The news out of France yesterday left my husband positively ill. The headline read “45 people trapped in cable cars overnight.” The story told of how a series of cable cars stopped working over Mont Blanc in the Alps on Thursday. Apparently, the cable cars stalled because of a “technical incident.” Helicopters rescued 65 people before darkness fell and then dropped rescue workers with blankets, food and water into the remaining cars to spend the night with the 45 tourists still on the system.
We know those cable cars. In July 1989, we spent the last weekend of our sabbatical year in Europe with the boys, camping at the winter ski resort of Chamonix at the foot of Mount Blanc. At 4807 metres, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe. If not a skier or a mountain climber, the three-star attraction at Chamonix is the cable car ride up the Aiguille du Midi which, at 3,842 metres, provides a breath-taking view of the valley below and the mountains above. It is heralded as the most impressive attraction of the French Alps. Beyond that is the cable car which traverses Mont Blanc to La Palud on the Italian side of the Alps, a second three-star excursion.
The boys and I were keen to make the trip. Bill who is deathly afraid of heights was not. After two days of procrastination, day number three dawned bright and sunny. How could we not cross the Alps by cable car? Could Bill do it? Good sport that he is, he agreed to go up the Aiguille du Midi at least. So we set out.
Mounting the Aiguille du Midi was a three-step challenge. The first 1500 metres was an eight minute ride in a large cable car holding many passengers to the Plan de l’Aiguille. At 2310 metres, this was the jumping-off spot for hikers and skiers at lower elevations. Although the car sometimes hung 500 metres over the rock, Bill could bury himself among the other bodies on the cable car and pretend he wasn’t there. From there, it was another eight minute cable car ride up the remaining 1500 metres to the upper station. At 3,842 metres, this higher view of the valley below and the peaks and glaciers above was stunning. Bill avoided looking.
Now what? A short elevator ride took us to the station for “la télécabine de la Vallée Blanche.” This was the prize. A 35-minute, 1300-metre trip would take us over Mount Blanc to Pointe Helbronner. At 3365 metres, this was the summit near the Refuge Torino in Italy, above la Palud. The cable cars were small, holding four passengers each, arranged in groups of three along the cable which stretched out of sight over the mountain. Having come this far, Bill decided to join us for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, his decision was heroic or foolhardy, depending on your perspective.
We waited for our cable car, got in, and arranged ourselves inside. Bill and Carl chose the seat with their backs to the mountain; Ben and I looked ahead. The trip was more than we could ever have bargained for. As we rose up beside the mountain peaks, we seemed to soar above the rocks and glaciers nearby. Below we could see skiers and climbers on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Bill turned green and shrivelled up in his corner, refusing to look out the windows. Carl, feeling a little nauseous, fell into a stoic calm. Ben was looking about wildly, excited by all he saw. I was taking pictures.
What we hadn’t counted on was the cable stopping and starting en route as passengers got off and on. Each stop left us hanging in space; each start terrorized Bill and left Carl more ill at ease. The 35 minutes to Pointe Helbronner seemed forever, and then we had to return. At least, we just went over the peaks, and did not descend all the way to La Palud. Needless to say, it was a most memorable day.
Is Bill’s current state a little post traumatic stress disorder?