For many people, the name Chamonix conjures up images of skiers and snow boarders, fun on ice and snow, and roaring fireplaces in snug chalets. Out of season, it was different for my friend, Frank, and me as we drove closer to the town on a day in early August.
Driving from Annecy, the scenery dramatically changed from low hills to towering Alps dominating the landscape. We passed several small alpine villages, with houses made of sturdy logs or stone. Their red metal or tile roofs glistening in the late-morning sun. Cattle and sheep freely roamed the lower foothills. We passed sections of snow-capped peaks that reached ever higher elevations above low-hanging clouds. The Alps are humbling.
Leaving the highway, we drove down a pass, turned a final curve and entered Chamonix. Mont Blanc dramatically rose in the background. The town was in its summer-tourist mode. We drove through the semi-crowded streets filled with a variety of tourists wearing T-shorts, hiking shorts and sturdy boots, and sporting dark tans. Many of the visitors we saw looked fit, no doubt from all that climbing and bicycling. Few looked out-of-shape, even the elderly.
From our hotel room we had a view of the Mer de Glace, the massive, dark slice of rocks and ice, the largest glacier in Europe. The ride up the funiculaire to the observation area above the glacier, with the Alps dominating above, and the sharp drop-offs beside us, was memorable. We passed hardy pine and oak, beech and chestnut trees along one side of the tracks while gorges, hundreds of feet deep, were on the other side. The railway was narrow and seemed precariously close to the side of the mountain.
At the top, we disembarked into a spectacular world. The view of the Alps and Mont Blanc against the intense blue sky and white clouds was almost pure fantasy: an unobstructed view in an ethereal setting. The Mer de Glace filled the valley a thousand feet below us, flowing from the mountains to our right where it originated and to our left and beyond, in the valley below.
The size and perspective of objects were deceiving. I was looking at climbers across the glacier floor – it seemed a short distance – but they appeared to be the size of ants.
Below, I saw several openings cut into the caves, les grottes. Each dark entrance had typically moved about 225 feet (70 meters) each year. La Mer de Glace was indeed alive! A thirty-foot-long, metal walkway led from the bottom of the mountain and across a ravine to the grotte. It was cold inside the ice tunnel. A cool, blue-green light came from the glacier walls, casting a mysterious aura. I imagined it was the heart of the glacier: living, pulsating ice. Perhaps seventy feet inside, we encountered – on the ice wall – faded color photographs of men in outdated clothing cutting into the ice to form a grotte. In a slight alcove to the side, we saw some of the picks, drills, shovels and other tools used to cut that opening. At the far end of the tunnel, illuminated by soft-blue electric lights, we arrived at a fascinating tableau: a bear carved out of ice; a mannikin dressed in mountain clothes from the nineteenth century, sitting on an ice chair and reading a newspaper; and a mannikin dressed as a chef busily working in his ice kitchen.
For some reason – perhaps a slight grating from within the glacier – I hesitated, thinking about the hundreds of thousands of tons of ice, dirt and snow above me… just waiting to bury me for ages to come! I kept thinking: La Mer de Glace was a living, moving, groaning, creature sliding down the valley, creating a frightful symphony of nature.
Back outside, the warmth was revitalising under a blue sky. We rode the funiculaire back to the bottom of the mountain enjoying the clear view of the raw, natural power of the snow and tree-covered mountains…
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA
Read more about Annecy