Mont Blanc with a cloud crowning the top.
Traffic started to move slowly. We had now been sitting watching through the windshield the snow fall for over three hours. Since hundreds of cars had been parked fairly closely all in the same lane there were very little snow and moving ahead was not a problem.
We had planned on being through the Mont Blanc tunnel by no later than 6 pm and find a place to stay for the night.
That plan was now put aside. The new plan would be to stop if we saw something along the way. Perhaps the snow would stop by morning.
The highway was now leaving the valley and ascending into the Alps. After driving for almost an hour we finally came upon an exit. We decided to pass. The exit had not been plowed and what we could see of the streets in the dim light from the few light posts, it would be impossible to navigate with our car.
We continued on the highway. With the many cars on the road, the snow had a hard time staying on the surface. The snowplows must have drenched the surface with salt.
Finally at around 10:30 we were within the last approach to the tunnel. This was the part of the highway I had feared the most. As you leave the main highway that leads to Chamonix, you are now on a steep two lane road for the final ascent to the toll plaza before entering the tunnel. To my surprise the road was clear of snow although the surrounding area indicated that an abundance of snow had indeed fallen during the evening.
There were few cars and passing through the tunnel went smoothly. It takes approximately fifteen minutes to pass through. On the Italian side the road was free of snow as well.
As you exit the tunnel and a few hundred meters is a small town called Courmayeur nestled up against the mountains. We knew there were hotels there so we promptly turned off the highway and into the turn leading to the cluster of buildings. Only to come to an abrupt stop in the snow.
We decided that I would put snow chains on the car and Joëlle would walk the fifty meters to the hotel and inquire about a room.
It just so happened that the first hotel was a lovely looking building , it was Hotel Astoria (www.hotelastoriacourmayeur.com)
In the meantime I am in the dark trying to read the instructions and getting the snow chains unrolled so they make sense. The temperature is freezing and does not cooperate with putting chains on tires at past eleven at night.
Joëlle is wondering what I am doing and I decide to leave the car where it is. After all it is at the side of the road.
The following morning we wake up to a beautiful sunny day. After a healthy and hardy breakfast in the hotel dining room, we decide to take a closer look at Mont Blanc.
The current chair lift runs just a few meters from the hotel. A new much larger gondola lift is under construction from the opposite side of the valley.
We are two of the few people without skies taking the lift. Oh, this is not a ski area with designated runs. These skiers create their own trails in the waist deep snow down the treacherous mountain side.
We had a quick cappuccino before going in line to get up the as close as you can to Mont Blanc, without climbing the mountain itself. Since this was a “side trip” not planned ahead. I went up in my “street” clothes. Leather jacket, but no hat nor gloves. Let me tell you it was cold when you got to the top. That day a strong wind was blowing adding to the below freezing temperatures.
View from Hotel Astoria
There are three sections to get to the top. The first two are with a gondola.
When we got to the last stop, we innocently asked the gondola operator where is the next gondola?
He pointed to a door and stairs.
Want to go to the top? Walk up the stairs.
The staircase is as cold as the outside at close to minus 15 degrees at over 3500 meters.
I can honestly say to you that I had to stop a couple of times to regain my breath. At one point I thought I was going to faint from lack of oxygen. There are 228 steps and that was the longest staircase I have ever encountered at close to a 35 degree angle. We eventually made it to the top. Steps or no steps, it was worth every 228 steps. See picture at top.
The snow capped world at your feet. And there in front of us is Mt. Blanc, covered in white snow and a few clouds.
A magnificent view, that truly does take your breath away.
Most of the occupants in the gondola are skiers and they get off at the second stop. They jump the fence around the view point and make their decent.
No paths, straight down what is sometimes a 45 degree slope. Each skier finds his or her own path. This is what I call free style skiing.