This past October AWR’s Tilden Daniels traveled to Chamonix, France. Located beneath the Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak at 15,781 feet, the Chamonix valley is a must-see destination for anyone who loves the mountains. Here is the first of two trip reports.
As the train made its way up the narrow valley I admired the verdant forest and the steep slopes. Then, after a bend in the tracks, I looked up upon the ice falls of the Mont Blanc’s impressive Bossons Glacier. I was in Chamonix to visit hotels and do some fall hiking, returning here for the first time since moving back to the US from Geneva. I’d visited the valley numerous times with friends to hike and climb, but it had always been for a day trip and by car. Taking the train for the first time gave me the opportunity to gaze up at the massif above Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, the town’s official name that includes the mountain that made it famous. The mountains seemed bigger, the cliffs seemed steeper, and the glaciers seemed whiter than they had ever been before.
During the 1920s Brad Washburn, the famous American mountaineer, spent summers in Chamonix as a teenager, learning the art of climbing mountains in this idyllic alpine environment. I had dreamt of Chamonix while reading about Washburn’s formative climbing experiences on the Mont Blanc, and, as I gazed upon the valley walls, I remembered other tales of climbing in the massif including the first ascent of the Mont Blanc in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard organized by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, the exploits of guides including Gaston Rébuffat, the novels of Roger Frison-Roche, pioneering big wall climbs by Walter Bonatti in the 1950s and 60s, and modern climbs by Arnaud Petit. The massif is certainly steeped with history and mountaineering legend.
All visitors to Chamonix, whether arriving by train, bus, or car, will quickly be able to find their way around the town. Since I was traveling light I walked to the helpful tourist office where they provided me with a map and directions to my hotel, the four-star Le Morgane. After a five-minute stroll I arrived in the tastefully decorated and recently renovated hotel where I was greeted by the welcoming staff and the hotel manager, Tiphaine. For those looking for an upscale and comfortable lodging experience, Le Morgane is an excellent choice. It has modern rooms, a restaurant and bar, and a full service spa. My spacious room included a balcony with magnificent views of the Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.
Chamonix is a charming, vivacious mountain town with excellent shopping, numerous restaurants and cafés, and old-world streets and squares all in a spectacular setting. I walked around the town center and strolled along the banks of the Arve river. After visiting several hotels I walked by the Musée Alpin (Alpine Museum) and the Maison de la Montagne (Mountain House or Guide’s Office). Chamonix is also France’s official mountaineering center and the alpine training center lies on the edge of the town’s center with towers named after Himalaya massifs.
I noticed a brewpub off past the end of the training center and decided to check out the Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (Chamonix Mirco Brewery). The friendly brew master poured me a glass of excellent pale ale and conversed with clients in both French and English. I commented on the smooth nature of the pale ale and he replied that he brewed it that way since the locals don’t have the palette for the “hoppy” style of American pale ales and IPAs. It was good beer and a great atmosphere. I felt right at home.
I strolled back to the center of town and chose one of the numerous restaurants. I ordered the hearty specialty of Haute Savoie (Chamonix is in the French department of Haute Savoie): Tartiflette. As I ate my meal of potatoes covered with Roblechon cheese and bacon served with a green salad, I thought about the next two days hiking along the south and then the north side of the valley and the wonders that awaited me: the Mer de Glace glacier and towering, granite needles of the Mont Blanc massif; the wild beauty of the Aiguilles Rouges with pristine mountain lakes; and views over the Mont Blanc.
Stay tuned for my next post on these two amazing hikes.
— Tilden Daniels / Adventures Within Reach
All photos © Tilden Daniels, 2010.