There is quiet here, but it’s a quiet that drills deep inside; an unfamiliar absence of sound that ushers ease while simultaneously delivering tension. This silence is the sound of abandonment, and for a moment —perhaps minutes— I’m absorbed into a world framed by rusting ironwork and stoic, industrial ambition; one that is now veneered with encroaching saplings and aerosol artwork.
A loud clang returns me to the present; the lift station’s metal sheet roof expanding in the afternoon sun. It groans as it pushes against its aging restraints as if trying to free itself from history. Clang. Clang. The sound echoes around the cavernous building and I’m almost thankful to have the eerie silence broken. I glance across piles of collapsed rubble towards flaking advertising frescos and a single ancient tram, still suspended in its dock on a weary cable, and I shudder; this is a place of both triumph and tragedy, a place of ghosts. I beat a retreat through a tiny hole in the lift-station’s thick, stone wall, to drag myself out to the comfort and familiarity of sunshine, a bike and a trail in waiting: a steep, technical descent that will, in places, prove to be a test of agility or nerves, or both. But then Chamonix has never been a place of easy-wins.
Up here at nearly eight-thousand feet, we are a world apart from Chamonix’ lift-accessed bike trails that largely manifest as erratically flowing lines scraped into the valley’s few alpage meadows —begrudging stabs by the authorities at juggling the clashing demands of tradition and a rising number of mountain bikers. Now, deep into shoulder season, the handful of bike-friendly lifts sits idle, silently biding their time until reanimated by winter’s influx of skiers, and so our trail riding dreams now demand effort. But even by Chamonix’ standards, with its rock-strewn, technical hiking trails won through long, granny-ring grinds, today’s descent commands extra commitment. It’s taken us four hours of hike-a-bike to arrive at our drop-in. We started shortly after sunrise with bikes already on our backs, launching straight into a steep ascent that traces a line between a straggle of abandoned lift structures.
Unlike the World cup tracks of nearby Les Gets, Chamonix is not renowned as a Mecca for mountain bikers; its impossibly steep valley sides, regular friction on its shared-use trails, and a town council that already reaps abundant income from daytripping sightseers has kept its bike potential suppressed. But Chamonix’ name is shouted from the rooftops, and there are few skiers, climbers, mountaineers, or Instagram-posting tourists that haven’t clammered for the buzz of its high alpine scenery.
Perhaps the valley’s attention-seeking successes lie with its dramatic setting, nestled at the foot of Western Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, and overhung as it is by towering seracs and dwarfed by enormous shards of rock that spiral impossibly skywards. Or perhaps it’s because the town has done more than most to blow its own majestic trumpet over the last hundred-plus years, forging a headstrong path towards its now iconic status. After all, Chamonix boasted the first ‘aerial cable car’ in France, built just in time to service the first winter Olympics’ bobsleigh event of 1924. But as it shaped its legendary image, and constructed its many mountain lifts that helped it do so, it left a legacy of discarded mountain playground paraphernalia in its wake.
And it’s outside one of these structures —the Station des Glaciers— that I now stand bathed in low-slanting October light along with my two fellow riders, Jez Wilson and Ludo May, letting the last of the sweat from our long hike-a-bike steam from our jerseys. At our feet lies our descent and beyond it a vast, tormented wedge of ice that’s inching its way down from the shoulder of Mont Blanc. A casualty of the climate crisis, its ice is destined to never touch the valley floor again, but in 1927 when the Glaciers station was built you could stroll from its doorway and almost touch it; an immersive experience that lent the lift station its name. But that was nearly a century ago, and it seems a lot happens in a hundred years. Back then this rocky mountainside was teeming with tourists who could overnight in the adjacent hotel, or munch pastries in its tearoom. Today we have it largely to ourselves, our footprints in the thin, early-winter snow that aprons the lift station mingling only with those of hoofed ibex.
Our morning’s hike-a-bike to reach this high point is a labour of love: a thigh-burning, back-straining haul that fortunately offers enough visual stimuli to ease the pain. We climb past rusting metal work that juts from among tree roots, before emerging into a clearing and alongside the first abandoned lift station, the 'Para’. Inside, neo-gothic rounded stairways swoop up to a lone aluminium, art-deco tram, eighty-seven years old, still hanging by its quay as if patiently waiting for an impossible call back into service. The glass in the station’s windows has long been lost to weather or the attentions of bored youth, but the air inside is heavy with the smell of rust and grease and times-past, like the recently unlocked shed of a long-deceased grandfather.
Emerging from the forest and onto open mountainside, we pass the heavy-set foundations of the original 1920’s lift pylons and hike on past the ruins of the 1840’s Pierre-Pointue refuge. Once the spectacular first stop on the newly popularised ascent of Mont Blanc, the cabin is now no more than an inglorious square of crumbled foundations beset by juniper and blueberry bushes. Now high above tree line, our rewards are visual. We gawp up at spectacular rime-blasted peaks and across the nearby crevasse-streaked Bossons glacier; the stunningly beautiful but chilling resting place for two passenger planes that crashed in 1950 and 1966. And after more than four hours we finally drop our bikes at the old Glaciers station, our trail’s summit and our U-turn to claim our four-and-a-half-thousand feet of brake-searing alpine payback.
