MY crampons crunch as I find a footing on the hard snow, jabbing the steel point of my ice axe into the mountain for support. The wind blows hard and cold as we make our slow progress along a razor edge of ice, which falls away steeply to both sides. I bed the spikes on my boots deeper into the frost. I am not going to fall. Not now.

For anyone who loves the mountains, Alpinism is as exciting as it gets. And things don’t get any better – or higher – in this part of the world than on the slopes of that grande dame, the Mont Blanc Massif. It is high and beautiful. It’s also cold and just a little bit scary.

In Chamonix, now invisible below us, we had baked in unseasonally high summer temperatures, but up here it was way below zero with a ferocious wind-chill that took the breath away and turned it into needles of frost. Without gloves, fingers turn numb and freeze to the cold steel of your ice axe; without the axe, you wouldn’t last five steps.

Out here, on the blade-like arête which fans out from the flanks of the Aiguille du Midi (3,842m) civilisation seems very distant. It’s not. It’s actually just a few feet behind, in the shape of a cafe serving soup and pretty little fruit tarts, carved into the summit of this needle of rock. We may feel like we are touching the void, but just minutes before we’d been sipping hot chocolate in Europe’s highest tea shop – reached by a 20-minute cable car from the valley floor.

While many of us think nothing of hurtling down a mountain on skis in winter, or hiking lower slopes in summer, we tend to leave mountaineering to the experts. That’s a shame, because anyone with a basic level of fitness, the right gear and a guide can enjoy what has previously been the domain of that rare breed of frost-bitten mountain-folk.

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Heavy weather: Mountain Guide Jacques Mottin leads Tim Hughes and friend along the ridge. Picture by Michael Cranmer

The gear is easy: mountain equipment can be picked up in any one of dozens of hire shops in Chamonix and other jumping off points. The same goes for guides. And, just as you’d be a fool to go anywhere near the arête without the proper kit, only the truly experienced would go without a qualified mountain guide.

When it comes to the world of mountain guiding, The Chamonix Guides are the Beatles, Stones and Elvis all rolled into one. Local celebrities, they know every pebble of this part of the Alps and have been taking us Brits up there for a century and a half.

This year Chamonix-Mont Blanc marks 150 years of Alpinism with a celebration of the golden age of mountaineering.

Specifically, it commemorates the events of 1865, which saw 65 first ascents in the Alps, including seven in the Mont Blanc Massif, including the Aiguille Verte, the Grandes Jorasses and the Brenva Spur on Mont Blanc.

This was the period that put Chamonix on the map. Lured by tales of grand vistas or great beauty and the thrill of treading where no man or woman had previously gone, rich Victorians flocked to this mountainous playground to tick off summits – ably assisted by local guides.

Their arrival transformed Chamonix from a poor valley village into a burgeoning resort, and its people – who had previously been afraid to venture above the pastures into the high unknown, for fear of ghosts and monsters, established a reputation as the finest guides in Europe. To many, they still are.


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Meet on the ledge: Climbers become specks in the distance among the vast scenery of the Mont Blanc Massif.

Chief among these local heroes is Michel Croz, who met a tragic end falling into a crevasse after a first ascent of the Matterhorn with the famous English climber Edward Whymper, in 1865. Three British climbers also perished. Croz, and other guides are remembered this summer with a series of exhibitions, events and memorial climbs.

“Chamonix is very proud of its guides,” says my own mountain guide Jacques Mottin. “In the early days, they were very brave men with little equipment, but through their bravery many new summits were conquered.”

A comparison with our own faltering progress on the ridge was irresistible, but Jacques admitted conditions had been tough. “Normally it is much easier,” he grinned. “In fact, usually the sky is blue and you can go very far without difficulty. It’s a great sport for everyone to try.

“Still, always take a guide,” he winked. “Things can change, but we know these mountains very, very well. You will always be safe with us!”


Accommodation: 3* Hotel Bar Bistro Pointe Isabelle. Summer prices from €139 per double room per night B&B.
Aiguille du Midi: Return ticket to the Aiguille du Midi is €57 for adult / €48.50 children.
Mountain guides:
Prices: around €400 for the day for two.

Guided tour of Chamonix 

Absorb the scenic wonders of Chamonix, and learn about its fascinating mountaineering history - complete with gripping tales of the Golden Age of Alpinism on a Guided tour of Chamonix (in English): €10 per person (visits are organised once a week). Details from

Chill: Soak and rejuvinate at the Spa Heliopic

The spa is open to non-resident to the hotel who book a treatment

For example 45mn massage + lunch: €72.

