Saturday, October 23

Mont Blanc

Today promised to be a pretty good day for photography, so we got an early start. Our bus took us into the town of Chamonix where we boarded another cog railway to the base of the cable car. The train trip was pretty as we passed through forests, and enjoyed an occasional peak back toward the valley. We transferred to the first of the two cable cars we would ride. At an intermediate station we boarded a second cable car which would take us to the top of Aiguille du Midi at 13,000 feet. This second ride is considered a major engineering accomplishment. We glided along and realized we were headed straight for the perfectly vertical rock face directly ahead of us! Quickly the cable tightened and we were pulled straight up, not far from the rock face! It was scary! Landing in the launch area was almost anti-climatic. We followed Joe and José to an elevator which had been hewn out of the center of the mountain. The elevator car had glass walls so we could see the rough-hewn marks left by the workers' picks and dynamite blasts. The elevator opened out onto the Mont Blanc Terrace, which of course, faced Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe at 15,632 feet!

On the elevator we had met some mountain climbers, complete with their gear; crampons, hats, boots, ice axes and many layers of clothing. As we watched they started off from a point just below our observation deck, out onto the snow. Along a ridge the snow had formed an immense drift, like a sand dune might, with shadow on one side, and brilliant sunshine on the other. Their tiny tracks in the immense whiteness led to two dark dots, which were difficult to find unless they moved. It was fun to photograph the graceful shape of the snow dune, and then the footsteps of the hikers upon it.

We were also able to photograph Mont Blanc with the first light on its peak. Nearby was another summit, Dome du Goûter, which was also lit by the early morning light. It was possible to walk over a catwalk from the elevator accessible observation deck and climb up to another building which was heated, and had a cafeteria, souvenir shop (of course) and restrooms. There was also access to the outside from which we might photograph the Needles from a different viewpoint. The light on them was beautiful.

While we were photographing almost everything, a large chunk of ice fell from the roof and hit Alan Harvey on the head. He had a bump, but seemed otherwise unharmed.

We could see the peaks of many mountains receding into the distance, and one was pointed out to us as the Matterhorn, our next stop. Although tiny from this distance, it was fun to identify it in our pictures.

The observation platform was ice-covered around the edges, and generally cold - not unexpected at 13,000 feet. We were just careful about walking on the ice, and to my knowledge, no one fell. There was little wind, which did not permit the cold air to penetrate as much as it might have.

Somehow, as I was looking around, a blinding flash of light hit my eyes. It might have been the reflection of the sun from an icicle, or from someone's lens, but I knew right away that I was in trouble. The flashing lights of another optical migraine attack began right away and continued to become larger and larger, pulsating all the while. Aware that I would soon lose most of my vision, I took the medicine I carried, grateful that I was also carrying a water bottle. Someone noticed that I was not moving and keeping my eyes covered, and soon José Delgado was at my side. He carried my photo backpack and tripod in addition to his own equipment, and escorted me to the elevator, and down to the catwalk level. We crossed over and then began to climb the steps to the warmth of the cafeteria, but it took me a long time to make it. Once, there, I sat down at a table and waited until my vision cleared. I noticed a weakness throughout my body, and some light-headedness, so was careful not to move around much, for fear of falling and breaking a bone. There was nothing more José could do, so I encouraged him to return to taking his pictures, but he insisted that no, he would stay with me; that's what he was there for. After lunch, he consented to leave, but only for a short time. He sensed my embarrassment, and told me several times how he had often seen young men in their twenties, in perfectly fit condition, passed out on the floor from the altitude.

After about another hour of photographing while I waited inside, the group reformed and began the journey back down to Chamonix. In the cable car, which had no seats, I noticed that José stood right next to me, hanging on to the same pole, while carrying my gear as well as his own. About half way down I began to feel much better, and by the time we reached the bottom I was almost 90% back to normal. After dinner that night, it was as if it had never happened.

The sunset was nice this evening, with pink evening light on the Needles. The best place to photograph them from the valley is the parking lot of our chalet. We could also see Glacier des Bossons, Europe's highest icefall. Some pink clouds looked nice over other parts of the valley also. What a great day this had been!