Monday August 29: Chamonix France
Aguille du Midi
We woke up to a clear sky. Amy got up around 6am. She said that the mountain (Mont Blanc) looked neat in the moonlight, and she could see little dots of headlamps of climbers. I got up around 6:20, but it was already too bright for headlamps.
We got dressed, went down, and checked out the breakfast buffet. It had the usual European stuff, but it also had scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage, so we stayed and had breakfast.
Afterwards, we gathered up our cold weather gear. This time, I wore my down vest and brought my light down jacket, Sam brought her jacket, and Amy brought her jacket. We walked over to the base for the tram for Aguille du Midi, got some tickets, and got on in fairly short order. They really pack the people in the tram--very much like sardines. No sense of social distancing here. They pretty much need to because the tram is so popular, they really have to get as many people as possible up on each trip.
The cold weather gear was required, because when we got to the top, it was right around freezing. The tram up didn't bother my fear of heights, but I found some of the railings on the various viewing platforms made me uneasy. We wandered around looking at the views from the various viewing platforms.
I found the exit to the "scary ridge" that I had traversed more times than I had cared for in the past. I had hoped to be able to go far enough for Amy and Sam to see the ridge from the point of view of a climber, but at the barricade (which said basically, "if you go past here and kill yourself, it isn't our fault.), you couldn't really see much. You had to go past the barricade a bit and then look out the tunnel mouth to see anything.
The good news (or bad news for me) was that the Panorama gondola to Italy, which had been closed for most of the summer was opening for the first time at 11am that day. Around 10:00, I went over to see when they started selling tickets for it, and found that they were already doing so, and there was a small line waiting to buy them. I joined the line.
A bit later a guy came down the line asking in French and in English, "Do you know why you are standing in line?" He went on to explain that this was the line to buy tickets for the tram to Italy, and if they just wanted to see Aguille du Midi, they could bypass the line and go straight in.
I got three tickets, and we got in line for the panoramic tram. It was about 10:20. They originally said that the tram would start at 11, but someone said that it was starting at 10:30. In reality, I think it started around 10:45.
The way that this tram works is that they have groups of three small gondolas, each of which seats up to 4 people. There is a fairly large gap between groups. The gondola cars are fixed permanently to the cables, so to load or unload, the entire system slows to either really slow or stopped.
On the way to Italy, we ended up getting joined by a single (a nice guy from Paris) so there were four of us. Earlier, I said that this was bad news for me, because the gondolas were much higher than I remembered them being, and particularly on the way over, I was rather stressed out, and I kept my eyes closed for most of the trip. I was particularly less than happy when we stopped in mid-air while they were loading/unloading people.
I sort of remembered the way from the French side to the Italian side as being relatively level. Not even close. There is a large dip in the middle, so one has to climb down one slope, while avoiding the myriad crevasses, and then ascent the other side. It also meant that the gondolas tended to be fairly high, which didn't help my stress.
Eventually, we got to the Italian side. Apparently the border is right at the station, because there was a sign that essentially said, "When you cross this line, you are now in Italy."
We were getting fairly hungry at this point, so we checked out the restaurant. Then things got really strange. The guy there asked us if we were there for drinks/deserts (I think) or for lunch. When we said "for lunch", he told us that the restaurant did not open for lunch until 1pm. We decided that we would just get drinks, but he seemed to not want to seat us in the dining area. Instead he put us at some small tables surrounded by bar stools. However, we noticed that other people were being admitted to the dining area, and they were getting drinks, so we were really confused. Eventually, we talked to the guy at the bar, and said that we wanted to be seated at a normal table, and he directed us to a table with a fairly nice view out the windows.
Other people seemed to have ordered stuff and had it delivered to their table, but no one came by to take our order. Eventually, I went up to the bar and got a latte and a hot chocolate for myself and Amy. Then I went up with Sam and got a juice.
The whole experience was very strange and unsettling. We had no idea what really to expect or to understand why we seemed to be treated differently from other people.
One interesting table, which was roped off was located on a small extension to the floor that was transparent. Before we left, we saw the host remove the rope and seat a family there. I don't know how that was arranged; whether they had reservations or paid extra for it, or just asked nicely.
