Stairway to heaven: day hike to Lac Blanc

 

My best friend Laura was in town, and I wanted to plan a weekend adventure befitting of nearly 20 years exploring the world together. Hiking around Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe, seemed the obvious choice. Sitting at over 15,770 feet with magnificent valleys stretching into France, Italy, and Switzerland, the Mont Blanc area provides access to everything I love about this part of the world – dramatic mountain passes, pristine meadows and forests, and charming hamlets drenched with Alpine culture. Each morning on my way to work I look out at Mont Blanc’s bulky silhouette but I had yet to set foot on its vast expanse.

We headed out early on a Saturday morning. Before long, we were surrounded by huge peaks soaring up from the sides of the road, daring us to imagine ourselves looking down from the top in just a few hours. Soon after, a precarious road set on huge cement pillars thrusting up through the clouds carried us into the laid-back resort town of Chamonix, host of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, situated at the foot of Mont Blanc.

We were staying in the lesser known French mountaineering and ski village of Argentière, lying 10 kilometers north of Chamonix at an altitude of 1,200 meters. Arriving the weekend after the August tourist rush ended, the town was in a peaceful slumber as we checked into our hotel, Les Grands Montets, a quaint chalet-style lodge with exposed wooden beams, fur blankets draped throughout, and a fireplace ready to light. From our terrace we had a wonderful view of the Grand Montets to the south, and from the back lawn the trees perfectly framed a towering Mont Blanc in the west.

Up close, Mont Blanc lacks the kind of elegant single vantage silhouette that graces such masterpieces as the Matterhorn. Instead, it is something of a massive conglomeration of mismatched mountain-parts: a jumbled pile of lava-like glaciers, snow-covered domes and jagged spikes of granite. Each hike leads to a different portion of a cumulative panoramic view. In the lobby we flipped through a homemade book detailing our options and decided on a hike to Lac Blanc, described as one of the most scenic spots on the mountain, with a trailhead just a 5-minute walk from our hotel in tiny downtown Argentière.

For the first two-three hours we were completely alone on the trail except for a couple climbers dangling on a cliff above us. We wound through shaded pine forests with paths covered in soft brown needles and a clear view out to the Mont Blanc mastiff and Aiguille Verte before eventually emerging above the tree line where we were fed into a steady flow of hikers streaming in from the Flégère cable car, the more popular route to Lac Blanc. Here, the landscape morphed into something of a green lunar surface, covered in boulders encrusted in light green moss so bright it was almost glowing, set against a deep blue sky with white clouds streaking hurriedly across. Bushes dotted with tiny purple flowers highlighted the edges of the trails.

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Just before we reached Lac Blanc we passed by the lovely Lacs des Chéserys, a beautiful sequence of three lakes set like shimmering emerald and sapphire jewels in the mottled green rock. From these lakes we could see a wooden refuge perched impossibly high on a rocky outcrop above us. Our water bottles almost empty and aromas from our imminent cheese picnic wafting from our pack, we dug in our heels for the last stretch of the trail. This portion of the ascent required some agile climbing up a set of iron ladders hitched to the side of a cliff followed by a series of hundreds of wooden stairs winding up through the rock, but the view that rewarded us at the top was unbelievable.

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We rejoiced as we stared out over a picturesque turquoise lake set among the rocks, the surrounding snowy mountain peaks and glaciers reflected on its smooth surface. Nowhere had ever looked more inviting for a leisurely picnic. Collapsing onto a large warm boulder, we kicked off our boots, arranged our spread of meat, cheeses, rice cakes and fruit around us, and enjoyed. When the food was gone we filled out water bottles at the refuge, all of their water coming directly from the lake, and continued on a new route home.

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The hour-long hike took us around the lake to the Flégère cable car, which would carry us down to Chamonix. As dusk approached we walked slowly, stopping often for photos of the magnificent scenery, and noting that most of the other hikers were literally running past us down the path, animal-like with their hiking pole appendages. Interpreting this as a strange but fun activity when coming down the mountain, we casually continued until we reached the platform of the cable car. As we entered, I glanced at the clocks on the wall indicating the current time of 5:05pm and the time of the last cable car departure…5pm. The security guards read my expression and nodded a silent “run”. We boarded last, along with all of the rangers and staff heading home for the day, and let out a huge sigh of relief as we were whisked down the mountain.

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After a short bus ride, we were back in Argentière and ready to sooth our sore muscles in the hotel spa. The receptionist informed us that we should come down in robes and slippers. Hesitantly, we did as told, emerging from our rooms to find a parade of other guests doing the same. We followed the procession to the spa room, hopping from jacuzzi to steam room to sauna before putting our robes and slippers back on and following the other guests to the bar. We took our drinks out to the deck where, still in robes and slippers, we toasted to Mont Blanc, the label on my Mont Blanc beer an exact replica of the scenery we were gazing upon.

Relaxed and hungry, we headed to dinner in downtown Argentière at 214, a French tapas and wine bar. A single, sassy woman was running the entire show, but quickly brought us a delicious Prosecco rosé from neighboring Italy as we waited for plates of homemade foie grais, smoked salmon, veal, and quail. We finished the night in style with molten chocolate cake and hot mirabelle plums with burnt sugar and white chocolate foam. As we walked home under a clear sky spangled with brilliant stars, a shooting star streaked by, the flash on the universe’s camera taking a last shot of our grand adventure. That one will definitely go in a frame.

 

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