Chamonix-Mont-Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi cable car

Looking back at Chamonix, France, from the Aiguille du Midi cable car as it ascends

Decades ago, I was intrigued to learn it is possible to take a cable car over the Alps from Chamonix, France, to Italy. I’d wanted to make the trip ever since, but I learned that weather was a huge factor. The Aiguille du Midi (“Needle of the Midi”) is a 12,606ft mountain peak in the Mont Blanc massif. The Aiguille du Midi cable car is the highest cable car in France and the closest you can get to the summit of Mont Blanc without climbing. Weather can turn bad quickly at such high altitudes and the cable car can be halted without notice. Losing visibility is also a risk if clouds form on the mountain peaks. Even when living in Paris, a dash for the Chamonix cable car (a 6+ hour drive or multi-stage train trip) on a day forecast to be sunny just never made sense. With two summer weeks to spend house- and cat-sitting near Geneva, I realized we were only an hour and twenty minute drive away from Chamonix. My time might finally have come to visit the famous ski town and the Aiguille du Midi cable car!

Aiguille du Midi cable car rises from Chamonix

I realized I wouldn’t be going over the Alps to Italy this time. We needed to stay in Thoiry to take care of the house and our charming feline charge, Leo. The practicalities of traveling via cable car didn’t really make sense either the more I thought about it: What to do about cars? Luggage? Riding up the highest cable car in France to look Mont Blanc “in the eye,” so to speak was more than good enough for me. I scoped out the weather predictions for the Aiguille du Midi mountain peak, picked the sunniest near-term forecast, and bought our tickets for the Aiguille du Midi cable car online.

The day arrived bright and sunny in Thoiry and we headed off. I’d chosen at 12:05 time slot thinking we’d have a leisurely start, time to look around Chamonix, and hopefully let any clouds burn off. My plan mostly paid off, but my concerns about weather were well-founded. We arrived to a clear day in Chamonix, parked just across the street from the cable car base building at the Parking du Grépon, and walked around to find a crowd in the paved plaza in front of the building waiting for their time slot to be called. Touristy types like us mingled with mountaineers hauling gear. It was warm in the sun and we headed on into town to explore and to find the makings of lunch to take up the cable car with us.

Chamonix and the Arve River with the Alps and Mont Blanc in the distance

Chamonix is every bit the pretty Alpine ski town I expected it to be. We had fun wandering the streets and really lucked out with our picnic lunch choice: Le Refuge Payot, offering local foodstuffs, turned out to have a terrific deli in the back with baguette rustique and aged meats cut to order. I chatted with the young man making our sandwiches about the changes wrought by Covid and how Chamonix was starting to regain its mojo. We also discussed the jarring shortage of Dijon mustard in France. David and I had only just discovered the empty mustard shelves upon arriving in Thoiry. There’d been plenty of mustard –which we use copiously – in Antwerp, only a shortage of certain cooking oils due to the war in Ukraine. Our sandwich-maker informed me that Chamonix, too, had no mustard. It was a sad state of affairs in a mustard-loving country and we commiserated the shortage as we discussed the crazy state of the world in general. We talked about masking and anti-maskers, government restrictions and lack thereof, all the things that most of the planet has had to deal with in one way or another. It’s a strange, bonding experience in a way. In some form or fashion, we’ve all experienced the global pandemic. Despite huge progress, all was not back to normal in Chamonix and business was relatively slow, even for the summer season. I wished him luck as we paid and packed our sandwiches into backpacks full of the warm layers we’d brought for our cable card ride.

Passing another cable car on the way up. Mid-way, the mountain slope is pretty barren, but there’s a small bar and hiking paths.

Business wasn’t so slow at the Aiguille du Midi cable car when we returned following our walk. Buying tickets in advance was definitely the right move. I’d been happy with our 12:05pm time slot, but I’d been eyeing wispy clouds growing in the direction of Mont Blanc apprehensively as we walked around Chamonix. The skies were still cloudless in the other direction with more than a dozen hang-gliders flitting above the town. For all the good that would do us if clouds snagged on the higher peaks around the summit of the Aiguille du Midi. I wanted to get up the cable car as soon as possible while the skies were still reasonably clear in that direction. Once our time slot was called, we moved quickly through the line to be packed in a probably-not-pandemic-smart way into the cable car. We snagged good spots and had wonderful views as the car moved steeply upward. There’s a stop midway, but getting off there risks being unable to find space on a crowded summit-bound car, so we stayed on to the top. And what a top! The Aiguille du Midi and the mountaintop buildings at its highest reaches exceeded my lofty expectations. Wow! And, wow, was it cold after the warm day below!

Mont Blanc across from the Aiguille du Midi. Look closely to spot climbers.

Thankfully, we’d come prepared and I’d even managed to wiggle into some layers on the ride up. Icy air and bright sunshine greeted us as we stepped onto the first of many terraces in the sprawling complex of buildings at the summit of the cable car. I hadn’t realized just how extensive the structures on the summit are; they’re truly impressive, and the soaring Alps surrounding them are even more so.

Just some of the impressive construction atop Aiguille du Mid

We wandered from building to building, terrace to terrace, marveling at the sweeping views. In all directions, we could see lines of linked mountaineers and other mountain climbers in pairs and smaller groups. It was so strange to watch people engaged in strenuous activities out in high altitude as we watched from the ease and comfort of viewing decks and big plate glass windows. Binoculars are a must-bring for a trip up the Aiguille du Midi! We could zoom in on people climbing Mont Blanc itself, wondering if gathering clouds would make them turn back, idle-if-fascinating entertainment for us, potentially life-threatening for them. Equally incongruous were the climbers around the summit buildings: We were watching Mont Blanc climbers at one point when a woman climber appeared over a boulder just in front of us. More than once, a climber appeared beside or just above a viewing deck.

A climber summits a peak adjoining a viewing terrace

Facilities at the top of the Aiguille du Midi included museum-quality exhibits on the effects of altitude and the construction of the cable car and its buildings, Le Tube, a large passage suspended between two buildings, a café, a restaurant (still closed due to Covid on our visit, but due to open soon), a gift shop, toilets and more. There is also that connection to the cable car descending into Italy. I found the whole thing wonderful, the vision, skill and chutzpah required to conceive of and build such a place remarkable.

Pas Dans le Vide with buildings and terraces below and Chamonix beyond

It would be easy to spend hours at the summit buildings, and we did. One of those hours, though, was spent in line for the Pas Dans le Vide (“Step into the Void”), a clear box over a breathtaking drop into which visitors step for an extra-special view and photos. There’s no extra charge for the experience. At first, we thought the whole concept was a waste of time, but as we found ourselves mesmerized by the views and realized we still have a view as we waited, we gave in and joined the queue. Would it have been a great trip without the Pas Dan le Vide? Yes! Am I glad we did it? Oh heck, yes! I mean, who knows if we’ll ever go back and it was unique and fun.

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