CHAMONIX, France — Monday, our fifth and final day in the Alps, dawned crystal clear. This was what we had waited for, through a gray weekend, after turning back two days earlier on a rain-slick mountain slope.
On this day we would again try the Grand Balcon Nord trail, a breathtaking, 4-mile traverse beneath the Mont Blanc range and over Signal overlook, with panoramic views in every direction.
We rose early to catch the cable car to the trailhead. But the cabin hung idly, a line of hikers snaking from the station.
“Is there a problem?” I asked the woman in the information booth.
“It’s a big problem,” she said. “We don’t know if the lift will re-open today.”
If surfers dream of the perfect wave, alpine hikers long for the perfect day. Two summers ago, when my wife, Kathy, and I first visited this valley dominated by Europe’s highest peak, 15,782-foot Mont Blanc, clouds barely brushed the sky. We fell in love — with the views, the lively town, and a system of cable cars, trains, and chairlifts so intricate that an aging visitor can choose to hike exclusively above the treeline, sparing rickety knees from harsh climbs and descents.
In all, 17 lifts on both sides of the 14-mile Chamonix Valley lead to dozens of trails, some to alpine lakes, others to summits, yet others to the cusp of the region’s vast glaciers. One easy 30-minute walk ends in an ice cave in France’s longest glacier. Tougher routes allow hikers to wander for days among some of the 30 mountain refuges.
For a place best known as a mecca for skiers, the hiking choices seem limitless — at least when the weather holds. But as we drove toward the valley on a late-July Thursday morning, the forecast looked shaky: A chance of thunderstorms that afternoon, an 80 percent chance of afternoon showers Friday, rain Saturday.
We decided to go for broke — park the car and sail straight to the top of the Aiguille du Midi on Europe’s highest cable car, a stunning 9,200-foot ascent to 12,600 feet in just 20 minutes. There, in a tourist fortress built into the mountain top, we would watch climbers rappel down the facing rock thumb; track roped climbers as they crossed the massive snowfield, and absorb the majesty of Mont Blanc and the Alps beyond.
Or so we hoped. En route, a traffic jam slowed us to a crawl. In town, our assigned wait for Cabin 53 topped two hours. And the day was hot. We squirmed; in the mountains, clouds often roll in early. Had we traveled this far never to see the Alps up close?
Yet when our cabin reached its destination at 2:15 p.m., Mont Blanc stood radiant in sunlight. Our lungs longed for oxygen; our hearts beat with excitement.
We had come to hike. Here, instead, we had thrust ourselves into an Alpine extravaganza without taking a step.
Snow-covered mountains have long carried my spirits as close as they are likely to get to the gods. As a teen, led by guides, I climbed Wyoming’s Grand Teton and the Rimpfischhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. There, my brother and I fell in love with the Matterhorn, swore we would climb it some day, and, 40 years later in 2003, failed in a quixotic effort to fulfill our boyhood fantasy.
Now 63, I’m content to wander just a few miles from the madding crowds, to hike through flower-strewn meadows and marvel at jagged peaks. Even this modest effort, however, demands knees that work. Three months before our trip, mine didn’t. My right knee screamed on stairs. I had a “floating” kneecap, the physical therapist said. We set to work strengthening the muscles around it.
My incentive was Chamonix, where for $95 each we could buy three-day “multipasses,” allowing us to soar high on any of those 17 lifts and start hikes near snowfields and, sometimes, above the clouds. My incentive was the French Alps, where at the end of those hikes we could sip wine at a mountain refuge and munch well-seasoned olives, or a dessert, presented just so.
All we needed were good boots, walking poles — and a couple of clear days.
The Grand Balcony South and Grand Balcony North are two of the region’s more spectacular hikes. The first traverses the hillsides across from Mont Blanc and neighboring peaks, the second winds directly beneath them. Both offer sweeping alpine and pastoral views, well-marked trails, and moderate wear on the knees.
On Friday, we set off on the Grand Balcony South, accompanied by Fran Stirnemann, an American whom I have known since birth, and her Swiss husband, Egon. For decades, they had hiked circles around us. As we set off from Planpraz to the refuge at La Flégère I was just hoping to keep up.
The two-hour trail narrows in a few stretches, tiptoeing past sharp drop-offs. Two years earlier, I had stood frozen at these points. This time, my knee and balance held. It was Fran and Egon who branched off to the less-exposed ski road to avoid a stretch with a half-dozen fixed metal steps. At the refuge, Kathy and I split a blueberry tart to celebrate.
Saturday, it rained. In the gloom, we took the train above 6,000 feet to Montenvers, toured the ice cave, and started the Grand Balcony North trail, before rain turned us back. We waited on Sunday for clearer weather, hoping on Monday to start the same trail at the Plan de l’Aiguille, at 7,575 feet, and descend to the Montenvers train.
The broken cable car wrecked that plan. Instead, we dashed across Chamonix to the train, took it back to the glacier, and set off again on the steeper route toward Plan de l’Aiguille. One problem remained. If the cable car at the Plan stayed shut, we would have to hike the 4,000-foot vertical descent to Chamonix. I had picked a bad day to forget my poles.
The hike began with a steady, 900-foot-vertical climb to the Signal lookout, where the “Sea of Ice” glacier stretched below. Two hours in, we passed a trail sign telling us we should be 70 minutes from where we had started. And we had at least an hour left. But on this perfect day, with white mountains glistening against a deep-blue backdrop, it was, as the French say, “worth the pain.”
Around a bend, the cable car came into sight. It was moving. Exhilarated, we hiked beyond to Lac Bleu and back before heading down. But first, a glass of wine at Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille. There, we met David Stanfield and Rebecca Chia, a couple from Singapore who had been hiking for two weeks. He told us of a beautiful trail above the village of Les Houches from the Bellevue cable car and another near the village of Argentière, where a lift climbs to more than 10,000 feet. As he talked, we realized we had barely scratched the surface of this mountain paradise.
It didn’t matter. As a young man, I had routinely hiked a dozen miles a day with a heavy pack. This summer, during five days in Chamonix, we had hiked maybe 10.
And savored every step.