Lac Blanc and the Grand Balcon Sud

A glorious view of Mt. Blanc and the Chamonix Aiguilles

By the time we got down from our hike to Lac Brevent it was obvious that the rain had settled in. We could walk back through town in the rain as easily as through the mountains, so we looked for a good place to eat a late lunch. After a reasonably hard hike we were both hungry. Most of the restaurants had covered patios so we found a spot out of the rain (finally) and settled it for lunch. This time Sandy tried a pizza margherita while I had a bowl of pasta. While we ate we could watch everyone else walking by in the rain. It was much more entertaining to watch other people walking in the rain. The place had great desserts too but we were filled up by the time we finished the main course. We decided to come back to the same place for dinner. That evening we ate very light so that we would be sure to have room for dessert. We each had salad and some excellent french onion soup (we were in France after all). For dessert I had profiteroles and Sandy had molten lava cake. She claimed it was better than at Dan Ryan's in Singapore which is high praise indeed.

On the way back to the hotel I broke down and got an umbrella too. Sandy had been right.

Sandy heading up the trail to Lac Blanc

It rained through the night and was still raining Monday morning. That meant that we got to sleep in without feeling guilty. But around lunch time it stopped and the skies started to lighten. The forecast was for clear weather the next morning so we were optimistic that we would have one day of good weather before we had to leave Chamonix. We already had our One Big Hike picked out. The start would require that we take a different telepherique than the day before, one that was some distance up the valley. To check it out we walked from our hotel to see how much it added to the hike. It took us about 45 minutes each way so at least we got some exercise even though we didn't hike in the mountains. Sometimes rain days can be pretty claustrophobic on mountain trips so we were glad that we got out at all. Afterwards we even got in some shopping. Sandy bought a pair of hiking slacks she really liked (Lafuma - functional but very stylish) and I was able to find at least one tshirt and a baseball cap.

The massive snow peak of Mt. Blanc - highest mountain in the Alps

Next day the weatherman proved to be true to his word. Tuesday morning dawned perfectly clear. Sandy had a quick breakfast while I skipped as I often do. We grabbed our packs and headed out. Since we wanted to spend our time hiking in the mountains and not in the valley, we took a quick ten minute bus ride to the village of Les Praz rather than taking the forty five minutes to walk to the cable car station. Because it was such a nice day after two days of rain everyone was out early and ready to hike. We ended up packed in the gondola like sardines. Sandy was sure it was overloaded and was going to crash. Amazingly we survived the ride up to La Flegere at 1894 meters (6214 feet). Although uncomfortable, in five minutes we had climbed 2800 feet above Chamonix. One of the great things about hiking in the Alps is that there are no boring approach hikes, no two hours of slogging through the woods before you reach a viewpoint. We were up in the sky right from the start with a fantastic view.

Hikers in the upper basin of Lac Blanc

And what a view it was. Spread out before us was the whole of the Mt. Blanc range. It was dominated by the huge white mass of Mt. Blanc. At 4810 meters (15,781 feet) it is the highest mountain in the Alps. It's more than 1200 feet higher than any mountain in the continental US. It is not just its height that is impressive though. The mountain is massive. It is a huge snow peak with gigantic glaciers on all sides. Mt. Blanc was first climbed by Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard on August 8, 1786. Although part of the motivation was scientific (to take measurements of air pressure at higher altitudes) it was the first ascent of a major mountain. It was the beginning of the sport of mountaineering. Although an epic climb in the eighteenth century it is actually not a difficult technical climb. It is really just a long snow slog. But it takes about three days from the valley, three days that you need good weather. Getting caught in a storm high on the mountain would be a real epic. I would still like to climb it someday but I don't know if I will get a chance.

"Garcon - a table with a view please!!!"

As spectacular a sight as Mt. Blanc was, it was surrounded by lesser but still incredibly impressive mountains, all with exotic sounding French names. There were the Chamonix Aiguilles (pronounced ay-gwee, French for needle) which are a group of incredibly sharp rock peaks. Just as Mt. Blanc provided the birth of mountaineering in the eighteenth century, the Chamonix Aiguilles were where technical rock climbing was developed in the late nineteenth century by Englishmen of the Alpine Club and their French guides from Chamonix.

There is the Grand Charmoz. The Aiguille du Plan. The Grepon, the last of the group to be climbed in 1881 by the great English mountaineer A. F. Mummery and his guide Alexander Burgener. His autobiography "My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus" was one of my favorite books when I began climbing myself. Although first climbed over a hundred years ago, these mountains are all difficult technical climbs even by the standard routes. Back in the 1980's when I was trying to be a serious climber the easiest routes on these peaks were beyond my ability. It's amazing to think what these Victorian mountaineers were able to achieve, climbing in their hobnailed boots and tweed jackets. No Vibram soles, crampons, pitons or GoreTex. Today climbers are still pushing the state of the art in these mountains and doing some of the most difficult alpine rock climbs in the world.

The intrepid hikers pose on the way down from Lac Blanc

In the distance, beyond the huge glacier of the Mer de Glace was the North Face of the Grand Jorasses, one of the five great north faces of the alps. It was first climbed in 1938, but still seems an impossibly steep face of vertical rock and ice that rises 3900 feet from the glacier. Other beautiful peaks were all around: the Aiguille Verte - one of my favorites, the Dru - with it's 5000 foot high Yosemite-like granite walls, the Aiguille d'Argentiere, the rock spire of the Dent du Geant, and a host of other peaks I couldn't even name. The view was as spectacular as any I have seen anywhere in the mountains.

