"Why have they taken down the ropes?" I asked.
"Because people are stupid and they would try to climb down and probably fall," responded Bernadette, our guide.
"Down" was 12,000 feet where we stood just below the Mont Blanc on the Aiguille Du Midi plateau during a late summer visit. My traveling companions and I watched well-equipped climbers with huge ice cleats as they traversed the glacier after expert mountain guides led them down.
I had been here before during the winter to ski the glacier and I knew about the ropes, but this was the first time for my five non-skiing companions, who carefully watched each step. The glacier is not skiable at this time of year. It is climbable, but not without danger. a group of experienced mountain climbers were recently swept to their death by an unexpected avalanche.
We watched in awe as each group of climbers slowly- very slowly -descended the narrow ribbon-edge of snow and ice. This was why I had asked Bernadette about the ropes. Skiers with ski boots don't have crampons to grab onto the ice. They go down holding onto ropes. I'm certain they are quietly praying as they move downward.
Just how experienced were these Chamonix mountain guides? I watched as one of them climbed up to gather a group of cautious and nervous climbers after previously taking them down to a relatively flat landing area. If you think climbing up is easy, think again. The thin air and dangerous climb up the narrow strip of ice-laced-snow with nothing to hold onto is not for the weak of heart.
Our group was here to experience the thrill of a cable car ride perilously close to the side of the mountain and to walk through the massive tunnels cut into the mountain and out onto the parapet and peer over the ledge into nothingness. We lucked into a beautiful and bright Mont Blanc September day where the temperature was only 50 degrees Fahrenheit. A few weeks later the Chamonix temperature dropped 40 degrees. An indication that winter in the Alps was on its way.
But it was a magnificent sight on this day, marred only by the shortness of breath we experienced as we climbed higher for a better vantage point. Climbers were below us at several points, while daredevil, climber-paragliders tried in vain to catch enough air to sail off into the void.
Watching these jumpers put a damper on our bravery. We had flown in a four-seater operated by Megeve Aero-club the day before for a total sightseeing fly-around the glacier. It was a neat flight even though it did scare a few of our group. I also thought we'd moved rather close enough to the glacier wall without having to peer into all the cracks and crevices.
A nervous passenger asked the pilot how often he flew this type of flight. His answer was matter-of-fact: "Six or seven times a day." Conversation in the aircraft was limited to the pilot uttering an unintelligible comment about an interesting locale that he tried to fly as close to as possible.
Each of us wore a one-way conversation earphone that kept us from asking more dumb questions, while he concentrated on the close-up mountain inspection. One passenger wanted to open a window to take a better photo. A loud "No!" was the response. Any bravery some of us might have felt about taking a flight into the glacier was certainly dispelled by watching the climbers and paragliders show us what bravery and fear are all about.
We wanted to relax after watching others have all the fun, so we quickly hustled over to the train station before noon in order to ride the Montenvers cog train to the Mer de Glace for lunch.
I had no idea that this is where a previous trip of Blue Book of European Ski Resorts editors ended up nine years ago, after skiing and climbing out of the Mont Blanc glacier. I think we were all so thrilled just to have survived the 30-foot climb straight up a slippery iron-rung ladder in our ski gear- boots, poles and skis - that we didn't care where we were. I figured out that this was the same train that took us down to Chamonix. What a difference nine years makes.
I'd now flown over the glacier; skied in and around the Mer de Glace; rode the cable car to the top and watched climbers descend from the Du Midi, but I'd never heard of the "ice cave" under and into the glacier. So, I was excited to see a close-up of where we skied and, if possible, to view the ladder nailed into the mountain. I was denied the ladder visit because it was not safe, but was told that they had added more rungs because the glacier had receded over the last decade. The hotel, by the way, is not heated, and is only open in the summer.
The Mont Blanc glacier with the characteristics of every glacier as it moves downward ever so slowly, necessitating a new ice cave to be burrowed out each year. This has been going on for five years and the evidence of each scar into the Mer de Glace ice was visible as we descended into the bowls.
A dripping watery entrance was evidence of the melting glacier, but it was cold and rather eerie inside. Man had cut a series of rooms - kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living room--into the ice as we walked the semi-circle into the rooms and then out.
Mont Blanc is awesome. Just knowing that I'd skied the glacier, walked under it, looked down upon it and flown over it was a euphoric feeling. It is a feeling available to anyone who does not suffer from acrophobia, claustrophia, or vertigo and can ski or climb.
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