Chamonix: For Now, the Mer de Glace Is For Alpinists Only

Thinking of taking the kids to see the Ice Grotto at Chamonix’s Mer de Glace this Christmas? Or planning to ski down the Vallée Blanche? Make sure you bring crampons, harness, and ice axe, and that you know how to use them.

La Chamoniarde, Chamonix’s organization for mountain safety, regularly updates on alpine conditions near Chamonix. It warns about restricted access to and from the glacier while a new cable car is built.

Tourist hotspot

The Mer de Glace Glacier is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Chamonix Valley, thanks to its easy access and the presence of a spectacular ice cave. Visitors usually reach it via a combination of the Montenvers trail, a cable car, and some stairways and ladders to the glacier.

In winter, the glacier marks the end of the ski descent of the Vallée Blanche, the 23km-long downhill that starts from the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car. It is a 2,800m descent from the top of the lift to Chamonix.

Vintage-looking red cable car heading down.

The old gondola between Montenvers train station and the Mer de Glace glacier. Photo:

Shrinking glacier

Unfortunately, the Mer de Glace has suffered from the devastating effects of climate change. The ice is disappearing at an alarming rate.

For a decade, the old gondola linking the Montenvers train station and the glacier, built in the 1980s, put visitors directly on the ice. Eventually, Chamonix had to add some metal steps to the rocky glacier side, then more every year. In 2021, over 550 steps lay between the end of the gondola and the ice surface.

A plaque shows the glacier reach the point where the photographer is in 1990; currently, there is a stairway from where the glacier can be seen many meters down below.

Where the glacier was in 1990 versus where it was in 2019 when the picture was taken. Photo:

Old stairway closed

Finally, in November, the gondola lift closed forever. A new cable car leading to a different spot, 600m further up the glacier, will replace it. The ice is supposed to last longer there.

The old stairway is now closed and off-limits. Until the new lift opens next month, the only access to the glacier is by via ferrata (the yellow route on the main image and the green line on the map below). This requires safety lines, helmets, crampons, and ice axes.

accesses marked on a map.

The green line marks the via ferrata now required to access the Mer de Glace. The old stairs and ladders, now closed, are in red. Photo: La Chamoniarde


What about skiing?

Mainly, it depends on snow conditions. It’s ideal to have enough snow to ski down to Chamonix and skip the lift and the train altogether. However, that is not typically the case. Most of the time, skiers end up at the glacier and climb up the stairs to the now non-existent lift.

Since that is no longer an option, the alternative is to head for the Buvette des Mottets and the trails through the woods to town.

However, the lift that conveys skiers from the Vallée Blanche to the Aiguille Du Midi only opens on Dec. 23.

“Even with the lift open, conditions during the first weeks of winter are tough,” UIAGM guide Michel Gonzalez told ExplorersWeb. “We only guide a few people, no more than two per guide, and we make sure they are experienced enough.

Have a look at the whole ski run and the arrival at the Mer de Glace and the ice cave.

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides graduated university in journalism and specializes in high-altitude mountaineering and expedition news. She has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of local and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporations, press manager and communication executive, and a published author.