Saturday March 16, 2013
Spend a breathtaking and wintry holiday in the French Alps
Story and pictures by ZR Yang
Malaysians, creatures of thunderstorms and sweltering heat, ought to enjoy a winter holiday at least once in the French Alps.
I couldn’t breathe. My lungs felt like a pair of deflated balloons. My heart was pounding faster than a racehorse. My head seemed like a merry-go-round. Yet I had a silly grin on my face and my eyes were glimmering.
If you had seen me then, you would be forgiven for thinking I was intoxicated.
The overwhelming beauty of the Alps, combined with high altitude sickness and flesh-freezing temperatures (-20°C, mind you!), were a potent travel cocktail. Exhilaration, exhaustion and excruciating cold. Bienvenue to the French Alps!
Let me clarify at the outset that I didn’t go mountain climbing. Arduous physical exertion is not for me (meaning I’m lazy). The whole reason for coming to Chamonix Mont-Blanc was that it’s the most easily accessible part of the French Alps – and it has modern amenities.
I wanted the best views with minimum exertion at reasonable prices. Typically Malaysian, no?
The Alps itself is vast, spanning from Italy in the south to Germany, Switzerland and Austria in the north. Its name varies depending on which country you’re in – it’s called the French Alps in France, Swiss Alps in Switzerland, Italian Alps in Italy, and so on. Between these three, the Swiss area is the most luxurious (and most expensive), the Italian the least developed (suitable for rugged adventure), and the French side the best in-between (great for families).
Getting to Chamonix Mont-Blanc is easy. From Geneva, the closest international airport, it is just a 45-minute drive on the highway to Chamonix village in the Alps. Alternatively, it’s two hours’ drive from Lyon, France’s second largest city.
I took this route, and the road approaching the Alps, appropriately named La Route Blanche (the White Road), was one of the prettiest I’ve driven on.
On both sides of the road were pure white slopes covered in snow, dotted by villages and flanked by powdery-white Christmas trees, all set against the backdrop of majestic mountains reaching for the skies.
Thankfully, my wife often reminded me to keep my eye on the road or our holiday would have ended prematurely!
At an elevation of just over 1,000m, Chamonix is covered in natural snow throughout winter (mid-December to mid-April). The upper peaks, over 3,000m in height, are covered in snow throughout the year. We chose to come in winter to enjoy the white winter wonderland, although the sub-zero temperature proved very testing at times (couldn’t even tie my shoelaces).
The weather also changes very quickly during winter. It can be foggy in the morning, then clear with intermittent clouds for an hour or two, and then snowing the next.
If freezing temperatures is not for you, it’s good to visit in summer too. The scenery then would be like that in Sound of Music – high alpine plains with snowy peaks.
Chamonix Mont-Blanc (chamonix.com) touts itself as France’s skiing and mountaineering capital. Its tagline Le ski comme nulle part ailleurs (Skiing like nowhere else) and L’exceptionnel accessible! (The exceptional is accessible) certainly lives up to its name.
There are five main areas for skiing – Domaine des Houches Saint-Gervais (countryside family-friendly skiing), Brévent Flégère (for all levels with ski jumps and time-speed skiing run), Domain de Balme (bordering Switzerland with a slalom run), Les Grands Montets (high-altitude freestyle for experts) and La Vallée Blanche (the ultimate death-defying, ski-at-your-own-risk place).
In total, there are over 190km of ski runs, and you can ski over to Italy and Switzerland and back on the same day.
Ski or sled?
Having tried skiing before, I didn’t fancy getting sore muscles and falling down more than staying upright. Wisely, I told my two girls we would go sledding instead. If you want to ski, you should give yourself at least four days if you’ve never done it before.
The first day is learning and falling. The second day is slightly better though muscles are aching in places you never knew existed. The third, you begin to enjoy. The fourth, you have the time of your life. But with sledding, you should be a pro after 10 minutes, even if you’re a kid slightly above six.
The freezing wind rushing at your face as you descend makes it all the better. It’s fast, thrilling, fun and cheap. Unlike skiing, there’s no need to hire ski clothes, shoes and equipment, which can cost up to ‚70 (RM280)/day.
Just rent a simple sled for ‚5 (RM20) a day or buy it for ‚15 (RM60 – some ski resorts provide them free). You also don’t need to use ski lifts (‚30+ (RM120+)/day) as the sled runs (piste de luge) are free and located at the bottom of the mountain.
Grab one and be a child again.
