Chamonix is the home of extreme skiing and mountain climbing. Gore-Tex-clad believers with creaky knees and masochistic streaks flock here to claw their way up - or launch themselves off - its steep peaks and plunging back country into the powdery maw. A tough, thrilling and vast resort spread across the Mont Blanc massif, it rewards its enduring faithful with some of the best conditions around. Mention its name in a ski bar anywhere in the high altitude world and you’ll be met with a solemn, sunburnt nod. It's a place for pilgrimage.
But that’s all for another time. For now, in early winter, Chamonix feels like any serene French provincial town, with clear cobbled streets, a cloudless blue sky and a group of boys trying, and mostly failing, to land kick flips in a near-empty Carrefour supermarket carpark, the sun beaming down through the thin air. Look up, though, and you see those staggering peaks that ring the town and have drawn travellers in and then up for centuries. Some are snow-capped year-round, while others are still waiting for their turn. Friedrich painting renditions of mountains with misty granite lines named L’Aiguille, meaning 'the needles' in French, which feels pretty apt.
Do locals ever get bored of the view? "Non!" say a few when asked. The pharmacies with their little flashing green signs, the boulangeries and bistros, like Josephine, a perennially packed spot that spills out onto the cobblestones of Avenue Michel Croz, where glamorous French locals and out of towers recline in the afternoon sun and order tartare and frites in expensive sunglasses and down jackets, the wide and clean streets a catwalk for fancy people and fancier dogs. Even the local McDonald’s is built into the corner of a beautiful period building painted an ochre that glows golden at dusk. Ridiculous. There, again, are the giant, ancient, angular rocks that soar above it all. Being in London you get used to not looking up while trying to avoid elbows, umbrellas and silenty murderous electric scooters, but here it feels like your cranium is on a string being pulled subconsciously skyward. I should really Google a quote by a famous author about what the majesty of it all means for the human condition. I’m sure Hemingway had something to say about it. Frankenstein was set in the Alps, wasn’t it? It feels enough to just look up.
Originally, our plan was to visit France on a search for the best cotton moleskin possible for some upcoming outerwear, but then, an idea. Those mountains. Chamonix! Why not? We arrive first in Geneva one bright Saturday morning. Our air freshener-doused hire car zipping past adverts for luxury watches, luxury chocolate, luxury banking and luxury wellness centres... for when all of that luxury gets a bit much. Cows in fields and the rolling green start of the mountains that will come to define our trip. A Milka chocolate bar wrapper scene of gentle alpine bliss. Springstein on the speakers ('Dancing in the Dark' in case you were wondering) and the windows down (at least a bit), the pine forests a smothered mosaic of orange, red and emerald as we blur along the wide open A40 towards the snowy peaks rising in the distance.
We might have left the crampons and ice picks at home, but a sort of cosmic law decrees that if you come here you have to go up one of those mountains, which is how, after a breakfast of homemade pain aux raisins and jet fuel strength coffee at Hameau Albert, a lovely alpine lodge with an indoor-to-outdoor swimming pool that faces out towards the valley, we wrap up and head out into the navy half-light for the first cable car of the day. Breath rising up as we stomp along empty pavements. Hanging on the hotel’s walls are multiple period paintings of the first ascent of Mont Blanc when, in August of 1786, Jacques Balmat, an eccentric crystal and chamois hunter, and Michel Paccard, a local doctor, scaled its peak with little more than leather boots (Vibram soles were still a few years away), some bread and a lot of brandy. Afterwards, Balmat is quoted as saying. ”I had reached the goal where no one had as yet been. Not even the eagle nor the chamois.”
Thankfully, modern mechanical engineering and taped coat seams allow us to chart part of their history-making course in relative comfort, a few nervy jolts of the cable car hanging thousands of feet in the air aside. On L'Aiguille du Midi, 12,602 feet up, we see the needles at eye level, a vast and still sea of monolithic stone spires. It must have been quite a sight for two 18th century thrill seekers juiced up on homemade cognac and altitude. There are no eagles, nor chamois, but there are alpine choughs, little black birds that lazily dip through the chilly sky. Along the spine of a mountain below, climbers trudge in single file, small dark blots in warm coats against the brilliant white of fresh winter snow. Chamonix is all the way down there. After a pitstop at Bar Plan de L’Aiguille, we make plans for lunch and dinner… and lunch the next day. Some raclette, good bread, a glass of local Savoie wine and maybe a Chartreuse to finish.
It is, we all agree, exactly what Balmat and Paccard would have wanted us to do.