I felt like the British astronaut Tim Peake as I climbed into what must be the most modern ski lift in the world – the new Mont Blanc Skyway cable car on the Italian side of Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco as the Italians prefer to call it). But sadly, although we were able to conduct our own EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity – NASA-ese for space walk) in thin air at the top, we weren’t able to cut loose and ski from the “roof of Europe” – arguably the closest point to the summit of Mont Blanc accessible by public transport. We were even unable to ski from the half-way stage.
With masses of fresh snow falling on steep terrain with no firm pre-Christmas base, the avalanche risk was 4 out of 5. Not good odds. And a white-out even prevented us from admiring the stunning views normally available from the big circular terrace at the top. Never mind. Ski or not, it was a genuine thrill to get on board this impressive “flying ball”.
When I first looked at the blueprint for this starship of the slopes, shaped a little like a gigantic old-school NASA space helmet, it occurred to me that it was rather like the skiing equivalent of three model-T Fords being replaced by a Porsche 911 GT3 RS.
Three years on from its demise, the tiny old cabin – the highest and smallest of three ancient ski lifts that used to squash skiers and snowboarders on its final climb from the Rifugio Torino up to the giddy heights of Punta Helbronner, on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif – is now a distant memory. The new two-part, 138-million euro cable car now rules supreme.
The space-age lift, with zinc titanium coated steel, has now replaced all three of the old cable cars taking skiers, snowboarders and (in summer) glacier walkers from Entrèves, a satellite of the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur, to some of the most awe inspiring terrain in the Alps, with dramatic views of Mont Blanc and other high peaks. During the three-year time-lapse between the old and the new, the lower two lifts from La Palud to Rifugio Torino remained open, so if they didn’t mind a longer walk, visitors with a guide could still get to the exciting ski route down the Toula glacier back towards Entrèves. Later a new bridge and piste enabled skiers to resume the descent of the Italian version of the celebrated off-piste Vallée Blanche run down to Chamonix.
One satisfied customer who rode the new cable car said: “Trying to reach Punta Helbronner used to be terribly frustrating with huge queues at times, not to mention the terrifying last little lift – scarcely bigger than a ‘cupboard’ – that transported people from Rifugio Torino to Helbronner. Skiing down Toula was a doddle compared with the ride up! Now the journey up is actually a great experience!”
The new base station, with extensive parking facilities, now starts much nearer the Mont Blanc road tunnel. The lower section goes from Pontal d’Entréves to Pavillon du Mont Frety. The second section goes all the way to Helbronner, including the “gap” created when the tiny top section lift was scrapped. The views from the cable cars are exhilarating: both of them complete 360 degree rotations during the journey, at a speed of nine metres per second, carrying 800 passengers per hour. Non-skiing sightseers who want to enjoy the dramatic scenery at Punta Helbronner will find an exhibition of quartz and other crystals, two bars and a self-service restaurant.
The Pavillon mid-station has two bars, a restaurant, a conference centre and a wine room for the Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et La Salle; their sparkling wines are now matured there at altitude. Definitely a good time to toast this exciting new cable car!
How to get there: Ski Solutions (020 7471 7749, skisolutions.com) offers four nights half board accommodation at the four-star Hotel Gran Baita in Courmayeur, Italy from £795 per person. The price, based on two adults sharing, includes flights and transfers departing London Heathrow on March 17 2016.