The Aiguille du Midi is a gondola ride that goes from the village of Chamonix seemingly vertically to almost the tip top of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. This single experience was, without a doubt, one of the very coolest things I’ve ever done in all my life. I cannot recommend it highly enough; none of us will ever forget it.
When we planned our trip to Chamonix, this was the only thing besides skiing that we felt was a MUST DO. But, because the gondola can only operate in the right weather conditions, we almost didn’t get the chance. We spent the first two days of our trip skiing; overnight that second night, the weather in Chamonix turned and it snowed. When we woke up on Sunday morning, we went to the ticket office and were told that because of the snow and high winds, the gondola wasn’t open yet and to check back at 10:30AM. We were totally bummed, but went and got some hot chocolate and croissants while we waited for the next update.
When we got back, thankfully the ride was opening! The sky had cleared, the clouds had lifted, and we were on our way.
The ride up takes about 20 minutes, with a stop halfway where you switch from one car on the lower set of cables to a second car on the higher set. The village of Chamonix sits at about 1035m above sea level (2277 ft); the first half of the gondola ride takes about 10 minutes and seems like a fairly gentle incline — rising up to 2317m (5097 ft). The second half of the ride takes you up to 3777m (8310 ft). Our ears popped and Gabe was freaking out a little bit, but that’s what Gabe does. Then we got on the second cable car and looked up. And then Gabe wasn’t the only one freaking out a little bit.
I thought for sure that there must be another relay point we just couldn’t see between where we were and the top; looking at the cable stretching up in front of us I felt completely sure that there was no way on earth that we were going to follow that line straight up. It looked physically impossible. And yet, that is what we did.
As we glided over the snowy, rocky mountainside, sitting in a metal box dangling from a metal rope hundreds of feet above the ground, I felt this weird combination of exhilaration and fear. We were hanging in space, suspended over a mountain and a glacier. It was both breath-takingly gorgeous and spine-chillingly terrifying. As we rose, the gondola swung a bit each time we passed one of the three pylons holding the cable aloft (one of which is 70m tall!). Each time, everyone in car gasped a little. There was a general sense of amazement and a feeling like everyone there was holding their breath. It was intense.
At the top, we stepped out of the cable car and had to walk across an open air bridge…
…that looked across this incredible vista…
…and up at our eventual destination.
The wind was absolutely whipping and it was about -15C and within 5 seconds my hands were numb and stinging. On the other side of the bridge we went into a bit of a tunnel carved out of the ice. In there were a few mountain climbers who had taken the Aiguille du Midi UP, but were making their way DOWN on their own. They had ropes and ice picks and gear that I can’t identify and were attaching crampons to their boots and they were going to go OVER THAT GUARDRAIL and climb down the mountain.
I made the children promise right then and there that if they love me they will never, ever do that.
We walked through the building to an elevator that brought us up to the very top. Because of the altitude, everyone’s ears were popped and it was, to be absolutely honest, a bit hard to breathe normally. We all had headaches off and on, and I got dizzy walking up the scariest staircase on the planet, all metal and snowy and hanging off the edge of a mountain. But it was 100% worth it for what came next.
When you stand at the top of the world and look out, you feel both tiny and immense. The Alps stretched out beyond us in every direction forever and ever; at that moment we could see France, Italy, and Switzerland all in one panorama.
It was a perspective change that you don’t forget. We are these specks on the Earth, so insignificant in comparison to the mountain. And yet, there we are, standing at the top.
The last part of our tour was called Step Into Void. It’s a glass box built off the side of the building that hangs out over a 1000m drop. In order to convince my brain that it was okay to walk out there, I had to look straight ahead. Once I was in the box, I looked down, and even though I am not afraid of heights, I felt my knees go a little weak. I may have cursed out loud.
Bridget was the only one who, throughout the entire experience, never hesitated, never felt a tingle of fear; she loves this stuff, eats it up. She’s the one I’m going to have to worry about going over guardrails and climbing down icy mountains.
Owen went in the box, but only with Matt beside him. Quinn declined entirely. And Gabe, who spent the entire time up until that point near tears with fear and anxiety, watched the rest of us Step into the Void with his back against the opposite wall, refusing to even look. And then, when everyone else had gone, quietly asked if he could have a go. He’d worked up the courage; he knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime. And he slid out into the glass room, looked out and down and up and raised his hands in triumph.
And I thought, “THIS. THIS IS WHY WE TRAVEL. THIS IS WHY WE DO THESE THINGS.”
Even if we hadn’t skied, the trip to Chamonix would have gone to the top of my list of favorite destinations for this single experience alone. It was inspiring, it was exciting, it was humbling.