Visiting the Largest Glacier in France – Mer de Glace – Chamonix, France
It is not often one has the opportunity to encounter a glacier so it is no surprise that Mer de Glace is a highlight of many Chamonix itineraries. In fact, Mer de Glace means “sea of ice” as it is the largest glacier in France.
Arriving at the main Chamonix train station, it was not obvious which track was dedicated to Montenvers Railway. I asked one of the attendants and it is a separate train station. There are a set of stairs to the left of the main train station when facing it which takes you up and over the main train tracks to the Montenvers Railway.
This iconic bright red train goes directly to Mer de Glace, a glacier you can walk up to and into. This train was built and operational in 1909 (over 110 years old!) working with a rack and pinion (or cog) system for the five kilometer trip.
I read it was a scenic journey and very popular so I wanted to make the first train at 10AM but also make sure we made the train since lines start as early as a half hour before. And I am glad we did because it was packed as time got closer and closer to 10AM.
We had our pick of seats on the two car train and did not get far enough in the planning process to figure out where to sit. I took a guess and sat on the side with three seaters and open windows. And boy, did that pay off.
As the train gained elevation, the views continued to get more and more stunning. After each turn and tunnel, you could hear the audible gasp of the passengers at the incredible views from the train.
After a twenty minute train ride, we arrived at the Mer de Glace. The valley here was spectacular and just enormous. It is funny to think that as we spent more time with the mountains and learning the shape of each peak, each of these trips to a new area or height gives new perspective on those peaks and we get to know them more.
The one directly in the path of the glacier is the one we see get sunlight first each morning changing its color to a red hue. And with the way the sun rises in this part of the mountains, it is clear why that it.
At the train station, it seemed like a long way down to the glacier were there are caves you can walk into. I studied the landscape and I recalled reading about stairs to get to the bottom but there was a gondola station to take people down. Climbing things in visible heights has not been my strong suit as of late. We were first in line for the gondola and as we boarded our individual gondola, it hit me that 1) we were the first ones of the day on a system we did not see tested to ensure nothing happened overnight 2) it was basically a straight vertical descent.
Trying not to lose my cool was a bit of a joke as instantly lost it. Something about standing on the gondola as opposed to sitting really does not do it for me. If this gondola detaches we would tumble forever. I grasped the pole with dear life contemplating how these gondola systems even work anyway to defeat gravity as we moved down into the valley.
I was thrilled to get off the gondola and that happiness disappeared immediately. There were 500 stairs between us and the glacier, most of which were suspended in the air attached to the rock alongside the mountain. The first set of stairs started as concrete which was perfectly fine. Then it progressed to the wood planks that every so often bent with pressure, but did not permit a visual of the distance below. Finally there were metal grates that completely threw me. I had a death grip on the railings as I took one step at a time, focusing intensely on the actually grate and not the ground so far away. It was a struggle as I visualized myself falling. The excitement of being the first one in the ice cave was an exchange for survival to even make it there. Poor Kevin – I was a nutcase trying to get down to this glacier.
While I did not notice much on the descent, I did notice the signs indicating where the glacier used to be in each year. And we aren’t talking tens of years ago, these dates were as recent as 2010 where the stairs would have been half the length to reach the glacier. The sign for 1990 was at the very top of the start of the staircase!
After being so tense on the way down, unable to relax or take in the view, not even aware of how much was left – I made it to the bottom with a huge sigh of relief. Once again, amazed at the views – the scale was just massive.
Kevin hurried us in to enjoy the ice cave in peace and we could take in the vast valley after. We were about to walk into a glacier!
The colors were simply magnificent – a gorgeous blue hue that penetrated the entire cave. Touching it was not as cold as I would have thought but if you lingered the freeze was very noticeable. In the cave, there were several sculptures and photo opportunities.
There were also signs that educated on the formation of glaciers but the one that interested me the most was “why so many stairs?” – yes Mer de Glace, why so many traitorous stairs???
The glacier loses 8 meters of depth a year which means 30 to 40 stairs are added each year to reach it. If the glacier lost at the rate for the entirety of its creation, it either would not be here at all or there would be thousands of stairs to climb – the rate has increased without question in recent years and it is tragic… and tragic that I have such a problem with the transparency of these 500 steps.
On our way out of the ice cave we noticed several skiers making their way down behind the glacier – this much been where the skiers at Midi end up from Vallee Blanche Pass. It is amazing how these all connect. The same glacier that we saw atop Midi is this glacier on the other side.
Another benefit of going on the first train of the day – you get the whole place virtually to yourself and then the train ride back allowed for all the photos you could possibly want. We had our chose of seat and the ability to move around a stand to get the perfect picture.
Worth the climb? Absolutely! Though I am happy that I did not know about what was required to get down there ahead of time. It certainly tests those fears of heights or falling. Even if you are not inclined to visit the glacier due to climbing to the bottom, I would say it is worth the trip on the train. The views are stunning and there is still a lovely viewing platform and restaurant to observe the glacier from far.