Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

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Mont Blanc is in the east of the Haute-Savoie (74) département, where France, Switzerland and Italy meet. This awe-inspiring mountain, meaning literally “White Mountain” in French, is the highest mountain in the Alps, of France and of the European Union. Its summit rises 4,810.45 m (15,782 ft) above sea level, between the French and Italian towns of Chamonix and Courmayeur.


The majestic Mont Blanc towers so much higher than the surrounding mountains that it stands out and can be seen from viewpoints right across Savoie, the Jura, the Massif Central or even the Vosges mountains.


Mont Blanc: a bit of history

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Before the 18th century, Mont Blanc was locally nicknamed “the doomed mountain”. There is still a summit of the massif called as such: the Mont Maudit. Legend has it that an enchanted kingdom once existed at the summit of Mont Blanc, governed by a fairy (the “Déesse Blanche”). From the top of her verdant kingdom, she worked on the destiny of the inhabitants living down in the valley of Chamonix. However, until the mid-1700s, nobody, even local people, dared approach the summit, or even the glaciers, as they were considered to be a land inhabited by demons where witches and sorcerers used to dance to the sound of instruments.

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But the perception of high mountains as doomed places was to be forever shaken in the 18th century when adventurous British visitors to Savoie went on many mountain pioneering trips in the Alps. In 1741, English travellers William Windham (1717-1761) and Richard Pococke organised a discovery expedition in the valley of Chamonix. There, he tackled the biggest glacier above Chamonix at Montenvert, which was named “Mer de Glace” (Sea of Ice) for the size of the glacier, and also for its ogives and curved colour bands formed at the base of the icefall.

The expedition teams went home re-telling the popular beliefs of the locals about their fear of glaciers, supposedly haunted by evil beings. It is believed that these frightening stories were partly due to the recent growth of glaciers as in older times, an ice-free passage used to link the valley of Chamonix to the Valley of Aosta. At the beginning of the 18th century, religious processions were organised to counter the effects of the Little Ice Age, as the Mer de Glace was dangerously approaching Chamonix.

On the 8th August 1786, the summit of Mont Blanc was reached for the first time in recorded history by local climber Jacques Balmat and Doctor Michel Paccard. This climb was initiated by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss scientist from Geneva, who offered a reward for the first person to climb Mont Blanc. This climb traditionally marks the start of modern mountaineering. De Saussure followed the next year, as did the first Brit, Colonel Mark Beaufroy, and Marie Paradis, the first woman to reach the summit in 1808.

Nowadays, Mont Blanc is climbed by an average of 20,000 mountaineer-tourists each year.


Elevation of Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc massif © Spiridon Manoliu

Until recently, French geography textbooks set the altitude of Mont Blanc at 4,807 m until the IGN and expert surveyors, with the aid of GPS technology, changed the altitude to 4,810.40 m (15,782 ft). Of course, this could be altered by the thickness of the perennial ice and snow that cover the dome of the summit, whose actual rock summit is found to be at 4,792 m. And then, after the 2003 heatwave that touched Europe, a team of scientists downgraded the altitude to 4,808.45 m, before gaining altitude again in 2009 at 4,810.45 m.

At the summit, the wind speed can reach 150 kph and temperatures can drop to -40°C. Temperatures rarely rise above 0 °C (32 °F) even in summer.

View of Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva from the Jura Mountains © Jamcib, Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

From the altitude of 3,700 m, all precipitations fall in the form of snow, and contrary to general public knowledge, snow falls are more significant in summer than in winter, for the cold air does not contain much humidity.

From the summit of Mont Blanc, the view stretches to four mountains: the Jura, the Vosges, the Black Forest (Germany) and the Massif Central. However, it is not always possible to distinguish these mountains, even in sunny weather, as pollution emanating from the plains and the absence of wind can limit the visibility to 100 km.

Mont-Blanc can be viewed from several places in eastern France, from the Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges to Dijon, Lyon, Grenoble, and Geneva, Switzerland.


Mont Blanc: a protected area

The Mont Blanc massif is home to 25 animal species (including chamois, ibex, marmots and alpine chough) and 45 plant species, which must be respected and protected.

