Into the mountains: Chamonix
The Alpine resort of Chamonix is best known for its ski and snow appeal, but it attracts summer thrill-seekers too — as well as those who prefer a gentle mountain stroll. Words: Helen Warwick
I’m walking down a street in Chamonix. Shop staff are locking up, a couple linger outside a cafe, talking passionately between intense pulls on their cigarettes, and a cyclist winds past me, deftly steering with one hand as he talks into his mobile. But I’m only mildly aware of these passers-by. It’s the giant mound smouldering through the mist I’m utterly seduced by. Mont Blanc — her beautiful white peak rising to 15,780ft — is attempting to break through the thick cloud that’s concealed her serrated nooks and crannies since my arrival yesterday.
I’d expected blue skies on my bus journey from Geneva to the French Alpine resort, with the promise of wild swimming and days spent leisurely strolling and sunbathing. But a chilly spring had put paid to that. And to my itinerary. The plan had been to trek up to the Refuge le Plan de l’Aiguille — one of the many mountain huts where, during the summer, walkers can bed down for the night with a simple hot meal from around €45 (£39) — before tackling the Grand Balcon Nord, a high-altitude hiking trail in the Chamonix Valley. But with snow continuing to submerge many of the valley’s tips, forcing the closure of the refuge, it was time for Plan B.
Luckily, I’ve a right-hand woman in the form of Anna — an old friend who moved here several years ago. “We can just hike the Petit Balcon Nord instead,” she suggests, licking crumbs from her fingers after our lunch of hot salmon quiche and lemon tart at the local patisserie. “We’ll pack a picnic and head out tomorrow morning, picking up the trail all the way to Le Tour.”
Le Tour, I’m to discover, is a pretty hamlet at the end of the valley, surrounded by meadows. But walking’s for tomorrow. For now, we pop into a pub in Chamonix’s centre and practise our French with locals over €8 (£6.90) carafes of Sauvignon Blanc, before flopping into bed at the Gîte Le Vagabond — just €20.89 (£18) for a bunk and breakfast of croissants and coffee.
Another dawn breaks and again blue sky escapes us, but at least it’s not raining. We’re just an hour into our trek and the chalets and buzz of ‘Cham’ have long deserted us, leaving wildflowers and the heady scent of pine for company. Sharp ascents to our right tower into thick mist and cloud. We greet two, perhaps three, walkers and a cyclist with a nod.
“You can cycle this path,” Anna explains. As I catch my breath at the top, after climbing a steep incline for over 100 metres, I’m silently pleased she hasn’t suggested biking it. That, unbeknown to me, awaits us tomorrow.
That’s the thing about Chamonix — it’s a maddening world for thrill-seekers, and not just while there’s snow on the ground. Whether you want to tackle the crevasses of a glacier, negotiate a steep mountain bike descent, or free-climb, you’ll find it here, in what’s dubbed the ‘death-sport capital of the world’.
Mountaineering was born here, when locals Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard first ascended Mont Blanc in 1786, while the Mont-Blanc Marathon is one of Europe’s toughest. Paragliders have a thing for the valley too — Chamonix’s thermals are thought to be some of the best in France.
“At a guess, I’d say there are around 200 deaths a year resulting from extreme sports and extreme conditions,” says Anna, confirming my fears. Only yesterday, my transfer driver had told me he’d recently being caught in an avalanche, saving himself by ‘swimming’ as the cascade of snow and ice engulfed him. “Aye, it was a lucky escape,” he’d said in his thick Scottish accent, laughing at my startled expression.
But it’s calm here today, with no wind to fluster the evergreens, though specks of rain run down the tip of my nose. The scattering of rhododendrons, narcissus and orchids that smother the meadows in summer have yet to bloom but fragrant wild grasses line our trail, and I can’t help but look up at the gargantuan trunks of towering pines, sheltering us beneath their green canopy. We haven’t seen a human being for hours.
With signposts stretching the length of the trail, it’s easy to navigate, and after three or four hours, the appearance of Le Tour, with its clutch of charming chalets overlooked by the spectacular Le Tour Glacier, signifies the halfway point, after which we cross the valley to the Petit Balcon Sud.
It’s 6pm when we arrive back in Cham. Having covered 16 miles, our aching calves crave stillness and sleep, but first we hole up in Neapolis — a cheap and cheerful pizza place. Afterwards, propped up at a bar for a nightcap, we chat to a rowdy group of local guides. “You come for the winter and stay for the summer,” explains one, who’s moving back — reluctantly — to the UK. And with that, he knocks back his beer and yells, “Cham, I’ll never forget you!”
How to do it
Bike hire: legendchx.com
EasyJet return flight – £112
Return transfaer ticket from Geneva airport to Chamonix with Mountain Drop-offs – £59
Two nights at Gîte Le Vagabond, B&B – £36
Bike hire for three hours – £10
Total (excluding meals): £206.54
Read more in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)