There was one sad point that registered in this scene. I had been here before in the mid-1980's. It was obvious to see that the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France, was significantly shorter than it had been when I was here last. Checking up afterwards, I learned that it had retreated half a kilometer in the past twenty five years or so. I had seen the same thing this summer on our trip to Mt. Rainier, where the Nisqually Glacier had retreated visibly since my first visits there thirty years ago. The effect of global warming is easy to see for anyone who looks. Some day a lot of this spectacular scenery may be gone. Of course, I know people who claim that global warming is a hoax. Even some (most? all?) of the Republican presidential candidates do. I just wish they would convince the glaciers so they would stop melting.

Le Chardonnet and the Aiguille d'Argentiere

After admiring the view and taking lots of pictures it was time to get to work. Our plan for the day was ambitious. Since we had great weather and it was our last day in Chamonix, we were going to link together two different hikes. Our first objective was Lac Blanc, probably the best known and most popular hike in the area. Although the lake is quite a bit higher than the cable car station, the trail started by descending into and then climbing back out of a small basin. Since hikers are never anxious to give up elevation, we followed a group ahead of us on a track that traversed to a boulder field rather than dropping down. The traverse was easy but the boulder hopping that followed was more work than it would have been to just drop down and climb back up on the nice trail. A typical noob mistake and I definitely know better. But not much harm was done and soon we were through the boulders and back on the trail.

Aiguille Verte, the Dru, and Grandes Jorasses in the distance

The trail rose gradually at first but became quite steep near the lake. It was only three miles to the lake but the trail climbed over 450 meters (about 1500 feet). Lac Blanc is perched in a basin right at the edge of a slope. When we walked around to the far side we could look across the lake to views of the Mt. Blanc range across the valley. Spectacular. The basin rises in a series of steps towards the crest of the Aiguilles Rouge range and there are several more small lakes above. We chose not to go higher as Lac Blanc has by far the best views. We thought that our time was much better spent on the patio at the restaurant/refuge that is located at the lake. Of course to get a table one needs to order food or drink so we decided that it was time for a snack. I ordered a salad and a Diet Coke and Sandy had an omlette and iced tea. We enjoyed our food and drink sitting on the patio with a spectacular view in front of us. Hiking in the Alps is very civilized.

Hikers on the Grand Balcon Sud

After our snack break it was time to head back down the trail. On our return we were walking straght towards Mt. Blanc and looking right at the view. Much better. On the way up I had been turning around continuously and had almost tripped multiple times while admiring the mountains. As the day went on the light on the western peaks improved so I was busy snapping pictures the whole way even though I had taken lots on the way up. Eventually we were back at our starting point at La Flegere. Here there was a small kiosk that served food and drinks. On the way down we had decided that we needed dessert to go with our light lunch. One has to keep up one's energy when doing hard hikes in the mountains. This time we each had a sugar crepe. Very good. Again we took a long break to admire the view. Now that we had completed one moderate hike it was time for our second hike.

Aiguille Verte and the Dru

From La Flegere, which is the midpoint of one telepherique, we would hike to Plan Praz, which is the midpoint of the telepherique which we took to Le Brevent two days before. Both of these cable cars climb from the Chamonix valley up the Aiguilles Rouges range, a ridge which runs across the valley and parallel to the giant Mt. Blanc range. About half way up is a shelf, called the Grand Balcon Sud (large southern balcony) which runs along the entire range. Both of the midpoint terminals of the telepheriques were on this shelf. There is a trail which contours along the shelf for several miles from one to the other. Our plan was to hike to the Le Brevent cable car which we could take back to Chamonix near our hotel. Much better to walk along a high ridge than the valley floor to get home.

Sandy on the Grand Balcon Sud

It didn't seem very far - we had hiked from one telepherique line to the other along the valley in forty minutes. Plan Praz was only about 350 feet higher than La Flegere. The guidebook gave the standard time as two hours. We didn't see how it could take that long. We left La Flegere optimistically figuring that we could do the hike in an hour. Well it turned out that walking straight along a flat valley floor was a lot different than contouring along a complex ridgeline. Just because the net elevation gained wasn't very much didn't mean that there wasn't a lot of up and down along the trail. It was a lot more work than we expected. It was well worth it though as we got ever-changing views of the mountains as we walked along the ridge. We both had to admit that we were getting tired towards the end and ready to get to the cable car and a ride down in comfort back to the valley. But the trail had gradually lost elevation along the way so the last stretch was a steady climb uphill, never welcome at the very end of a hike. We persevered and reached Plan Praz and the telepherique terminal. It had been a long day of hiking but the views had been spectacular. The food wasn't bad either.

Sandy enjoying a fondue dinner our last night in Chamonix

Speaking of food, we decided to celebrate our fantastic day of hiking with a good dinner in Chamonix. We had beef fondue, a specialty in this part of the Alps, along with a good bottle of local wine. After a hard hike we had to build our strength back up. At least we had gotten in one great hike in the Chamonix/Mt. Blanc region. There are many fantastic hikes and we easily could have spent another week there. But tomorrow we would be traveling to Switzerland to explore another famous hiking region. We would go to Zermatt, a village at the foot of the most famous mountain in the world, the Matterhorn.