If you’re not a mountain climber, you may not be aware that high altitudes make you giddy. Me not being a mountain climber, I wouldn’t know this either, if it weren’t for the marvel of cable car engineering at Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France, which takes you as close as you can get to the top of the highest peak in Europe without crampons and ice picks.
Mont Blanc straddles the border between France and Italy, in the midst of the Alps. The small town of Chamonix sits in the valley at its feet, serving as a base for skiing, mountain climbing, paragliding, and (of course) sightseeing. From the ground, the Chamonix cable car doesn’t look like it’s going to go very far, just up to the top of the tree line. But when you disembark from the first car, a second cable car awaits to take you much, much higher. With ears popping, you whizz upward at an impossible angle past rock and then ice. Emerging from the car at over 12,000 feet, the temperature has dropped to a nippy 34 degrees, birds are inexplicably flying below eye level, and climbing one flight of stairs makes you winded. (A nice cup of hot chocolate helps.) Finally, an elevator propels you up to 12,605 feet, where you can admire the top of Mont Blanc, glistening in the near-blinding sun, and the valley spread out far below you. The many climbers who scale these mountains (apparently unaware that they could just take an elevator) look like mere specks on an otherwise unblemished white landscape.
Near the top, there’s one more ride available to you: a gondola that travels over the mountains from France to Italy on a 3-mile-long uninterrupted cable. You spend the next 40 minutes gliding high (really high) in the air above glaciers and crevasses. The sensory overload of so much breathtaking natural beauty, combined with the thin air, makes the cares of the world fall away; even the insubstantial nature of the door on the tiny gondola seems remarkably unimportant. Your only worry is running out of memory space and battery power on your camera.
I’ve now made the trek to Chamonix-Mont Blanc twice, and I found it just as impressive on a second viewing; in fact, it’s one of my favorite sights in Europe. Since my last visit, they’ve added a glass box jutting out over a 3,280-foot precipice - because apparently the whole thing wasn’t exciting enough already.