The Melting Sea

THE MER DE GLACE is the largest glacier in the French Alps.   The question I wonder, is for how long?  Consider the following....

To reach the glacier and explore the ice cave, one starts at a far up the mountain valley.   One must take a gondola ride down to half way point, followed by a long zig zagging staircase all the way down the rest of the glacier valley.    Once there, one can enter the ice cave.

Every year, new ice caves must be dug, because the glacier (and therefore the caves) are continuously moving downhill.  But not only must new caves be dug, new stairs must be added to the bottom...because the glacier is shrinking away.

Here is a picture of the glacier the way it looks today, 2012, at "ground level":

Had we visited in 2005, just seven years earlier, we would have climbed down and back up about 100 fewer stairs, because here is the level of the glacier caves then...the two pictures are of a sign marking the level, and a picture of the glacier taken from the sign.   

Here is a perspective from 1990.  The sign, and the ice blankets in the background mark the distance to the caves.

  Here is another perspective from the level of the ice in 1990. Note the descending stairway all the way to the bottom left edge of the photo until it disappears out of sight.    

Finally, 1980.  Here is the level of the sign, then I turned around and snapped one from that same position in the direction of the ice.    Note the winding stairway and the barely visible cave entrance.

Perhaps if one wants to visit the ice caves of Mer de Glace, they should plan on doing so soon? 

Caves in a Sea of Ice

These pictures come  from the Ice Caves of Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France...which every year becomes smaller and smaller.   A cog train - the Montenvers Train - travels from Chamonix up the mountain slopes to a station. A gondola than travels back down the slopes towards the glacier, but not all the way to the bottom. The last 400 steps down are only navigable only on foot.  Every year more steps are added to the bottom as the glacier shrinks away.  

At the base of the stairs lies the ice caves, passages dug into the ice every year for adventurers who want to see the inside of the shrinking glacier.  The caves are illuminated by florescent lighting, which casts the ice in a array of colors.  

You are very welcome.   I usually sling mine over my shoulder anyway.

The ice caves are dug every year as they drift down the mountain slope.  The stairs lead into this years' carving, with the last three years visible to the left.

 There is a steady rainfall in the cave as the glacier melts under the summer sun.   It's not just seasonal melt that impacts this glacier either. The glacier is shrinking year over year- dramatically - one of the many tangible evidences that the planet is warming.

Aiguille du Midi Takes Your Breath Away

IT'S HARD TO BREATHE at the top of Aiguille di Midi, over 12,000 feet above sea level, whether because of the thin air and spectacular scenery - or both.

This trip is not for those who fear heights (Anna is one of those, although she would say "I'm not afraid of heights, I'm afraid of falling.").    A gondola launches from the street level of the town of Chamonix...and goes up, over a ledge and out of sight.

The ride is in two stages. Here, at the launching point of the second stage, the gondola's cables rise vertically and disappear into the cliff face. They ascend all the way - unsupported by pylons - to the tower visible on the pinnacle of the mountain.
The gondola ride is an engineering marvel of it's own, and riding makes you want to be doubly certain that all of those engineers did their jobs.  This is the view of the cables from the top.  From this perspective the mid way station is a spec on the rocks below.  At this point, a strong, whistling alpine wind is causing the gondola to swing on the cable.  Spooky.

Aiguille du Midi is a mountain peak adjacent to Mount Blanc, Europe's highest point.    It towers above Chamonix and is always winter here - on this day it was -2C with a stiff wind.  The launching station pictured above is in the town that is barely visible below in the following photo.

At the highest point of the station on Aiguille du Midi, 2 gondola rides and an elevator to the tip, makes 12,602 feet in total.   We could feel the effects of the thin air here, as many of us where light-headed.   We were also a bit underdressed ;), although we saw several unprepared tourists board the gondola in shorts and a t-shirt.

Mount Blanc towers next to the Aiguille du Midi, the highest point in Europe.  It is forever snow capped, and we were fortunate to catch it on a relatively clear and sunny day.

The mountain is a huge attraction for mountain sports enthusiasts - hikers, climbers, even tight rope walkers and base jumpers. We rode with several of them on the gondola, taking the easy way down....but the hard way up, or vice versa.

 The lookout point also offers spectacular views of the French - and Italian and Swiss - Alps.

The height of the Aiguille di Midi and the clear skies mean that the famous Matterhorn peak - about 100km to the east in Switzerland - is visible from the platform...and in the photo below...if you can find it?  If you draw a line directly from Melissa's jacket zipper in the photo above, the Matterhorn's pyramid shape is in the background peaking out to the right of a mountain in the foreground.

And a few other shots of Mount Blanc herself....

A glacier sweeps down the side of the mountain towards the town of Chamonix.

As we were standing on an observation platform, a worker hooked himself onto to the railing and launched himself over the edge - with a sledge hammer in hand - to do some repair work on some cabling.

Although there is a tremendous amount to do and see in this area, the visit to the Aiguille du Midi is truly a "mountaintop" experience.

French Alps - An Unusual Setting for a Family Reunion

SEVERAL YEARS AGO I think we would have said it was not exactly in the cards for Melissa's parents, siblings, and all 12 kids/cousins/grandchildren - all residents of Iowa just over 2 years ago -  to meet up in the French Alps for a family get together, but that is exactly what happened this week.

Melissa's brother and missionary family are in language training school in Albertville, France en route eventually to Togo, West Africa.   The rest of the family had an itch to meet up on the European continent before the next round of adventures takes us all somewhere else.   And while we're not down on   living or visiting Southern Germany at all,  the Rhone-Alpes region of France is in class all by itself.  

There were more landscape induced "Wows" per capita on this trip than any other place we've been.  

Whether it was green meadows above the French Alps.....

Or standing high above the Alps on the tip of Aguille du Midi.....

 Stopping at Fort de Taime for a photo with Mount Blanc in the background.....

Exploring Glaciers via ice caves near Chamonix....

Or playing beside a crystal blue remote Alpine lake....

This area is an incredibly beautiful place to meet up as a family and soak up a landscape like no other we have seen so far.