For the more adventurous, there is the snow board and the ski bike – a bicycle with its wheels replaced by skis. Crazy, if you ask me, because the handles will poke into your chest on a fall. Other activities include forest walks, trekking on snow shoes, ice skating and paragliding.
L’Aiguille du Midi
The main attractions, though, are L’Aiguille du Midi and Le Montenvers - Mer de Glace. At an elevation of 3,842m, L’Aiguille du Midi was where I was “intoxicated”.
This is Europe’s highest cable car, rising to an altitude of 2,800m above the jagged Alps in 20 minutes. When the gondola door opens at the top and you step out, three things hit you like a lorry.
Wham! The sheer stunning white beauty of the mountains. Everyone is whipping out their cameras and taking off their bulky gloves to get shots. Double wham! The icy coldness grips you. At -20°C, you have trouble pressing the shutter button, let alone adjust settings. I was surprised that my point-and-shoot camera was working in this temperature. After a few quick shots, you would want to put your hand back into the gloves or risk losing your fingers.
Wham No 3: You’re out of breath. Even though you’re breathing, nothing seems to be going into your lungs, like you’re a fish out of water. Soon, the excited crowd that came out of the gondola with you is like you – leaning on the rail or sitting on the floor, gasping and looking pale, as if everyone has come under a gas attack.
My wife thought she was having a heart attack! Not to worry, after some rest and taking things slowly, you should be up on your feet.
Thankfully, there’s a nice heated cafeteria where you can rest, and even a restaurant (although I can’t imagine eating when one is feeling nauseous with altitude sickness).
The four terraces at the top offer perfect, 360° alpine views. To the east is Mont Blanc (literally “White Mountain”), Europe’s highest mountain at 4,810m. To the west is the valley below in which the Alpine villages Chamonix, Les Houches and Argentière are located. Directly south next to L’Aiguille du Midi is the Bossons Glacier. And to the north are nine peaks above 3,000m bordering Switzerland.
In short, it’s absolutely stunning scenery. They certainly have made the exceptional accessible. To think that I’m almost at the same height as Mount Kinabalu but didn’t trek or climb one single step.
Le Montenvers – Mer de Glace
Le Montenvers – Mer de Glace is equally mesmerising. From the Chamonix city centre, we boarded a fiery-red cog railway train that trudged up the steep mountainside, cutting through forests, tunnels and viaducts. Arriving at an altitude of 1,913m, we didn’t face any altitude sickness and were quickly rewarded by the spectacular glacier Mer de Glace (which means “sea of ice”) right next to the station.
In winter, the glacier is covered in snow and looks like a silky smooth white serpent snaking its way through the mountains. In summer, the glacier is still visible, though obviously smaller and contracted, looking like an alligator’s rough jagged back.
A sign at the look-out area indicates just how much the glacier has shrunk in the last century. Its depth has decreased by more than 30m. Global warming?
From here, we took a short cable car ride halfway down to the glacier. The rest would have to be done on foot. A sign warns tourists that there are 380 steps. Having come all this way, we weren’t going to be deterred by some steps – a silly thought, I realised later, as it’s tough work climbing up in -12°C, wearing heavy winter clothing, and carrying my 16kg child.
Once again, it was breathtaking! The stairs lead to an ice grotto, cut into the glacier itself. Inside, we felt like we were in the cartoon Ice Age, looking for dinosaurs frozen in time. The temperature was markedly warmer in here than outside the glacier. For the first time, I experienced for myself how igloos must work to keep people warm.
Besides a changing light display throughout the 70m cave, there are also models and pictures of the early explorers. The cave was opened way back in 1946. However, it was only opened throughout winter beginning in 1993 after avalanche defences were built to make the railway safe.
A very important thing in ensuring a good winter holiday experience is having suitable clothing and a warm night’s sleep. Winter apparel can be costly but are essential if you want to last more than 10 minutes in sub-zero temperatures.
As for accommodation, there are many ski resorts and hotels in Chamonix-Mont Blanc offering anything from simple rooms to luxurious stays. In general, accommodations in Les Houches (7km from Chamonix) are cheaper than in Chamonix. A one-bedroom apartment that sleeps four, set in typical wooden cabin style, located next to the ski slopes, costs about ‚110 (RM440) a night.
This comes with self-catering facility which is very useful since a dinner at a restaurant will set you back at least ‚20 (RM80)/person. More important than saving money, though, is the fact that it’s no fun trudging out in the dark numbing cold (below -10°C at night) after a long day of skiing or sightseeing.
It may leave you breathless, again.