Story and photos by Kayte Deioma
The Mer de Glace is melting and moving. That’s really no surprise, since that’s what glaciers do, and France’s largest alpine glacier is no exception. It’s just that the measurement of the motion of this 4.3 mile “Sea of Ice” in the Chamonix Valley is a little more apparent than most.
The distance the glacier has slipped in the last few years can be seen in a string of openings like portholes in the side of the mountain. Each one was once the entrance to a seasonal attraction, the Ice Grotto, which is re-carved out of the center of the glacier every summer. The Mer de Glace shifts up to 293 feet (90 m) per year at the center and 390 feet (120 m) at its steepest point as the ice melts and the weight of the glacier moves it along the valley. The cave itself is shifting one imperceptible centimeter per hour or 9.5 inches per day. So every year when the operators show up to where the entrance was last season, it has floated 146 feet (45 m) downhill out of reach and they start all over.
The visible evidence of this mountain of ice slipping away has added some urgency to my desire to see the Mer de Glace and the Ice Grotto while traveling in the area. This is what motivated me to get in touch with the tourist office at Chamonix to see if I could squeeze in a visit while I was a couple hours away at the La Roche Bluegrass Festival with my French friends Corinne and JB.
We were already attaching two days in Geneva to our visit to La Roche Sur Foron and had less than a day to devote to Chamonix before we needed to be back in Grenoble. That would have been ample time to visit the Mer de Glass, even in the height of summer.
The complication came when the Chamonix tourism bureau offered me a complimentary tram ticket to the Aiguille du Midi (the Midday Needle), a mountain-top viewpoint at 12,486 feet (3842 m) looking out to Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe at 15,782 feet (4810 m).
So here I am in Chamonix wanting to see the Ice Grotto with a ticket for the aerial tram to Aguille du Midi and not enough time to do both.
I don’t really want to go up the mountain. My real interest is in the Mer du Glace. I’ve read all about it and I want to see it while it can still be seen. Mont Blanc may be melting too, but not so fast.
Living at sea level as I do, I am also a little concerned over potential altitude issues. And then there is my reluctance to leave my friends behind in Chamonix. They have recently been to the top and don’t want to spend another 45 Euros each to do it again so soon. I don’t blame them a bit, but it doesn’t sound like much fun to go by myself.
Despite my protestations, Corinne and JB insist that I shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to catch a free ride to the top of the world. After all, it’s probably the best chance I’ll have to get up to such a height other than in an airplane. So I let myself be convinced.
It’s a beautiful warm summer day in Chamonix, but as JB and Corinne drop me off at the departure station for the Aiguille du Midi, JB hands me his heavy ski jacket for the mountain. At the ticket window, the cashier tells me that my departure time will be in two hours, but when she realizes I am traveling alone, she manages to get me on a tram leaving in 15 minutes – one benefit to traveling solo.
It takes 45 minutes to get to the top, but a good chunk of that is waiting. First waiting at the bottom, then waiting again at the midway station.
The crowd is a mix of tourists like me going up to take in the view, and serious climbers loaded with packs and ropes and crampons. Europe is well-represented with a few token Asians, North Americans and Australians.
I can’t help noticing the disproportionate number of good-looking men among the climbers from all countries. There are women climbers too, but I am riveted by the constant stream of smoothly rugged types who all looked like they just walked out of a North Face or Patagonia ad.
The combination of the crowded gondola and the thinning air as we climb gives me a few moments of discomfort, but I am fine once I get out into the brisk air at the top. Learning to breathe again with less oxygen takes another few minutes.
Although the mountain has been cloaked in rain and fog all week, today the sunshine is polishing the snowy peaks against a crisp blue sky. As my photographer’s eye starts looking for interesting compositions, I wonder how the heck they managed to build this multilevel structure with elevators, bridges and a restaurant here on this needle point of rock.
From Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc is still far enough away to have the tromp l’oeil effect of seeming near and at eye level, although it is over 3000 feet higher. The alpinists coming off of Mont Blanc after their climb wind up on the rocky southwest side of the Aiguille, removing their crampons and winding up the ropes before joining the tourists on deck. Everywhere I look, exhausted climbers are stretched out in the sun on the view terraces or in the restaurant enjoying a well-earned rest before the ride back down.
To the southeast, a trio of aerial trams cross into Italy. Spread below looking down the mountain, the climbers’ base camp is a colorful ant colony in the snow, little trails of worker ants strung together in clusters across the white backdrop.
The Chamonix Valley is spread out to the north, with the summer sun lighting up the town.
In addition to my two Canon pro cameras, one with a tele-zoom, and one with a wide angle, I’m carrying a little point and shoot for just such an occasion. I ask one of the North Face types to take a photo for me. He and his friends are from Spain. On the next deck, a dashing Frenchman does me the honor.
As I’m having my photo snapped, I overhear a man say to his son, “This is way better than Mer du Glace.”
“Is it?” I turn and ask, not regretting my decision, but curious. “I think so,” he says, “but we didn’t go to Mer du Glace. We did this instead. I don’t think Mer du Glace could be better than this.”
I’ll go along with that.
When I’m in the zone looking through the camera lens, I don’t notice little things like cold and pain. As I climb very slowly from deck to deck, stopping to breathe every few steps, I pull JB’s jacket tighter against the chill. I become aware that my feet feel like I’ve been walking for days, and the straps of my backpack feel like they’re turning me black and blue (an effect that ends up lasting days). I don’t know if it’s from the thin air or extra air pressure over 12,000 feet.
I refocus on framing the view and the pain vanishes. Before I know it, they’re calling my group number to go back down the tram.
For the most part, I’m thrilled with the beautiful day, the views, and the great opportunity to get some stock photos that my agency just requested – an added bonus.
But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, wait! With all the work I got done, I forgot to stop and commune with the mountain and gain some cosmic insight. Even if I had paused for contemplation, I feel like I haven’t earned the right to the wisdom of a mountain the way you might by climbing every step to the top. I am standing at the highest point I’ve reached thus far on earth. But I took the short cut.
Although I didn’t find enlightenment on the mountaintop, I’ll have to be satisfied with a good day’s work in a stunning environment pretty close to the top of this part of the world, and hope that the Mer de Glace is still around for me to visit the next time I’m in the vicinity.