My last post was about my walk up the old, but still existing cable car route between Station de la Para and the Gare des Glaciers in the Chamonix valley. The atmosphere of the decaying buildings and other infrastructure sparked my desire to find out more about them. I have discovered a great deal; almost all of it from two very detailed French websites ( http://www.aiguilledumidi.net/index.html and http://www.remontees-mecaniques.net/bdd/reportage-3869.html). These blogs have an amazing collection of photos, technical drawings, discussion and history, and even a video. They are well worth a look.
I started by going to look at the route of the old lift from top to bottom. When I first went to Chamonix, perhaps 25 years ago, I can remember walking past a large building surrounded by trees and undergrowth. I was told it was the old Aiguille du Midi lift station. Last month, I returned to look for it again and found it fairly easily in Pelerins. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it had been completely restored and rehabilitated as a training college in 2004, retaining just about all the historic external features,
and the entrance
Then I took a ride up the present Aiguille du Midi lift and took a look at the old lift from above
I can just about spot Gare des Glaciers (a name, you may have noticed that has been pinched by the new college building!) at 2414m, and Station de la Para at 1685m in this picture taken from 3817m. But you might need some help, and I hope this picture and the yellow squares provide that.
The original proposal for a cable car lift in this place really started in 1910 when an agreement was made between the Town of Chamonix and the company Société du Funiculaire Aérien de l’Aiguille du Midi-Mont Blanc. This was a 65 year franchise but it had to be frequently renegotiated due to developments in technology and organisational changes etc. World War I was a serious interruption to the development work. The war ruined the business of the largest shareholder in the company and a new company took over the the franchise in 1922: Société Française des Chemins de Fer de Montagne.
The award of the winter olympics to Chamonix for 1924 accelerated the completion of the cable car and the lift was ready for this event. The station of Para was also ready for use at this time but the technology available would not allow a single cable from the base station in Pelerins to Para, so an intermediate station was also created. This was used as the start of the bobsleigh course used in the Olympics. It was destroyed in an avalanche in May 1983.
In 1927 the section from Para to Les Glaciers was completed and open for tourists.
For a short while it was the highest ski lift in the world. Then the Brevent lift was opened on the other side of the valley and took away the title.
The intention remained to continue the lift onward to the Aiguille du Midi but the company was in a poor financial state and in 1933 it went bankrupt.
In 1936 the assets were bought by a new company with the name Compagnie Française des Funiculaires de Montagne (CFFM). By 1937, this new company had turned the operation around. The number of visitors was increasing fast, a new ski route had been established from Les Glaciers and a new railway station had been opened to give more immediate access to the base of the lift at Les Pelerins.
This railway station was named “Aiguille du Midi”. (It is now called Les Pelerins.) But while work was proceeding on the topmost section, the final destination had been changed to the Col du Midi at 3600m. This would still give skiers access to the Mer de Glace and would assist aspiring alpinists to climb Mont Blanc. It was considered acceptable to Chamonix Council, who provided assistance with the development work. In June 1940 a link from les Glaciers to the Col du Midi was completed. One of the pylones of this section still stands at 3020m close to the Cosmiques refuge. While riding on this line, on a wooden board used to transport materials and workers, one of the new company founders fell to his death when a power interruption stopped the lift suddenly and tipped him out.
There was little further work on the cable car during the rest of the war and the occupation. In 1945 further work was not a priority and in 1948 all work officially stopped. There were technical difficulties with the line, the cable cars were prone to derailment in windy conditions and new technologies and equipment provided better solutions. In 1949 the project for the existing and, at that time, new Aiguille lift was born and in 1950 a concession for it was agreed. A new company was formed to develop and run the new lift and it bought all the assets of CFFM. The new Aiguille du Midi lift opened to the public in August 1955.
The old lift continued to run for skiers, climbers and tourists until April 1951 when the Departmental Prefect banned its public operation, presumably on lack of safety grounds. Thereafter, the lifts were used intermittently to transport workers and materials but even this finally stopped in 1958. However, the facilities have not been entirely left to decay; the roof of the cable car station at Les Glaciers was replaced in 1990 although, close by, the Hotel Glaciers has lain in ruins since the 1980s.