The bottom station of the pulsed-movement gondola lift to the Mer de Glace was built on a steep rock slope.
All photos: Roman Gric
Ropeways

Unusual Ropeways

Montenvers – Mer de Glace

In 1961, a ropeway was opened as a link between the terminus of the Chamonix-Montenvers rack railway and the ice cave at the foot of France’s longest glacier, the Mer de Glace.

Created by Roman Gric

At the end of the 19th century, the town of Chamonix established itself as the cradle of mountaineering in the Alps and a popular destination for visits to the mountains. In those days, most visitors climbed up to Montenvers, a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), either on foot or on the back of a mule. Montenvers offers a spectacular view of the high mountains including the vertical rock faces of the Aiguille du Dru and beyond the glacier to the Aiguille Verte, Grandes Jorasses and Dent du Géant, which are all over four thousand meters high.

Back in 1880, Montenvers was already dominated by the Grand Hotel of the same name. Now renovated with its old-world charm fully preserved and renamed the Refuge du Montenvers, it offers individual rooms and apartments as well as dormitories for mountaineering groups, and local fare to keep body and soul together in its Restaurant du Montenvers and the Panoramique Mer de Glacebistro.

Rack railway to Montenvers

Following the stage-by-stage opening of the Le Fayet - St. Gervais - Col de Voza - Nid d’Aigle rack railway (also known as the Tramway du Mont Blanc) between July 1908 and August 1913, a second rack railway in the Departement Haute-Savoie – from the Chamonix railway station to Montenvers – was opened on May 29, 1909. Using the Strub rack system, this railway overcomes 871 meters of vertical rise on its 5.14 km long track. Originally operated with steam locomotives, it was electrified in 1954. Whereas about 50,000 passengers a year rode up to Montenvers before the Second World War, the railway carried an average of one million visitors a year prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Although Montenvers is a popular starting point for walks and climbing tours of all grades of difficulty, most visitors to Montenvers simply go to the glacier tongue of the Mer de Glace, which has been the location of a man-made ice cave since 1946.

Reversible ropeway to the ice cave

The increase in capacity resulting from electrification of the rack railway led to constant congestion on the narrow path leading to the ice cave. And so, 14 years after the creation of the ice cave, it was decided to install a ropeway from Montenvers down to a point near the entrance to the cave.

Along the moraine flanking the tongue of the glacier, the former ropeway construction company Câbles & Monorails Mancini of Grenoble erected a 350 m long single-line reversible with twin track ropes and a winch drive. The 45-passenger cabin, which was built by the Grenoble coach builders Belle-Clot, had a stepped floor to take account of the slope of the line and two hangers with two carriages each. With such a design, the installation was rightly known as the Funiculaire Aérien (aerial funicular). Due to the limited space in the area of the top station, the haul rope had to be deflected from there over a distance of about 20 m to a separate machine room housing the winch. The line, which reached the glacier tongue at the beginning of the operations in 1961, had two portal towers. At 450 pph, transport capacity soon proved inadequate, and in 1972 a new stepped-floor cabin for 70 persons was supplied by Belle-Clot as part of a refurbishment project. The two carriages were also modified, and the uphill carriage was retrofitted with track rope brakes. The result was an increase in rated transport capacity to 700 pph.

Gondola lift as replacement for the reversible

Although the Mer de Glace has been retreating in general for about 150 years now and has lost about two kilometers in length, there was a brief period of glacial advance in the 1980s. That posed a threat to the bottom station of the aerial ropeway. In addition, glacial movement led to the collapse of the bridge leading to the ice cave in 1987, killing three people and injuring a further 27. The response of the operating company was to build a new ropeway on a modified line.

The new 255 m long ropeway – an extremely compact solution designed by Denis Creissels’ DCSA consulting engineers – is a pulsed-movement gondola lift with four groups of two cabins each. For the underground vault drive in the top station of the new lift, it was possible to use the machine room of the old winch-operated ropeway. The bottom station, with the return sheave and rope tensioning, is located on a steep rocky slope. Maximum gradient of the liftline is 120% (50º). The carriers are CWA Beta Vista cabins for 15 standing passengers.

In the stations, two gondolas stop simultaneously for loading/unloading in front of the drive and return sheaves, while the other two pairs of gondolas wait in the middle of the line. For optimized passenger flows, the cabins have doors on both sides. In the top station, the platform gate automatically opens for the arrival of the cabins and then closes again before the cabin doors open. This is a space-saving solution that makes the platform area under the downhill liftline available for passenger unloading.

In 1993 the Montenvers rack railway switched to year-round operation following the completion of avalanche protection works above the line. On their return from the 22 km long ski tour to the Aiguille du Midi via the Vallée Blanche and Mer de Glace, the world’s longest back-country ski route with ropeway access, skiers can also use the pulsed-movement gondola lift to return to the top station of the rack railway in winter, when it operates with two groups of cabins.

Tourist attraction

The bottom station of the cable car now stands many meters higher than the glacier, which can be reached on a well secured path with more than 500 steps. The man-made ice cave in the glacier itself has to be constantly moved as the glacier retreats, and the path from the bottom station of the ropeway is becoming longer and longer – tangible evidence of climate change.

In 2012, the Glaciorium was opened on Montenvers – a museum with audiovisual presentations and various exhibits illustrating the changes occurring in the glaciers as climate indicators and also the culture built around the glaciers. The Crystal Gallery houses a collection of remarkable exhibits from the Mont Blanc massif

Modernization plans

Following seven years of a joint planning process involving the municipality of Chamonix and the Compagnie de la Mer de Glace, a cooperation agreement covering the next 33 years was approved at a meeting of the municipal council on June 18, 2021. The Compagnie de la Mer de Glace is 60% owned by Compagnie du Mont Blanc, 30% by the Banque des Territoires and 10% by the Crédit Agricole banking group. Under the terms of the contract dated July 1, 2021, the Compagnie de la Mer de Glace will be implementing major capital investment projects over the next four years with strict respect for Montenvers as a natural and cultural site. The appeal of Montenvers - Mer de Glace for tourists is to be greatly increased while safeguarding its historical status and the unique environment. The main items in the upgrade project include the construction of a new cable car closer to the glacier and a new Glaciorium as a center for teaching visitors about climate change and glaciology.

TECHNICAL DATA

Montenvers – Mer de Glace pulsed-movement gondola lift, Chamonix

Elevation of top station1,910 m
Elevation of bottom station1,764 m
Line length255 m
Vertical difference146 m
No. of towers1
Drivetop station
Haul rope tensioningbottom station
Rated output395 kW
Cabin capacity15 pax
No. of cabins4 groups of 2 cabins
Max. line speed5,0 m/s
Rated transport capacity1.000 pph
Year of construction1988
General planningDCSA (Denis Creissels ingénieur conseil)
Stations and liftlineRiou, Joly Philippe, Serma, Berthier-Gremes
Grips and hangersLyon Etudes, Fourneyron, Berthier
CabinsCWA
ControlsSerel-Blachon
Grips and hangersLyon Etudes, Fourneyron, Berthier
ControlsSerel-Blachon

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