Mont Blanc experience is expensive and not even worth the bother if the summit is covered in clouds. Back in our trip planning phase we had decided to take a night from our next stop (France) so that we would have extra time in Italy, but now we were doubting that wisdom. Perhaps we shouldn't have stayed that extra night in Valle d'Aosta if it ends up costing us the good weather at Mont Blanc. In hindsight, we realize that although taking the cable car up to Pila was nice enough, it will not in any way compare to Mont Blanc. We could have just used that day to move onto France, we could have visited the Matterhorn or we could have gone on some more rewarding food or hiking adventures. However, Pila did teach us how cold it can be at altitude, even on a hot day, which was a valuable lesson.

So we eat breakfast, settle our bill and set off. The two rooms with three nights of lodging, including breakfast, cost us €555. We're in the car by 9:30am and off to Mont Blanc.

The drive to Chamonix is only about an hour, and we quickly reach France. Signs for Mont Blanc abound. The tunnel through Mont Blanc is surprisingly short but still cost €40! We passed through several tunnels leading up to the main tunnel, and through it all we kept seeing Mont Blanc basking in pure sunlight. Listening to Bowie on the stereo. Though the Mont Blanc tunnel requires drives to keep 150m distance between cars, the Europeans seem to ignore this regularly.

Finding Chamonix and the parking for Aguille du Midi was easy. We park and have our tickets up the mountain within half an hour. Unfortunately, we have to wait 1.5 hours before our assigned cable car departs. The lines take forever. Again, we worry about visibility as the clouds typically move in as the day progresses. Too late, we realize that we could have reserved tickets online the night before, which we regret. On the other hand, it would have been tough to estimate our arrival time.

There are two legs to the top of Aguille du Midi and then another cable car ride to cross the glacier at Hellbronner. Given the weather uncertainties, we decide to hold off buying the second set of tickets -- from Aguille du Midi to Hellbronner -- in case the clouds are socking the mountain in. We can always buy the tickets at the top of the first cable car ride.

We wander around Chamonix, waiting for our 12:30 departure. We've got 1.5 hours to kill. Chamonix is less busy than expected and not obnoxiously touristy, although it certainly caters to the Mont Blanc tourists -- plenty of gift stores and postcards for sale. But the town has a slightly deserted feel. Winter must be the busiest time. We hit a grocery store for a few items, including a retractable knife, cheese and bread. We remark on the great baguettes. Alex is immensely happy after purchasing a knock off Swiss army knife.

Finally they call our boarding number and we are on the way up the mountain. Fortunately, we get a nice place on the 50 person cable car -- near the window looking up the mountain. Each time the car goes over a support beam, the riders say "Ohh!" in unison because the car sways dramatically. The sunlight is gorgeous and shines down, glistening on the glacier.

There are two legs to get to the top of Aguille du Midi -- so another slow line to board the next car. You can stop in-between and catch a drink and the view, but we plow on and board the second leg. It's quite a production, and Margaret and Alex are a bit stir crazy. Finally we make it up to the top. Wow! None of us have ever seen such spectacular mountain scenery. The Alps are craggy and covered with snow and glaciers. Many alpinists are walking back up from what appear to be very long walks on the snowy mountain.

We don't have too much time to look around because we need to decide whether to push on to Hellbronner. If so, we need to purchase the next set of tickets. The sky is relatively clear but the clouds are moving in fast. It's another €80 for this leg and we have no idea what to expect, although we've heard that it is a once in a lifetime experience. We decide to chance it and buy the next set of tickets to Hellbronner -- which will take us in a smaller cable car over the glacier. We have to wait in another line for tickets and then for our turn on a car. This line goes fairly quickly, perhaps another 15 minutes. Julia, afraid of heights, does not want to go, so we force her...

The cable cars only hold four people, so Alex, Margaret and Joe go together while Wendy and Julia go in the next. Mom tries to calm Julia's fears of a cable car accident, but with limited success.

It's worth all the hassle. Words cannot describe the amazing scene. Giant crevasses in the glacier, hundreds of feet below, with glacial blue colored interiors. Mountaineers going for the summit of Mont Blanc can be seen in most directions. Wendy is reminded of the recent tragedy here, just a week before our trip, when five climbers died in an avalanche near Aguille du Midi. It's beautiful and although we feel safe (at least 4/5 of us did), it is easy to see that the mountain is treacherous.

While in their own car, Joe, Margaret and Alex have a picnic lunch of Val D'Aosta capicola (super tender and marinated with juniper and rosemary), donkey sausage and French baguettes. They see Wendy and Julia in the other car and take lots of pictures. The little kids are having a blast, although Joe admits feeling a bit uneasy at the seemingly precarious cable car.

It is a round trip in the purest sense of the word. No opportunity to get off at Hellbronner. The car just turns around and goes back. We make it back to Aguille du Midi in time for some family pictures and the 3:30 scheduled ride back down to Chamonix. (One benefit of waiting to buy the Hellbronner tickets was that we were given two different return times -- one after reaching Aguille du Midi and another after returning from Hellbronner.)

By the time we returned from Hellbronner, we were cold and the oxygen deprivation was bothering Joe and Julia, so we opted for the earlier return. Plus, we still needed to get to Annecy today! At the bottom we buy some more food in a small grocery store in Chamonix: baguettes, camembert, ham, beer, sodas and good peaches.

On to Annecy! This leg should take us one or two hours. We leave the snow covered Alps behind, which we will particularly miss as we know that we are not returning to the Alps on this trip. We've seen them towering over us since we entered Switzerland. But now we leave them behind and move forward onto greener, less dramatic rolling hills. Still beautiful but much different in feeling. Everything is in French, of course, but we've been used to Italian for the last few days so it requires a bit of a mind change. We feel we are making a break from the previous trip and heading into new territory.

It's easy to find Annecy but finding the Hotel des Alpes is trickier. There is a lot of construction in the city, and the streets are a bit confusing. We finally pull up to the Hotel des Alpes around 6:30pm. We have two (very tiny) rooms next to each other. It's a bit claustrophobic but quiet and very clean and neat. The hotel has no parking, so Joe and Alex set off to find a parking place recommended by the front desk attendant. Horribly confusing! Construction makes getting to the place recommended impossible. Joe is frustrated like crazy! He finally parks on a street, which is free until the next morning. Not ideal but buys us some time.

The family sets off for dinner. It's been a long day and we're all tired. Annecy old town is busy and a bit confusing. The signs aren't terribly helpful and the streets are winding. Our French is mediocre and we find the restaurant scene a little intimidating. Finally we settle on a place that has space for us, as all our first choices were completely full. We have to sit inside as there are no seats outdoors. We order some expensive food that is not at all memorable. The waiter strategically flirts with Julia. Back to the room by 10:30. We are exhausted and ready for bed!!

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