After we finished our drinks, we checked out the viewing areas. They had one place where you could climb up some transparent steps and walk across a transparent floor above a large drop. For whatever reason, that didn't bother me, certainly unlike how I felt around the outdoor railings. Amy didn't have problems with the exposure, but she had some trouble with the transparent floor/steps. She wasn't exactly sure where the ground was, and she was afraid that she might stumble and fall. (I actually almost did that leaving one of the viewing platforms. I thought that the first step down was the end of the platform, and when I stepped there, I found that the "ground" was about 8 inches lower than I was expecting. Fortunately, I had a good grip on the railing, so I didn't actually fall, but if I hadn't been holding on, it could have been rather messy.)
Amy was having some difficulty with the thin air (as we were expecting), particularly when going up stairs. We brought our blood oxygen sensor on the trip for just this occasion, but we forgot to bring it with us to the mountain, so we couldn't check the O2 levels in our blood.
There seemed to be some sort of professional film crew setting something up there. There was also a team flying a drone, even though there were multiple signs saying "no drone zone". I was wondering if they were part of the professional video group, or just a clueless tourist ignoring the rules.
I had wanted to show Amy and Sam the “hut” where I had stayed when I had been there on the first Mont Blanc trip, but that was significantly lower than the tram building, and there was no way that Amy was going to go down there and have to climb back up afterwards. When we had first arrived, Sam said that she wanted to go down there, but at this point in time, we were getting tired and hungry, so we just went back to the Aguille du Midi. I found this trip slightly less traumatic, as I was able to look around a few times and even take some pictures, but I was far from comfortable. I was quite happy when we got to solid ground again.
Unfortunately for Amy, the way to the tram was up a large number of stairs, just so that you could go past the restaurant, through the gift shop, and then back down a bunch of stairs.
When we had gotten off the panorama tram, a guy handed us priority tickets for the tram to Chamonix, but while we used them, they didn't really save us much time. When we loaded the tram, we were about the last people on before they decided that it was full and could descend. That means we were about the first off at the halfway point, and some of the first people on the bottom leg. They packed us in like sardines, but then they asked everyone to push over so they could cram more people in. It was really packed.
There were a large number of people outside the mid-way station, either just lounging around, hiking down, or hiking up, or perhaps just hiking around. We didn't leave the station and just went down as expeditiously as possible.
We got down at maybe 2:30 or so. It would be a late lunch, but we figured that the prices would be better in town than on the mountain, and the selection certainly better. Sam got an ice-cream at the tram gift shop to tide her over until we got lunch. We went a few blocks down the street, and then got a table at an omelet place. Amy and I ordered a single omelet (as opposed to a double or triple), but it still looked pretty big. As opposed to a breakfast course, it came with a small salad and fries. Sam got a pizza.
After that, we meandered back to the hotel and chilled a bit. On the way we found a restaurant that offered the raw meat and a hot rock to cook it on. I hadn't tried that when I was out here before, as there is a two-person minimum. We wanted to try it, but since we had had such a late lunch, we made reservations for tomorrow evening.
I wrote up some of the day’s events. Amy wanted to check out the north end of town and in particular get a closer look at some sort of sports field that she had seen coming down the tram. It was now rather warm, so we dressed in shorts and a tee shirt and set off. We found the sports complex, and it was like an oversized gym. There was a track and field area. We saw a large spiral water-slide, and when we went to investigate, we found a somewhat elaborate indoor pool setup, with the tubular water slide ending up inside the pool room.
We wandered back along the river. Amy didn't want to walk to the hotel just to walk back to the center of town (she was getting very tired), so she found a place to sit, and I went back to the hotel room and got Sam. Amy had checked out the menu of a place where I had had a bad experience on a previous trip, and she decided that we still wanted to avoid it.
We wandered around a little and found a fairly popular place. Apparently one of the workers hadn't shown up, so they were a bit short staffed. There were two groups waiting to get in ahead of us. When our turn came up, the guy said that it would be about an hour before an outside table opened up, or he could seat us inside. We opted for inside.
Just to be different, they had a large animatronic polar bear inside. It would sort of move its head in a circle. It was interesting but a little strange.
Even though it was about 7:30, I really wasn't that hungry. I ordered a French Onion soup and a green salad. When it came out, I decided that I should have ordered the side salad, as the salad I got was huge. The meal won. At the end, I hadn't finished the soup, and I had eaten less than half the salad. Amy got some lentil dahl, and Sam got some linguini. Neither of them finished their meals either, although they came closer than I did.
I think it was about 9pm when we emerged to a night scene. We just came back to the hotel, and I took a shower and wrote the rest of this up. Tomorrow should be a mellower day. The forecast calls for a significant chance of rain, and we're planning only a small activity. The following day, we return home.