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For many years, the massif of Mont Blanc has been a point of conflict between those who want to exploit it for economic and touristic reasons and those who wish to protect the site that they believe is threatened by the large amount of visitors. In summer, between 300 and 400 expeditions to the summit can be launched each day, and those in favour of the protection of the site estimate that in the future, more than 100,000 visitors could climb the summit, compared to 30,000 today. In summer 2003, French TV covered the news of tonnes of rubbish and faeces shamefully abandoned by alpinists in the area of the refuge du Goûter, irrespective of local laws forbidding wilderness camping. The Mayor of Saint-Gervais-Mont Blanc told about an open-air dump that exists.

In 2000, the French government has put forward the plan to add the site of the Mont Blanc massif to the UNESCO World Heritage list for its uniqueness and its cultural importance, being considered the birthplace and symbol of modern mountaineering. Such a plan would require the three governments of Italy, France and Switzerland to agree on the terms of a UNESCO listing.


Chamonix-Mont-Blanc and surroundings

The town of Chamonix

Chamonix Centre © Lite – Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The little resort town of Chamonix, in Haute-Savoie, has been closely linked to Mont Blanc since the end of the 18th century when Balmat and Paccard reached the top of the mountain for the first time in recorded history. For over two centuries, Chamonix has been welcoming travellers from all over the world, drawn to the resort by its reputation of outdoor pursuits: mountaineering, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, skiing and snowboarding.

Originally located on the lands of the Duke of Savoy, the commune of Chamonix became French on the 4th April 1860, and it took the name Chamonix-Mont-Blanc on the 21st November 1921.

But Chamonix really owes its fantastic development as a skiing resort to the first Winter Olympic Games that were held there in 1924.

The population of Chamonix accounts for approximately 9,000, but is prone to important demographic variations depending on the tourist seasons: 60,000 visitors enter the Valley of Chamonix in winter and more than 100,000 in summer.

There is not much of interest in the town itself apart from some lovely restaurants, however it is the magnificent surroundings that make Chamonix’ so much worth a visit.

Since 1965, Chamonix has been linked to Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley by the 11.6 km long Mont Blanc Tunnel which runs beneath the mountain. Alongside the St Gotthard and the Fréjus tunnels, it constitutes one of the major trans-Alpine transport routes.

Mer de Glace via Montenvers Railway

The Montenvers mountain railway (Chemin de fer du Montenvers) is a train service which departs from Chamonix and goes up to the Montenvers Hotel (1.913 m) on the flanks of Mont Blanc. The line is 5.1 km long and trains take 20 minutes, running at 14 to 20 kph.

The first section of the line was opened in 1909 with steam locomotives, until it was electrified in 1953.

On arrival at the Montenvers upper station, visitors can opt for a 20 minute walk or a short gondola ride down into an ice cave carved out of the Mer de Glace (in summer only).

The panorama at Montenvers is exceptional with the Mer de Glace and its two impressive “needles” (Aiguille du Dru and Aiguille Verte with the Grandes Jorasses in the background).

The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) is a 7 km long and 200 metres deep glacier. It is the longest glacier in France. Until the 19th century, the glacier, then visible from Chamonix, was even longer, reaching the hamlet of Les Bois. It attracted painters and later photographers, such as William Turner with the 1816 painting “Source of the Arveron in the Valley of Chamouni Savoy”.

Today, the glacier is steadily retreating: at Montenvers station, it has thinned by 150 metres since 1820.

The journey to Aiguille du Midi

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Aiguille du Midi © Olivier Risnes

The journey to Aiguille du Midi is arguably one of the most exciting cable-car rides in the Alps. It is a two stage journey, lasting only 20 minutes with an ascent of 2,800 m. The cable-car first leaves the centre of Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille (2,308 m) suspended part of the time 500 m above ground.

From there, some visitors prefer to go on a great day excursion to the Montenvers train station and take the train back down to Chamonix.

From Plan de l’Aiguille, a second cable-car rises up without any support pillar, to Aiguille du Midi with fantastic views of the jagged Aiguilles de Chamonix and the upper parts of the Mont Blanc massif.

At the top of Aiguille du Midi, at an altitude of 3,842 metres, the view of the mountains is breath-taking and embraces the Swiss, Italian and French Alps as far as the Matterhorn and Monta Rosa.

The Aiguille du Midi (Needle of the South) is said to have been called so by the local population as its position indicated the South.

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The station of Aiguille du Midi consists of two panoramic viewing platforms, a café and a gift shop. The Gourmet restaurant named “3842” is one of the highest restaurants in the world. Visitors can also find a letterbox and a post-office here with a proper “Aiguille du Midi” post stamp. The cable-car station is situated at 3,777 m and a lift inside the rock of the needle rises the final 42 m to the top terrace at 3,842 m. This is the closest visitors can get to the Mont Blanc without climbing!

