October, 2016 – On a glorious Sunday when the sun painted smiley faces on the sky, blue as the blossoms on my morning glory vine, husband Jim and I layered winter gear for our exciting trip to ascend to 3,842m/12,602ft. A lump forms in my throat and a slight shiver shimmies down my spine when I think about it, even now. I read the tourism brochures, and a few guidebooks, to plan and arrange our trip to Chamonix in the French Alps. The most astonishing experience listed is The Step into the Void which is virtually a glass box on the side of the mountain at 3,842m/12,602ft. (I keep repeating the astonishing height to get your attention.) The advertisement promised 100% thrills guaranteed and 100% safety. We promised 100% guaranteed that we would not step foot into the glass cage!! No Way!! Forget it!!
Modern advancement offers many opportunities for exciting travel. But think about the hardship of travel hundreds of years ago in this area without the road systems, automobiles with GPS, AC and heating and much more! I read about the three-month-journey of a group of young people in the summer of the year 1816, written by Mary Shelley. At the time of the journey she was Mary Godwin, eighteen and pregnant, and her soon-to-be husband Percy Shelley arrived by mule with her at Chamonix in July, 1816. What were you doing when you were eighteen? Mary described wild and daring tales: “Did I tell you that there are troops of wolves among these mountains? In the winter they descend into the vallies … and devour everything that they can find out of doors.” Were you that adventurous? Would you say: “Mother, may I take off to the unknown? I could be eaten by wolves, or fall down the mountain, or be covered with an avalanche. Oh, and by the way, I’m pregnant.”
We arrived in Chamonix and parked our comfortable Citroen, more expensive to feed compared to Mary and Percy’s mules. My excitement ran high with the beautiful mountains surrounding us and the cable cars passing just above. Mary (Godwin) Shelley described it best:
“Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew – I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness. And remember this was all one scene, it all pressed home to our regard and our imagination. Nature was the poet, whose harmony held our spirits more breathless than that of the divinest.”
The cable car station for Aiguille du Midi is in Chamonix, where tickets can be purchased easily off-season, but they should be bought in advance during peak times. The cable car soars high above the town to reach the Plan de l’Aiguille (2317 m). You can admire the Glacier des Bosson, Mont Blanc, the Aiguille Verte, the Drus and the Aiguilles de Chamonix. At this level, Jim discovered a new hairstyle when he removed his hat. Do you think I should send the picture to his hair stylist?
We missed a grand adventure because it was closed for maintenance. If you go, don’t miss the ride on the famous little red railway train. Time will stand still and you will enjoy the vintage ride, climbing the mountainside, rolling through tunnels and over viaducts. Then you will enter the high mountains at the destination of the famous Montenvers-Mer de Glace glacier. Click this link if you would like to check for information. Mary (Godwin) Shelley was the best tourism authority:
“…the immense glacier of Montanvert, fifty miles in extent, occupying a chasm among mountains of inconceivable height, and of forms so pointed and abrupt, that they seem to pierce the sky… masses of ice detach themselves from on high, and rush with a loud dull noise into the vale.”
Ms. (Godwin) Shelley put this glacier on the map famously in a different way when she wrote a story that all of you will surely know. In 1816, when she was in Switzerland sitting by the fire at night, keeping warm while the mules were elsewhere, she was challenged by her friend Lord Byron to write a ghost story. Mary turned nineteen in August, and she wrote about a scientist who animated a “hideous phantasm” out of, perhaps, parts of a corpse. Do you have it yet? Do you know the name of the story? She wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. “The terrifying, pivotal encounter between the scientist Frankenstein and the daemon of his own making takes place on the Mer de Glace, where the creature took refuge from the world that despised him.” With this Gothic masterpiece, she wrote the glacier into history. Don’t miss this train!We saw parasailers launching from the first level, and we regret that we didn’t stay there longer. We anxiously went aboard the next cable car thinking we would stop on the return, but we were too tired. High altitude has that effect on your body.
We went slowly, taking time to adjust. A few young ones were having more difficulty than we experienced, so we didn’t feel so ancient. The second cable car took us up to an altitude of 3777m in 10 minutes, above seracs and glaciers. From this level you can see the tiny glass cage high above where people step into the void. They look like stick figures suspended in open air!
Then, we walked through the tunnel cut into the mountain, passing the museum to continue higher.
We took the top lift to reach the peak, the highest level. The dazzling mountains glittered below us at this dizzying height. I noticed people were snapping photos of themselves below the sign showing the elevation. I removed my camera and strap from my neck to ask Jim to do the honors. Unbelievably, I dropped my camera! I was in shock. I stood, breathlessly, with my face as white as the snow, waiting for Jim to examine the camera. He said the words I wanted to hear, and color came back to my face. The camera fell and hit on the side, not the lens, which was probably the salvation of my Canon. How could I miss the photo opportunity of a lifetime with Mont Blanc close enough I felt that I could touch it and with the endless mountains of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps spread below?People were lining up to enter the room for the 100% safe and 100% thrilling Step into the Void. I could see the glass cage from the side where excited couples were standing, seemingly on nothing, right there in thin air. I grabbed a few shots of their excitement.
Then, lo and behold, Jim got in line for the glass cage that we had 100% guaranteed no way we would ever step foot into! Like an idiot, I followed his steps. He assured me: “Didn’t you read the sign? It is made of three glass plates with each plate 12mm thick and held together with mechanical fasteners that were specially made for the project. The whole shebang is tested continuously by the Centre Scientifique something or other. German and French laboratories tested it.” I answered his scientific, calculation theory: “Do you even know how thick 12mm is? And, don’t say shebang. It sounds too much like something falling!” Despite all this, I stayed in line enjoying the photo opportunities. Why did we go for it? Maybe we wanted to get our money’s worth since it was part of the ticket. Everybody else was doing it. Where have I heard that one before?
It was our time before we knew it. We had to put our camera bags and coats in a storage area, and a nice man used my camera to take pictures of the Ambrous in the Alps enjoying an unforgettable experience! Our time in the glass cage was over too soon with another couple stepping into the big, floppy shoes. All visitors must wear the soft shoes over their own shoes. No, our feet are not that big if you are looking at the photos and wondering!
We went through the museum on our return and met a young couple outside the door assembling their mountain climbing gear. We thought we saw them later on the snowy slopes.
My business card was in a pocket with them for an exhilarating ride! If you look closely, you will notice that the black dots are people on the massive, frozen precipices of ice and snow.
I never felt afraid at any level until our trip down on the cable car. We were in the front with full view of the wide-open expanse as we swung on the cable up to a tower and then down again, moving quickly along to the bottom. (Photos were taken through the glass on a moving cable car while I braced with one hand, so they are understandably blurry.) The buildings below were spread like a tiny toy town as we sped toward the cable car station. Maybe I wasn’t truly fearful, but I gasped and swallowed a scream when we went down from the tower! The lady on the other side did the same with OMG in another language!
What can I say? We did it, and it was an adventure of a lifetime. I want to go again!
Quotes are from the short book (68 pages): “History of Six Weeks’ Tour Through A Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland” (The title is almost as long as the book.)
Please come again. We have more mountains to climb and aching muscles to prove it. I do greatly appreciate your encouragement, kind comments and sharing this blog link with others.
Perhaps you would enjoy reading “A French Opportunity” which has many more pages than Mary’s short book of letters, but then again, I can’t boast that I wrote the story of Frankenstein!