Chamonix in the French Alps: a sensational playground
The town offers a stunning setting for activities from walking and climbing, to paragliding and skiing
A small plane flying over the Aiguille du Midi. Photograph: Getty Images
On a bridge on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in west Europe. Photograph: Getty Images
The ice grotto carved each year in the Mer de Glace (sea of ice), one of the biggest glaciers in the Alps. Photograph: Getty Images
The final stage of the Cosmiques Arête proves icy and requires care with route finding but, having traversed it previously, I fancy I know the way. With brash optimism, I lead my companions through the floaty surrealism of an alpine mist and then upwards into a vertiginous gully. An ignominious retreat is required, but the others accept this with wry humour. Mistake corrected, we scramble to the final highpoint. A rickety ladder then leads upwards to the Aiguille du Midi cable car station and a grand entrance that could be out of the Cannes Film Festival.
Formally attired Japanese holidaymakers surround us excitedly as we surmount the guardrail. The only missing item is a red carpet, as expensive cameras click, selfie sticks extend and videos zoom as we are “papped” into posterity. The results will, I guess, become a slideshow of European mountaineering “highlights” for some Tokyo suburb. Except, of course, the Cosmiques isn’t a mountaineering highlight, but a basic grade Alpine arête that owes its popularity to easy access from the Aiguille du Midi cable car.
Shamelessly milking the last from my “Edmund Hillary moment”, I desisted from mentioning this awkward fact to the group leader. Then, as the Japanese head off to catch a descending gondola, it strikes me that such happenchance occurrences clearly demonstrate how Chamonix is a destination with something for everyone. Nowhere else in Europe that I know of, do adrenalin junkies, outdoor lovers and relaxation seekers rub shoulders in such close and relaxed harmony.
Each summer, the French Alpine town draws thousands of thrill seekers with its well justified claim to the title of Europe’s adventure capital. They come not just to bag Mont Blanc (the highest summit in Western Europe) but also to climb Chamonix’s dizzying rock faces, paraglide, ski-mountaineer or bike from its summits, canyon and kayak its river torrents or do the Haute Route, a challenging glacier trek that leads to Zermatt, in Switzerland.
Chamonix has, however, much more to offer than the knee-knocking demands of hard-core adventure. Chamoniards know they have been dealt a superb geographic hand, and astutely play it across the widest market. In summer, lower prices bring walking enthusiasts and active holidaymakers to enjoy virtually unlimited opportunities for pulse-raising rambles on 300km of superbly maintained trails accessed by a dense network of cable cars.
Outstanding among these is the Grand Balcon Sud, which offers superb high-altitude walking and unforgettable views of Mont Blanc. More committed trekkers, preferring a multiday outing, can tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc. This walk circles the queen of the Alps at relatively low level in a memorable eight days.
But even if you are a dedicated couch potato, Chamonix can make an ideal location for pleasure and leisure. Let the Montenvers train take the strain as it trundles up to a great viewing point above the Mer de Glace (sea of ice), which is one of the longest and deepest glaciers in the Alps. Here, an additional cable car ride offers effortless access to an ice grotto that is ingeniously carved each year from glacier ice.
Then pick a clear day for your holiday highlight. The only exertion required of you for what is arguably the finest vista in Europe, is a stroll to the Aiguille du Midi cable station. Here you are assumed seamlessly to a breath-robbing 3,842m before being decanted to a vista offering a bewitching prospect over clutches of eye-wateringly white peaks. The highest cable car in the world also departs here offering a seamless crossing of the Mont Blanc Massif to Pointe Helbronner and the option of a descent to the Italian resort of Courmayeur. If all this still seems like too much effort, daily helicopter flights are available (weather permitting) offering views of the highest summits from the best possible vantage point.
Evening is, for me, the time that Chamonix truly weaves its spell as thrill seekers and holidaymakers alike descend on the town’s cosmopolitan streets in search of le bon temps. It occurs in abundant quantities among the terrace cafes, lively bars and chic nightclubs. It’s this heady mix of adventure highs and laidback lows that draws me back to Chamonix again and again.
The day following the Cosmiques traverse, I joined friends for a relaxing cable car ride to Plan d’Aiguille. A three-hour hike to the 19th century elegance of the Grand Hotel du Montenvers, then offered mesmeric views over the Chamonix Valley and a salient lesson on the effects of global warming. A century ago it was possible to walk directly from this hotel onto the Mer de Glace, but the glacier has retreated hugely and is barely discernible below us.
Next day’s highlight was white-water rafting the Arve river through Chamonix. Hotel guests leant over their balconies in languid curiosity as we hurled past in a confused miasma of spray, shrieks and uncoordinated paddling. A delicious ramble around the snowy wonderland of the Vallée Blanche, with lunch in style at a mountain refuge, was another high point while the final pièce de résistance for my Chamonix visit was provided by a close and personal encounter with the 4,000m summit of Mont Blanc du Tacul.
Others among our group took on more demanding challenges. They backed themselves for the Trois Monts route to Mont Blanc summit, which is one of the most renowned high traverses in European alpinism. Stories of their incident-bound success on one of the Alps’ most sought-after routes were provided on a final night in the riverside Terrace Bar at the town centre.
These tales had me eaten up with envy and resolving to return to sample again the unforgettable outdoor highs that lie waiting around the Chamonix Valley.