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From Aiguille du Midi, another cable car (summer only), continues the formidable journey for 5 km and 30 minutes towards the Pointe Helbronner (3,462 m) above the Glacier du Géant. The Pointe Helbronner, marking the border between France and Italy, is served by another cable-car descending to La Palud, a village near Courmayeur, in the Aosta Valley, Italy.

An adult ticket from Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi (as of July 2014) is €55 return.

More details about the cable-car Chamonix-Aiguille du Midi can be found at:

http://www.compagniedumontblanc.fr/en/site-overwview/the-aiguille-du-midi

Le Brévent

One of the best views of the Mont Blanc massif is at Le Brévent, the mountain opposite. Le Brévent is accessible by gondola from the centre of Chamonix.

The relay station of Planpraz at 2,062m is reached within 20 minutes. It offers beautiful views over the Chamonix Valley and Mont Blanc. It is an ideal start for great classical hikes leading to magnificent mountain lakes or down to Chamonix.

The second stage of the journey, also by gondola, brings the visitors to the summit of Le Brévent at an altitude of 2,526m within 20 minutes. From here, the view reaches over to the French side of Mont Blanc.

The Mont Blanc tramway at Saint-Gervais-les-Bains

The Mont Blanc tramway is a mountain railway line which departs from the railway station of Le Fayet in the town of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.

This popular tourist attraction is 12.4 km long and was completed in 1914. Initially worked by steam locomotives, the line was then electrified in 1956. The three coaches were named Anne, Marie and Jeanne, from the names of the three daughters of the line’s owner at the time of electrification. It is now operated by the Compagnie du Mont Blanc who also manage the Montenvers train and the Aiguille du Midi cable-car.

The line, which provides spectacular views of Mont Blanc, is made up of a few sections from Le Fayet to the tramway’s terminus, the Nid d’Aigle (Eagle Nest).

The first section of the line, from Le Fayet to the col de Voza (1,653 m), was opened in 1907.

The Nid d’Aigle, at the tramway’s terminus, reaches 2,386m and offers a fantastic viewpoint over the Bionnassay glacier, towered by the Aiguilles de Bionnassay (4,051m). From there, experienced and well-equipped alpinists can progress to the refuges of Tête Rousse and of Goûter in order to start the ascension of Mont-Blanc.

The Tour du Mont Blanc trail

The 170 km Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a walking trail that circles the Mont Blanc massif through Chamonix (France), Martigny (Switzerland) and Courmayeur (Italy). It usually takes 7-10 days to cover the entire distance of this circular route. The route passes through seven valleys around Mont Blanc: the Chamonix (or Arve) valley, then Montjoie, and Vallée des Glaciers, in France, Val Veni and Val Ferret in Italy, Swiss Val Ferret, and either the Arpette or Trient valley in Switzerland.

It is possible to find accommodation along the Tour du Mont Blanc route, which can be broken into segments to suit virtually any fit person.

The highest points of the trail are the Col des Fours in France and the Fenêtre d’Arpette in Switzerland, both at an altitude of 2,665 m. Even during summer, some parts of the trail can be covered in snow, so hikers should carry crampons and heavy-duty waterproof jackets at all times.

It passes through (or near) the towns of Martigny, Courmayeur and Chamonix.


How to get to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is easily reached by car thanks to France’s excellent system of motorways and expressways. From Paris, take the A6 to Mâcon and the A40 to Chamonix. The A40 motorway is also called “Autoroute Blanche”. From Marseille and Provence, take the A7 to Valence before connecting to the A49 to Grenoble and then the A41 through Chambéry and Annecy till it reaches the A40 motorway.

Chamonix is also easily accessible by train, with regular TGV service from Paris Gare de Lyon and to Geneva or Annecy. From there, take a TER (regional express train) to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains before connecting to Chamonix with the Mont-Blanc express service. Some TGV can also lead you directly to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, located 20 km from Chamonix.

If you travel from Australia or America, take a flight to the Swiss airport of Geneva Cointrin (88 km) or to Lyon Saint-Exupéry (220 km) and rent a car from there! Geneva, Switzerland is by far the closest airport to the Savoie region. You can also access Chamonix by coach from Geneva.


Official website of Chamonix Valley and the Mont Blanc massif: http://www.chamonix.com. Find out more about the French Alps.

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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