Photo Story: Hike 'N' Bike - 1200m of Vertical in Chamonix

Nov 12, 2021
by Nathan Hughes  




There and back again, Tolkien style. This was a mission, a quest if you will, big enough to make us feel as small as hobbits. The plan was as simple as it was grim; climb up to Chamonix's derelict lift station at 2400 in time for last light. Rideable? Heck no. Pushable? Err sorry, not in the most part. 1200m up does mean one thing though; an unsurprising, but sometimes forgotten, 1200m down. In this case I did partially sabotage the descent by insisting we time our adventure with sunset. Apologies to my athlete friends, Juliette Willmann and Martin G Brännström for that detail. Headtorches only ever add to the fun, Gandalf does mention.

The Gare des Glaciers and the lower, La Para, lift stations were built to access the Aiguille du Midi, on the shoulder of Mont Blanc, for the 1924 winter Olympics. They were abandoned and left to rust in the harsh elements since the 1940s with the start of the Second World War and the eventual construction of the present-day cable car. Today these old buildings are still accessible on foot and just as magnificent. Although in partial disrepair and full of graffiti, their setting is of course as stunning as ever, next to the ice of the Bossons Glacier.

In winter the top station acts as a vital landmark for skiers coming down from Cosmiques Couloir and Glacier Ronde. The original cable car remains hidden inside and incredible hand-painted adverts for Rolex and Dubonnet have survived the decades. To top it off, the upper sections of trail get the very last slivers of orange-pink light and with the winter white already overdue, it was a mission we had to tick off, now or never.

The trail begins out of town at the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel and wastes no time turning the steepness up to 11 as it twists up through the forest up to the first station. From there things start to open up and the tree line thins. The path becomes looser and rockier and forgiving loam turns to brutal boulders and gravel, just as the views become really epic. On foot or otherwise, it could be one of the most under-visited, for sure under-rated spots in the Chamonix valley. Until now you say. Well the snow is already with us unfortunately, and if on the off-chance you make a note to come by and swing your bike over your shoulder next summer for these 1200m of partially rideable punishment, then I say fair play to you. I don't think we can expect much of a queue to drop in.


Nestled under the Smaug-like Aiguille du Midi, of epic 3800m proportions, is the Gare des Glaciers at its foot (see middle right, below snow patch in the sun). Low in comparison, the building is still over 2400m in elevation.

12.15 pm on this October day and we're under away, crossing the little suspension bridge next to the Mont Blanc tunnel. Sunset will hit at around half six. We have skittles and cheese so we should make it.


Already 400m vertical into the climb, the Para lift station has been partially restored at least externally. With an oily chainring digging into your shoulder it feels like half way, but is in fact more like less than one third.

Juliette and Martin check out the shell full of graffiti that apparently hosts a few sketchy, probably mushroom fuelled parties. Who knows what the plan is for this unloved, but unique structure long forgotten in the woods.


The top of the trail seems impossibly far, but the Midi always keeps things in perspective a couple of thousand meters overhead.


Emerging from the trees, the trail begins to get a lot less forgiving for the second half of the ascent. It will be mostly all rideable on the way down. Partially.


The first view over the jagged sea of ice approaching the top will stick with you. The intermittent passing of the cable car never fails to bring a fresh reminder of scale.


Hike 'n' bike. The final effort of the former. The trail sign at the tunnel estimates 4 hours, but that will be without a bike on your shoulder. Still our athletes found themselves up here comfortably in 3 and a bit, excessive photo stops included.


Now just a shelter for the chamois, hand-painted murals remind us of a more luxurious past, at least 7 decades ago.

Dinner is served. It's a French recipe.

Finally dropping in with some snow cover on the upper slopes and thick grey clouds blocking the sun. Not exactly the way I like it, but we had blind optimism on our side. Spot the riders to enter the raffle.

No strangers to this part of the mountain, Juliette and Martin are keen partakers of the winter. Maybe you recognise Juliette from the Freeride World Tour and maybe you recognise the next part of the trail from a Pinkbike story nearly ten years ago from Chamonix photographer, Dan Milner.


Summer is a different kettle of fish of course and the top section of trail is rough and ragged, to say the least. It's like Fort William, if they didn't want you to ride bikes at Fort William.


Last autumn old man winter arrived early in September and never left the high trails. This autumn has been a decent apology.


Juliette finding the grip under the marbles.


After a couple of hours of grey, washed-out light, the sun was back and somehow really performing. Some unreal luck.

Autumn was firing and we were the only ones up there to see it. (note: in Chamonix you are never the only one... who can say how mountain folk were high above us on mighty Mont Blanc.)