Earning this payback has been an endeavour: the yin and yang of adventure. For years immemorial humans have embraced risk in the pursuit of rewards, whether they come as opportunities plumbed in distant lands, or now as the simple endorphin rush of cleaning an exposed, technical switchback. Whatever our own personal comfort zone, it’s in our blood to test its limits, attempting to re-negotiate the non-negotiable, and as a mountain town Chamonix is not alone in lending such encouragement. Hiking up our descent means that I’ve already accepted my own confidence-denting moments ahead: the greasy, exposed slabs that threaten chiropractor visits at the slightest mistake —obstacles I’ll down-climb rather than risk. Such hero-to-zero moments will interrupt the flow and inevitably down-vote this trail against so many others I could have chosen today, but yet I am still drawn to shoulder my bike for hours to reach its start point; such is the allure to test myself, to push boundaries in a quest for gratification. These are rewards that are easy to evaluate —through feel-good glow or shared knuckle-bumps— but quantifying risk-taking remains an uninviting prospect, shelved at least until mishap costs income, a limb or even a life. Even here, among the vibrancy of autumn there are shadows.
The terrain we’re about to ride near the Glaciers station is already raw and inhospitable, but the tram route originally climbed another four thousand feet to a rocky spur near the Col du Midi. Looking up from our trail, I pick out the silhouetted remnants of this upper lift station perched precipitously on the ridge: a tiny steel outpost forged from industrial know-how and rivet-pocked bravery. In 1945 this line transported troops and artillery to shell neighbouring Italy, but even before then, the tram’s innocence had been compromised. Planned as the penultimate stop on the long cable car ride to the 3842 metre high Aiguille du Midi —now Chamonix’ most iconic and visited landmark thanks to a newer tram route up— this exposed platform sat at the mercy of the high mountain; an oversight in the engineers’ ambitions that cost the lives of four workers, including one who froze to death while camped out on the summit site, and the director of the construction company himself.
But it’s hard to challenge ambition, and this top station sat, quite literally, at the pinnacle of Chamonix’ ambitions: to conquer its adjacent, seemingly untouchable peaks and the experiential aspirations of moneyed tourists. The boast of offering the highest tram ride in the world has been one that underpinned Chamonix’ successful tourism industry for decades; it’s largely why mountain biking here is overlooked, so far at least.
But we have bikes firmly in our focus, and with the sun now slipping towards the horizon we begin our descent, embracing whatever may come. Perhaps this trail is the adventure spirit laid bare, reduced to its fundamental elements: risk and reward. I pause for a moment, my flow interrupted by a particularly evil switchback and think of the history that has unfolded here on this less-than-hospitable mountainside. This boulder field once echoed with the whoops of skiers, unleashed onto un-groomed snowfields armed only with primitive gear and a pioneering spirit. They even held a French championship ski race here in 1927, and a World Cup the year after; more than fifty years before I picked up my first pair of, what were at the time, very skinny skis. Humbled by this thought I look down at the 150mm of plush suspension and balloon-like tyres that are cushioning my own descent and swear never to curse a trail feature again.
We hack to and fro across this alpine playground, tyres crunching over granite grit and daylong shadowed frost until we’re swallowed up by the tree line. Strobed by low sunlight our pace quickens as the trail eases from rock gardens to dirt among dappled, gold-tinged larches. We bounce down roots and carve corners, and roll alongside a tumbling torrent of glacial ink past the traffic-choked entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel —a site that saw its own tragedy in 1999— before entering a swooping mini-canyon with vertical walls of moss-carpeted stones: the ruins of the 1924 Olympic bobsleigh track.
Tall pines conspire to shroud this track in secrecy. They cluster and sprout from its block work walls as if to try to smother the glory of its Olympic past — a past that saw injuries (including at that first Olympics) and four deaths that eventually forced its abandonment in 1950 —yet another of many chapters in Chamonix' dark history of the human cost paid by its pioneers.
We snake on and off this mile-long track following its curves as it disappears and re-appears, clinging to survival, between the zigzags of the Mont Blanc tunnel highway. Dropping through the dying embers of daylight we finally pull up at the valley floor, to cast glances back at the towering peaks behind us. We watch the now far off Glaciers station slip into darkness.
There’s silence and a chill in the air. This is a place of ghosts and of lost moments. But it is also one of resilience and endeavour. We smile at our own meagre achievement and the trail we just rode. Our undertaking may be tiny by Chamonix’ century-long established standards, but here, among such formidable mountains that don’t relinquish their rewards easily, any win feels especially sweet.