Local French people just don’t understand my excitement when I visit a place like the Mer de Glace in Chamonix. The rounded ‘mountains’ of the Australian Alps are really no comparison to the breathtaking sight of this glacier and its jagged mountainous cradle. That brown on the glacier is dirt and rocks that have fallen from the old banks of the glacier when it was bigger. Getting here was half the fun as it involved taking the Montvers-Mer de Glace rack and pinion railway, which has an additional spiky rail down the centre to keep traction I guess. It weaves up a summit with fantastic views on both sides and the occasional tunnel to protect the track from avalanches in winters. The railway itself was finished in 1909 despite the opposition from locals back in 1905 when work began.
My friends and I were all too excited to have a look around before heading down towards the ice cave. Although there’s a gondola/bubble/eauf (depending on your country) to take you most of the way down, we chose to walk, stopping for a picnic lunch on the way. The walk down involves a lot of steps and signs showing where the glacier used to be more than a hundred years ago and even just three years ago, with its thickness shrinking by up to four metres every year. This means that the staircase opposite the glacier has to be extended down every year, and the ramp to the ice cave works like a plane ramp at an airport gate. Each year, the ice cave is re-drilled because the glacier is of course moving downstream. This one moves up to 120 metres per year at the top. Massive white sheets are placed on top of the ice cave to reflect the sun’s heat and ensure minimal ice loss. One is just visible on in the top right corner of the photo showing the outside entrance to the ice cave. Inside, the cave is not as cold as I expected, and the walls are dimpled, but very smooth. Bubbles of air hundreds of years old are trapped within the ice and I had a strong inclination to lick the wall (which I resisted).
We climbed the 350 steps back to the gondola (when it was build in 1960 and again replaced in 1988, it must have met the ice cave entrance), which we took back to the top to save a very long, steep walk back up the hill. Our late start to the day meant we ran out of time to visit the other attractions at the top, such as the alpine fauna museum, lots of walks with great views of the next valley over, and the museum inside the Montvers Grand hotel, which was built before the railway in 1880. People used to get there via mule transport! So, if you’re interested in going, I suggest you get there early and save yourself the long queue that we endured at the ticket office to maximise your time in this truly amazing place. And with the price of the railway ticket, a picnic lunch really is the way forward.