We’ve learned by luck and happenstance that the best route on this magnificent trail, which links the Montenvers’ cog-rail station and the mid-point of the telepherique to the heavens of Aguille du Midi, ignores the advice you’ll get from most books and people.
Yes, you have to climb a bit more if you start in Montenvers to traverse the 4 miles of mountainside in the direction of Mont Blanc. But a 1,300 foot ascent from 6,310 to 7.602 over three hours isn’t all that bad, overwhelming, and its repaid several times over by the dazzling views in this direction. In fact, I can give you five reasons why it’s better to start at Montenvers, at the end of the cog railway, where if you’d like you can start with a tour underground through the ic caves of France’s largest glacier).
1) You’ll get an earlier start. Lines snake from the telepherique building of the Aguille du Midi lift all day. in Chamonix We got the first train to Montenvers at 9:30 a.m. without any problem. The wait at Aguille lift can be an hour or more.
2) Once on the trail from Montenvers, you’ll be walking toward the Alps the entire time. Start from the other direction, and the mountains will often be at your back. And the above-treeline Alpine views are precisely why most people come here to hike.
3) Start relatively early from Montenvers and for the first hour or 75 minutes, you’ll have the trail to yourself. I’d just finished telling Kathy how lucky we were to have this gorgeous place to ourselves when waves of hikers began passing us from the other direction. Virtually everyone, in fact, starts at the Plan de l’Aguille, the halfway point up the Aguille du Midi.
4) The toughest climb from Montenvers comes at the very start, when you’re fresh. The trail climbs to the top of Signal Mountain, about 1,000 feet above. This is a spectacular place to sit for a panoramic view of the Mer de Glace glacier and surrounding alps.
5) Coming from Montenvers, you can cap off the hike with a fantastic fruit tart and glass of wine at the refuge just below the lift. The trail takes you right there. The refuge has sling chairs, and I promptly fell asleep for about 15 minutes on the side of the cliff.
We would never have known all this had I not acted in desperation two summers ago. I’d sold an article on “hiking above the clouds” to The Boston Globe’s travel section. But the weather was rocky, and I was short of material as we entered our final day in the valley. The day broke clear and we raced to the Aguille lift — only to learn that it had broken down. So we raced across town to Montenvers and hiked the trail — or so we thought — in reverse. Yesterday, we had planned to take an entirely different trail, to the glacier above Argentiere. Only on the way there, we noticed the lift to that trailhead doesn’t open until tomorrow. So once again, we scrambled for an alternative.
What a good one the Grand North Balcony trail was. It’s now my favorite in this region. For one thing, it takes in two distinct groups of mountains, those towering above the Mer de Glace glacier, and then, around a long bend, the range that stretches to Mont Blanc. (A warning: While this is a very well-maintained trail, it is exposed in places. Anyone with serious vertigo should avoid it.)
Trail signs suggest leaving 2 hours and 45 minutes for the hike. We took about a half-hour more, as we were passed among others, by a man, probably was in his 60s, hiking barefoot and several runners preparing for today’s 48-mile run, which will include the modest stretch we walked.
We , nonetheless, were tired enough by the time we hit the refuge. If you’re feeling more energetic, it’s an easy half-hour hop to Blue Lake before riding the lift down, or — if you’re really energetic — hiking to the valley floor. We settled instead for the blueberry and raspberry tarts at the refuge.
Besides, I’m confident we’ll be back. Because of its intricate lift system, I doubt there’s anyplace better on earth for a hiker with fading knees than the Chamonix Valley.