Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ascending the Needle

We've just returned from a six day trip to Chamonix, France, a long weekend intended to be a ski trip but which turned into an eat-our-way-through-every-melted-cheese-dish-available. We went with our friends, D.&K., who are leaving in under a month, so we had to pack in as much fun as possible. From Naples to Geneva, there is a cheap and quick flight to Geneva, Switzerland, where one then catches a 1.5 hour shuttle to the Alpine town of Chamonix. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed over three hours, which led to us missing our shuttle and another delay in Geneva of two hours for the next one. Our quick, weekend jaunt turned into an all-out, full day of travel. After settling into our respective hotels (we stayed at La Croix Blanche, our friends were at Le Morgane), we headed out for a delicious meal which set the standard for the next four days of incredible food. In four days, we didn't have a single, bad meal, and for me, I didn't even have anything mediocre. Every dish was amazing, even down to the simple, fresh bread and goat cheese sandwich.

Friday, our group split up, with the guys heading off to ski Le Brevent while K. and I headed up the cable car to Aiguille du Midi (Needle of Midday), a height of 3842 meters (12,605 feet). Thrilling, terrifying, amazing, exhilarating. We packed into one cable car, which held about 40 people and quickly watched the town of Chamonix recede into the distance. Then the transfer to the second cable car. I later learned that these cable cars have the highest vertical ascent in the world. At the top, we found a building setting atop a mountain peak. And by setting atop, I mean the building is directly on a spire peak. The connection to the next building is over a short bridge with nothing under it. Parts of the building hang off the edge of the mountain. Stairs to various terraces are metal, ice-covered, and see-through, so that we could get a good look at the great nothingness below. But the views...what can I say...we were quite literally on top of the world. And the Alps just stretch out into the distance as far as you can see. As K. observed, "these are nothing like the Rockies." At a rough guess, I took approximately 150 photos of Alps peaks, which all look beautiful and "same, same, but different" - much like the 401 pictures of sunsets that also litter our various photo albums. We got an up close view of Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak (over 4800 meters), and got to watch skiers head down an impossibly steep, slippery ridge, carrying skis, poles, and packs, to launch themselves into the Vallee Blanche ski area - an area that is not groomed, not patrolled, and prone to unseen crevasses and avalanches.

Underneath all the padding, this is me, venturing out as far as I'm willing past the big, "Don't go here" signs. The photo above shows the actual skiers walking down this same ridge to reach the top of the "ski" area.

K. and I had a quick lunch in a small cafe with panoramic windows overlooking the majesty, then spent half an hour trying to find the lift to the actual top of Aiguille du Midi. We finally found someone to ask, and luckily for us, the fellow who operated the lift was standing nearby. He'd closed it due to lack of use by the morning's visitors. After a short wait, we headed even further up, where we got a great, overhead view of the building we'd just been tromping around. I have a little vertigo just looking at this photo!

Over the next few days, I'll put up more information about our trip. The rest of the trip, while not quite as scream inducing, was nevertheless, a fantastic, restful time and the fulfillment of a dream of Nathan's to ski in the Alps.

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