Aiguille du Midi, France
The Aiguille du Midi (12,605 feet – 3,842 meters) is a mountain near Mont Blanc in the French Alps, in the département of Haute-Savoie.
In winter, it’s the starting point for the famed Vallée Blanche (“White Valley”), a 12.5-mile long off-piste ski run. It offers experienced skiers amazing views and a 9,000-foot vertical elevation change from start to finish. Note that it’s best to go with a guide, as the run is crisscrossed by crevasses, is unmarked, and unsecured.
In summer, it’s a base camp for summit attempts of Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest mountain. For most, however, the awe-inspiring 20-minute gondola ride up simply for the awaiting views is totally worth it. Yes, that’s right, you don’t need to be a professional mountaineer to get up there.
The town of Chamonix lies at the base of both Aiguille du Midi and of Mont Blanc. After the Winter Olympics there in 1924 (the first ever), the French realized the Aiguille’s potential to attract tourists, so built a gondola. In the words of my cousin, “if I had the highest mountain in the Alps, I’d put a cable car up there, too.” The current one dates to 1955, and has the highest vertical ascent of any in the world.
Once at the top, the obvious attraction, again, is the views. Inside the mountain (literally) is an exhibit on the history of French and international mountaineering, from its early beginnings to today’s records. Look out for old photos of the first tourists ascending in an open-air gondola, in suits and top hats. Then go back out for more views.
The mountain is also one end of the Vallée Blanche Cable Car, with the other at Pointe Helbronner, on the Italian side. It’s only open during the summer, though. So seize this chance to cross an international border in a gondola over a glacier.
You’ll do well to dress warmly, regardless of the season. It isn’t uncommon for summer temperatures at the summit to reach freezing. And, needless to say, winters are quite cold. There’s a cafeteria at the top, offering hot drinks, water, sandwiches and candy bars. But because of this only option, and the necessity of hauling provisions up in the gondola, it’s pretty expensive. But definitely check out the souvenir shop.
Given the place’s popularity, the gondola is pricey, at €60 roundtrip for adults (there are family and child passes, too). This is where you might consider a one-way ticket and ski (or paraglide) down. Try to get in line early, as only so many people can go up at a time.
Reaching Aiguille du Midi’s base of Chamonix is pretty easy. Chamonix has two regional train stations (one is a dedicated Aiguille stop). There are also bus services from Lyon, France, and Geneva, Switzerland. Both cities are well connected internationally. Check timetables carefully, though, as bus services vary with demand and season. Driving is an additional option, with the Mont Blanc Highway linking the mountains to the rest of the French grid. And the Mont Blanc Tunnel seamlessly connects Chamonix to Italy.
Due to Aiguille du Midi’s altitude, people with respiratory and/or heart conditions, as well as pregnant women, should consider the risks of ascending, or of remaining for an extended period of time at the summit. It is also not recommended to bring small children, for health and safety reasons.