Departing from Chamonix centre, the rack-and-pinion railway takes around 20 minutes to deliver you to Montenvers at 1913m. An imposing panorama of the Mer de Glace, the Drus and the Grandes Jorasses greets you as you alight the train. Mer de Glace drains the north side of Mont Blanc and at 12km long it’s the largest glacier in this part of the Alps. The ‘sea of ice’ label refers not only to its size but also to the coloured bands formed at its base.
Montenvers represents all that is both good and bad about the Chamonix experience. An easy way for everyone to enjoy the magnificent views of nature’s best work and a climate-changing mass of humanity. Like the Aiguille du Midi it takes no more than a few euros to get you to this point and sitting on the new and improved terrasse with a cappuccino. The weather up here changes quickly and the only way back is the train you came on. That or a 2-hour hike. In 2010, landslides left 120 people stranded at the Montenvers and they all had to be rescued by the PGHM and Sécurité Civile helicopters. As with most of the ‘attractions’ in Chamonix, it’s so easy to get to you don’t expect any problem getting back.
A short walk away from the train station you will find a hotel, previously a refuge, and some smaller buildings — the Temple of Nature and a small museum. You can find a peaceful spot and admire the views towards the Dru and the Verte or across the valley to the Aiguille Rouge.
From the train station, a cable car and 470 steps (100 more than in 2015, and 467 more than in 1998) take you down to the glacier and the man-made tunnel within it. Each year it becomes more inaccessible and each year more steps are added and the tunnel goes deeper into the ice. More people have been underneath this glacier than any other. During the ice age, the glacier started at the valley floor; now it is predicted to lose a minimum of 1,200m by 2040. In the last 20 years, it has thinned by 70m.
Tourism is today's monster and the journey to the glacier consists of metal steps, blue carpets and diggers. The glacier is unrecognisable as ice and lost under a thick layer of dust and rubble. It isn’t a pretty sight but an educational one. How much longer this journey remains sustainable is a good question to ponder on the way back up.
Montenvers is a good spot for hikes and makes a popular loop along the Grand Balcon Nord to Plan d’Aiguille and back down the lift. You can also hike back down to Chamonix but it is mostly tree-covered and not that scenic. The train is a better option.