You have to be in it to win it. By 'in it', we mean hanging out at over 2000m for the very last sunbeams.


Sometimes you win. Now to get ourselves safely back to the Shire as pitch-darkness creeps in.

Nightfall and still some 800m to ride on a trail that takes every ounce of concentration. I'm not sure how many lumens we had put together, but it was barely enough.


When a hair-brained scheme pays off, it only ever encourages you for the next one. 'I think I'm ready for another adventure' - Bilbo Baggins.



34 Comments

  • 64 1
 Best PB article all year.
  • 3 0
 agreed!
  • 2 0
 Agreed! And now I miss Chamonix again!
  • 4 0
 Amazing, I rode in that first feature shot by Milner ten years ago… that time we smuggled our bikes in the Midi lift , then scrambled across the sketchy af moraine. Coincidentally we did the hike a bike earlier this autumn for a different Milner perspective (with the mad skills of Ludo May)… coming out in a print mag near you soon Wink
  • 3 2
 Boy having an attractive, ride or die girl to do epic mountain biking adventures with in the French Alps would F*CKING SUCK!
  • 25 0
 Nice one Nathan, have spent some summer holidays in Chamonix and it's all kinds of rugged awesomeness. Happy to see your pictures reflecting this.

PS: Absolutely love the Rolex snap, timeless!
  • 14 0
 Natural hiking trails are the best. Only problem is that they are usually overcrowded in the summer and as a result, many trails above Chamonix are not open to MTB. Automn is just the best season to ride in this part of the mountain: less people, beautiful colors, first snow, epic descents in the sunset...
  • 14 0
 what a master piece of work... great riding for sure and great location to use as your canvas... This is pure gold and should be the new PINKBIKE standard.
  • 12 0
 Probably the best photo story I've seen on this site. Incredible pics!
  • 10 0
 How can one not love the outdoors when seeing this. Your're a magician Nathan Hughes! I'm blown away, thanks for that!
  • 8 0
 2 things to mention:
@Clifbar: Here is what we are looking for: Clifbar "Skittles and Cheese"!
@Pinkbike: Please more of these beautiful photo documentaries/stories!
  • 6 0
 I lived there for 12 years. Unfortunately I had to move back to Brexitland for family reasons. This is the best article ever. The two abandoned stations are incredible to visit, top station you used to have to crawl through a little hole to access. The engineering feats are incredible for something that was built in the 20's/30/s and the buildings are still standing even after 90+years of savage winters. Research it a bit, the story is amazing.I miss my real home, I miss Cham. So much good biking especially September and October when the crowds have gone. Amazing photography, just awesome, thank you PB Smile
  • 3 0
 This is why I love 2021 - somebody has already done the gruelling hard work and gotten all the Internet points, so I can just ignore that gnawing feeling of adventure and ride my local jump trails and drink beers on my deck instead of bleeding out in the dark at the bottom of a cliff somewhere
  • 2 0
 It is incredibly steep and rugged in Cham valley, making most traditional mountain biking almost impossible until your further down the valley or up on the opposite side. but again very difficult to access. tremendous work showing the true and honest side of the treacherous side of the Mont Blanc Massif
  • 3 0
 The Aiguille definitely puts the mountain back into mountain biking. Great stuff!
  • 2 0
 Now this is ride where you have an excuse for weight weenie-ing. Especially when having to carry a camera to take those awesome photos with. Beautiful story,
  • 3 0
 Ngl the best picture here was the cheese with a knife in it.
  • 2 0
 Wow. Didn’t know what to expect when I first clicked, this is incredible. This is now #1 on my bucket list
  • 2 0
 inspiring stuff, now i need to find my nearest mountain to climb!
  • 2 0
 You should try hike and FLY
  • 1 0
 I really want to go back to the alps, most beautiful place I ever had the chance to ride!
  • 1 0
 Very cool. It's amazing how they built those structures on such a steep slope...decades ago
  • 2 0
 Very nice. Love Chamonix. Great photos and story.
  • 1 0
 Amazing write up, really captured the magic of the Alps. Top article of the year so far for me!
  • 1 0
 Auguille du Midi! been there. Put it on your bucketlist, what an INCREDIBLE place!!! check it
  • 2 0
 Fantastic.
  • 2 0
 Just wow.
  • 1 0
 AWESOME!!! Love the images
  • 1 0
 oh man, wish i had know of this ride
  • 1 0
 Beautiful
  • 1 0
 Great stuff!
  • 1 0
 i see a butterfly
  • 1 0
 Absolutely beautiful.
  • 1 1
 Righetti style

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