So when I received an invitation to the launch of the new cable car cabins at Tignes Grande Motte, Savoie, I had to reread it to be sure I had understood it correctly: “Boasting the world’s largest cable car roof terrace.” It sounded terrifying.
At 3,034 metres, the Grande Motte cable car base station is higher than many Alpine resorts. From here cable cars climb almost 500 vertical metres over the Grand Motte glacier to the top station at 3,456 metres. It’s as “up there” as you get in terms of accessing the mountains with your trainers on – the second-highest cable car in France after the Aiguille de Midi in Chamonix.
To reach base station, passengers take a funicular which tunnels 1,000 metres up through the mountain from the village of Val Claret to the Grande Motte glacial plateau. Once on the cable car, I was one of the first people to climb the small metal staircase onto the roof. I was so busy taking my camera out of my backpack that I didn’t notice we’d started moving. The new car is astonishingly quiet, and smooth. The chest-high glass barrier surrounding the deck acted as a windbreaker, and with the sun shining there was no need for a jacket.
From our rooftop spot, we had 360-degree views of a sea of peaks: Grande Casse, with its imposing summit ridge and broad, steep runnelled face and, in the distance, Mont Blanc. Below us was an expanse of blue-grey ice and huge yawning crevasses.
Anyone who has ridden a cable car before knows how opaque those ski-scratched Perspex windows can be. By contrast the views from this new cable car terrace are as clear as from a chairlift – although no chairlift I’m aware of flies you over swathes of glacial ice, dispatching the two-kilometre distance in a mere five minutes.
It is this bird’s-eye view of the rugged landscape offered by the cable car terrace that Tignes is hoping will help attract more summer visitors to the area. Historically, the resort’s summer tourism has been dominated by its glacier skiing, but faced with glacial retreat and a shortening summer/autumn ski season, it is keen to shift the emphasis to the surrounding ecology and fauna. This attraction, replacing the old 1975 cable car (which was notorious for breaking down), is stage one of a €17m investment which, over the next two years, will include the introduction of panoramic viewing platforms over the glacier and information boards detailing the unique ecosystem of the surrounding national park.
“In the winter, I used to ask people, ‘do you know where you are skiing?’” says Eva Aliacar, Vanoise national park director. “And they would answer ‘Tignes’. And I would say ‘yes, but you are also in the Vanoise national park and Tignes-Champagny nature reserve, full of so much nature and beauty.”
Eva points out an area behind us, which six pairs of majestic bearded vultures inhabit. The Vanoise is also home to 2,000 ibex – the largest population in France – along with chamois, marmots and golden eagles.
At slightly lower altitudes, hikers can plan routes throughout the Vanoise, staying at refuges (tended mountain huts) along the way.
As for the ski season, unfortunately the roof terrace will be closed in winter (when, along with the glacier, the full Tignes–Val d’Isère ski area covering 186 miles of piste is open). Picturing passengers trying to negotiate that narrow metal staircase wearing ski or snowboard boots in snowy, windy conditions, I think that’s probably for the best.
As the cable car glided out of the top station and began its descent, I scanned the sky for a glimpse of those bearded vultures. And it occurred to me that the next time I’m in a cable car I’ll think: this is lovely, but it would be even better if I was standing on the roof.