Aiguille du Midi - Chamonix, France
Aiguille du Midi is a peak located in the Rhône-Alpes of France; It is part of the Mont Blanc massif. From the town of Chamonix, you take a series of two cable cars (téléphérique in French) which ascend a whopping 2,807m (9,209 feet). The second cable car runs without any support pillars - this means the cable car is suspended by nothing other than the building at the top and at the bottom.
Once you arrive at the top, you'll be in awe at how they even built a building here. It's built directly into the rugged mountain peaks, suspended above what remains of a glacier and a vertical drop of well over 1,000m (more than 3,000 feet). You exit the cable car and proceed through the building and you have a variety of options. You can make your way to a few viewing platforms; one at which provides a 360 degree view of the area and another that looks behind you to Mont Blanc. You then cross a bridge that connects you to another portion of the Aiguille du Midi.
A tunnel takes you into the mountain itself. There's an elevator that was installed in recent years that takes you up to the very top of Aiguille du Midi. There's a viewing platform and an attraction they have named "Step Into the Void". This is a glass box that extends out from the building and hangs over 1,000m precipice. If you're fortunate enough to visit this on a clear day, it's terrifying! On our first trip, unfortunately it was foggy so we couldn't see the drop below, but on our second trip, it was clear and we could see just how far up we were.
Once you're back down at the main level of Aiguille du Midi, there are a few things you can do. First, you'll notice a tunnel that has been carved out of the snow and leads onto the mountain - this is the main access point for people who are headed out to do some mountaineering. Skiers and snowboarders in the winter; rock climbers, glacial tours, people looking to summit the highest peak in Western Europe, you name it and many of them depart from here. There's a staging area just beyond the snow tunnel with a gate - this is a wonderful place to take in the views and get just a taste of what it would be like to venture out onto one of Europe's most beautiful mountains.
After you've taking in the views and your heart rate has come down from the vertigo, you can venture even further back. You will pass a gondola, named "Panoramic Mont Blanc" - this gondola runs from the French side of Mont Blanc over the Mer de Glace to the Italian side (Mont Blanc is now Monte Bianco). The gondola ride is 25 minutes each direction. It's suspended in the area above a massive glacier - the ariel perspective provides incredible views as you pass over crevasses and you're also provided a remarkable view of Mont Blanc with it's exposed rock faces and massive drops.
When you arrive on the Italian side, you see a much different perspective of Monte Bianco (because you are now in Italy). The typical view of Monte Bianco is from the Chamonix valley; the Italian side shows the much more weathered face of the mountain. Melted glacial ice has carved a symphony of jagged rock, scaling up to the summit of Monte Bianco and it's surrounding peaks. When you look south from Pointe Helbronner (the Italian station), you can see basins that have been left behind after the glaciers melted away; vast green open spaces with pointy mountain tops. If you choose to, you can take the cable car from here down to La Palud which then allows you access to the Italian town of Courmayeur.
Once you arrive back at Aiguille du Midi, there's still more to see. Just this year they added a feature called "The Pipe" - the pipe is a steel tube that connects two different parts of Aiguille du Midi and provides spectacular views with large panoramic windows and history of this incredible architectural achievement. After walking the length of the tube, you can make your way outside to one more viewing platform.
The views in conjunction with the architectural wonder of Aiguille du Midi will leave you breathless, both metaphorically and figuratively. Mont Blanc is my favorite mountain in all of the Alps and this magical place allows access for everyone to enjoy. If you ever find yourself in France, I strongly urge you to take a trip to Chamonix and make it a point to visit Aiguille du Midi, but be warned, this is a very popular tourist place so it becomes busy very quickly. We were up and in line at 6am on all of our visits here. It's early, but you're much more likely to catch a cable car and enjoy it before the crowds flood in.
For more information on Aiguille du Midi visit the official website of Chamonix by clicking here.
(click to enlarge)