Eat and drink:

Relax in style with an aperitif at the five-star Hotel Albert 1er. This family-owned luxury hotel is an oasis of reserved charm with breathtaking views of the Mont Blanc range. The piano bar is divine - and the in-house musician also happens to be a whizz on the piano accordian... it's all very French (though he actually hails from Bosnia. Request a Gypsy wedding wedding song for a burst of Balkan energy!) The special house cocktails are recommended, and burst with fresh Alpine herbs picked from the chef's extensive cottage garden outside.

For a treat, eat at the gastronomic Restaurant Albert 1er for the finest dining in Chamonix- or dress down and go for Alpine cosiness next door at the hotel's other restaurant, La Maison Carrier. The wonderful smoked meats are prepared on site - hams and sausages suspended from the enormous kiln-shaped chimney which forms the centrepoint of the restaurant. Expect rustic charm aplenty and hearty slabs of meat and delicate fillets of fish. Fera - a sweet white fish from the Savoie lakes is a speciality. Accompany with potato, pasta or polenta served with creamy melted reblochon cheese. 

After burning off those calories in the mountains, you'll have earned it!

Three course menu starts at €31.


EVIAN: Explore a spa resort that’s ‘eau’ so chic

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Spash out: Take to the waters in Evian by kayak. Picture by Michael Cranmer

WHEN it comes to global branding, few towns can match the brand recognition of France’s most famous spa town, Evian.
The elegant resort is synonymous with the refreshing bottled water which carries its name, ensuring that everyone has heard of it, even if they can’t place it on a map.
Draped along the shore of Lake Geneva, facing Switzerland and backed by the towering Alps, Evian is a gem of a place.
Extravagant art nouveau and mock-baroque buildings front the glittering lake shore, itself separated from the town by a promenade. The place feels like a particularly grand seaside resort, though with just a touch of endearing faded grandeur, which hints at a grander age when the wealthy of Europe would arrive to ‘take the water’ and take the pleasure boat to Lausanne across the water. The boat still runs, offering tantalising day trips across the largest lake in Europe – known here as Lac Leman. 
A healthier way of taking to the water (and Evian is all about health) is to hire a kayak ( The water may be deep, but with no waves or tides it’s safe, and the views to the snow-capped peaks are divine. The water is clean and warm, making it perfect for swimming. Bathing spots are dotted along the wooded shore, adding to the holiday atmosphere. That, the grand architecture of its casino and the Palais Lumière – a former thermal spa and now cultural centre housing impressive art exhibitions and a very cool museum shop selling posters and jewellery – give it the feel of a landlocked piece of the Riviera.
While the mineral water is actually bottled some miles away, the original spring – with its crystal clear, sweet-tasting water, attracts a steady stream of tourists and locals – who queue to fill up containers of the stuff. A new thermal baths, with wellness centre, fitness area and medical spa treatments  is nearby. The waters are particularly good for the liver, I was informed. That’s just as well given the great food and local wine and beer.
While there is accommodation to suit all pockets, the grandest is the grand hilltop Hotel Ermitage (from €296 for a double B&B) or the historic and luxurious Royal Evian, which reopened this summer after a complete renovation (rooms from €600 to €4,000 per night).
This is the way to see Evian as those genteel travellers of old would have, perhaps stopping off after a strenuous bit of climbing in the Alps.
Both hotels ( are reached by a charmingly rickety funicular.
The views from the top are jaw-dropping, particularly from the shady terrace of the Ermitage, while sipping a bottle of Bière du Léman.

The golden age lives on!

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Splendour: The Hotel Ermitage


STAY: Hotel Ermitage. From €296 for a double B&B

Historical hotel the Royal Evian is also now open after being completely renovated.

Rooms from €600 to €4000 per night.

Activity: Take to the lake on a kayak. Hire from €8 an hour. Wet suits and instruction provided.

EAT: Le Chalet du Golf. 'Tee off' with a grand buffet or choose from the menu at this wonderfully-situated restaurant, actually surrounded by the clipped lawns of the golf course. Chalet du Golf is part of the Evian Resort: buffet lunch (starters, cheeses, desserts): €27 per person.

La Verniaz: High-end French classics at reasonable prices in a charming setting. Main course starts at €21, selection of cheeses €10 dessert: €9.

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