Aiguille du Midi (“aiguille” means needle) is one of several peaks on the Mont Blanc Massif. The elevation of the needle on the summit is 3842m (or 3843m, depending on your source), compared to the peak of Mont Blanc at approximately 4808m. The cable car base station is in Chamonix with a halfway station at Plane du Aiguille (2300m). The total altitude gain from Chamonix to the top station at Aiguille du Midi is 2800m and the total journey time is around 20 minutes in each direction.
I’d set my heart on going to Aiguille du Midi during our holiday only to discover that my husband has a severe phobia of cable cars, but not heights. For example, if I’d suggested a mountaineering expedition to the summit of Mont Blanc he would have been delighted. Seeing as that wasn’t on the cards for me, he kindly offered to take me to Chamonix and wait for me while I took the trip alone. The problem was that even though my wheelchair skills are improving and I’m getting better at self-propelling myself and tipping my chair to pop the castors off the ground to get up small lips and kerbs, I’m not yet competent and confident enough to get about on my own except for inside, for example, a supermarket, so I knew I’d need some help.
The alternative was to use my crutches, and even though I had fortified myself with a large dose of Oramorph and a bottle of beer for breakfast, I knew that standing on my crutches for 20 minutes each way plus the time at the summit, would absolutely floor me with pain, plus there was the possibility of a fall as my strength and proprioception deteriorated in my right leg during the course of my excursion. There would be no point trying to sit down when I got to the summit because my RGK Maxima wheelchair (“MX5”) is the only seat I can tolerate sitting in.
When we arrived at the cable car base station, I went to the visitor information window to ask for some advice and found myself face to face with a harbinger of doom who reinforced all my concerns about trying to complete the trip on my own in my wheelchair. She told me I really would be better off taking a carer with me because of the uneven surfaces and the lip getting in and out of the cable car, while adopting the facial expression and tone of voice more commonly used by plumbers when delivering a catastrophic diagnosis of a drain problem accompanied by a really big quote for the remedial work.
But I thought: “to hell with it, I’ll go up on my crutches and deal with the fall out later”. So I rolled round to the ticket office with my husband carrying my crutches (we always carry them in the car as a back-up) for me to transfer to when it came time for me to enter the cable car. There was no need. The woman we spoke to at the ticket office was wonderful and couldn’t have been more helpful. She guided us up the ramp to the departure area and asked us to wait next to the gate for boarding. I explained that I’d brought my crutches because I wasn’t yet very good at negotiating kerbs in my chair, but she assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, the staff would help me. She also explained which parts of Aiguille du Midi I would be able to access, which unfortunately didn’t include the upper terraces and restaurant that are only accessible by steps.
I was the first person allowed onto the next cable car, a thoughtful gesture that allowed me to park near the Plexiglas window and enjoy a fantastic view as we climbed. The cabin rocked and pitched as we passed the support pylons, prompting gasps from passengers and butterflies in the stomach. After about 10 minutes we arrived at Plan de l’Aiguille, a popular starting point for walking trails, and transfered to the second cable car for the top station. This car climbed for a further 10 minutes on a single span of cable over blasted rock, snow, and glacier and before rising almost vertically up the awe inspiring North Face.
Upon arrival at the top station getting out of the cable car building onto the first viewing platform is simple enough, down the ramp, through the automatic doors and out into intense sunshine and almost freezing air, a dramatic contrast to Chamonix which was enjoying around 28ºC of warmth. Immediately to the right, just after exiting through the automatic doors, is an enclosed stairway traversing the cliff face. I believe this was the inaccessible route to the higher terrace and restaurant.
The first open air platform is a wood and steel bridge across a chasm between two pinnacles of rock. The aerial walkways that link the various rocky outcrops of the top station complex appear to be little more than wooden decking, some sections are double layered, lending them an appearance of solidity, but other spans are constructed from a single layer of planks spaced just widely enough to reveal the gaping void below. I went across the bridge and through a doorway into a roughly hewn rock tunnel that leads to the elevator that rises through the rock to the needle and highest viewing deck. Sadly the elevator was not operational on the day I visited. The tunnel also leads to the icy exit point for mountaineers, the Helbronner Point cable car traverse, a further open air terrace and the wheelchair accessible toilet.
The next terrace cantilevered out from the raw rock and overlooked the cable car lines leading to Italy, a 5km traverse over the Mont Blanc Massif to Helbronner Point. The round trip apparently takes about 2 hours and is not wheelchair accessible. According to chamonix.net “… the Panoramic Mont Blanc … is the highest cable car traverse in the world …” There is also a further cable car from Helbronner Point down to La Palud in Italy.
Sadly, the time came to leave this wonderful place and I reluctantly headed back to the cable car. Visitors usually take a flight of steps to the departure point but I had been advised, while at the base station, that I would need to ask a member of staff at the top station information point to open the doors for the ramp so I could wheel myself back up to the departing cable car. This proved to be extremely easy, I wasn’t kept waiting and even with my beginner’s French the guy I spoke to immediately understood what I needed. Using a wheelchair is still a new experience for me and I’m still adjusting to other people’s reactions to me being in the chair. I found visiting Aiguille du Midi in my wheelchair to be a positive experience even though I couldn’t gain access to the restaurant. It was one of the most amazing, spectacular and memorable places I’ve ever visited I’m so glad I wasn’t deterred by the woman in the information office. As with so many situations in life, it’s best to get a second opinion.