A new gondola down to the largest glacier in the French Alps, which is due to open in time for the, coming ski season will make it much easier for skiers tackling the world’s longest lift-accessed off piste descent, the Vallée Blanche, at the end of their run.
The new La Mer de Glace gondola is part of a €53m spend by the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc lift company to both facilitate access to the glacier for visitors arriving by the historic train to Montenvers, who now number more than a million a year, and skiers and boarders wanting to get up to the Montevers station at the end of the Vallée Blanche ski run, which begins at the cable-car accessed Pic du Midi. Another chunk of the investment is going on an International Glacier and Climate Interpretation Centre at Montenvers, due to open in December 2024.
Access to and from La Mer de Glace from Montenvers in recent decades has been possible by an earlier gondola, built in the 1980s. This originally took visitors directly down to the level of the ice, but by the early 1990s, three steps had to be added to get people from the base of the gondola to the ice level and back up. By the early 2000s 118 steps were needed and as climate change has accelerated so has the rate at which new steps had to be added, growing to 320 by 2010 and over 550 in the early 2020s. Not easy for many pedestrians to get down to the ice from the gondola base, nor for tired skiers after the long off piste run, climbing up in their ski boots carrying their skis.
The new gondola lift has its upper station at the far end of the train platform and goes down to the ice 600 metres further up, at a point in the ice expected to last longer.
It can be possible to ski all the way back to Chamonix, a distance of about 20km and some 2,700m of vertical descent, if conditions are really good and your guide leads you through the debris field at the end of the glacier, but the vast majority have ended their Vallée Blanche descents with the steps and gondola up to Montenvers in recent decades. For them the Vallée Blanche will be a little shorter in future, but easier to end.
The requirement for the rapidly increasing number of steps each year was one of the most breathtaking in-your-face visuals of global warming in action which even the most die-hard deniers have found hard to explain away. French President Macron visited the site to see it for himself a few years ago.
Commenting on the new International Glacier and Climate Interpretation Centre, Matthieu Dechavanne, CEO Compagnie du Mont-Blanc said, “We want to make this glacier and climate interpretation centre a world reference. The Montenvers welcomes over 1 million visitors per year, and our aim is to inform them, in a fun way, about everyday actions and the role we can all play in preserving our environment.”