The Grand Balcon Nord

Our second hike in the French Alps was essentially a traverse along a shelf, called the Grand Balcon Nord, which runs just below the summer snow levels on the northern face of the Mont Blanc Massif. After traveling to the 12,605 foot summit of the Aiguille du Midi in a gondola, we got back in the gondola and rode halfway back down the mountain, and onto the Grand Balcon Nord at 7,602 feet, from where we started our hike. The hike took us about four miles along the Balcon until we crossed over a ridge and dropped into a deep valley. The valley is home to the Mer de Glace, which is the second largest glacier in the Alps.

The Mer de Glace, or ‘Sea of Ice’ is about 5 miles long, and at its deepest point is around 660 feet thick. The Mer de Glace changed very little in the first half of the 20th century, but between 1940 and 1990 its surface level shrank by an average of one foot per year. Unfortunately that figure has been increasing rapidly over the past 30 years, with the surface level of the glacier lowering by an average of over 3 feet per year. In 2015 alone, the glacier’s surface lowered by almost 12 feet due to a warmer then usual summer and decreased winter snowfall. The Mer de Glace is now melting at the rate of around 130 feet per year and has lost over 260 feet in depth over the last 20 years alone.

If we had done the exact same hike in 1988, we could have taken a short path, then a few stairs to the surface of the glacier where you can enter a man made cave called the ice grotto. The ice grotto is cut into the living glacier and features ice sculptures and a collection of crystals from the Mont Blanc area. Today it takes almost 400 additional steps to get to the ice grotto, which is currently closed due to the instability of the retreating glacier.

Here’s a gallery of photos from our hike along the Balcon du Nord, and into the valley of the Mer de Glace …

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    Here’s a gallery of photos from the valley of the Mer de Glace …

      Aiguille du Midi

      Our second hike in the French Alps started with a gondola ride from the bottom of the Chamonix valley to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi … and a crazy, and potential altitude sickness inducing, 9,200 foot elevation gain in about 20 minutes! Fortunately, we only felt slightly dizzy : ). The Aiguille du Midi is a 12,605 ft mountain directly below the 15,771 ft summit of Mont Blanc. The gondola that travels to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi was opened in 1955, and was the worlds highest cable for around two decades. It still holds the record for the highest vertical assent for a cable car, traveling from 3,396 ft to 12,605 ft.

      Our assent in the cable car took us into a deep overcast of cloud cover. When we arrived at the summit of the Aiguille du Midi it was to zero visibility. We waited for about an hour on the summit, and were finally rewarded as the clouds slowly parted to reveal the following vistas:

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          … and finally, a short time lapse of the clouds flowing over the summit of Mont Blanc