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It's Breathtaking! Breathing Thin Air At the Top of the New Skyway Monte Bianco

21/01/2016 14:46 GMT | Updated 21/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Sometimes in a skier's life skiing itself is not the only reward. Thus it was when I climbed, like an astronaut, it seemed to me - into what must be the most modern ski lift in the world - I was truly excited by the prospect, even though I already knew that skiing was not on the menu that day.

The new Mont Blanc Skyway cable car rises to 3,466 metres (11,372 ft) on the Italian side of Mont Blanc But sadly, although we were able to conduct our own EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity - NASA-speak for space walk) by simply getting out at the top, we weren't able to ski from the "roof of Europe" - arguably the closest point to the summit of Mont Blanc accessible by public transport.

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. Yet 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.

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, took four years to build, with hundreds of construction workers often labouring under extreme conditions. It 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 many 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 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 Italian version of the celebrated off-piste Vallée Blanche run down to Chamonix.

One satisfied customer 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 sight-seers at Punta Helbronner will find an exhibition of quartz and other crystals, two bars, a self-service restaurant and a cinema.

Luca Rolli, a board member of Courmayeur's Società Guide Alpine, said: "The new Skyway cable car system - a huge challenge undertaken by the Valle d'Aosta region - is a grandiose construction allowing visitors amongst perennial glaciers, granite peaks and breathtaking panoramas."

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!

Arnie Wilson

At the time of writing a round trip from the bottom station cost 40 euros (33.50 one way) Just the first section (Pontal d'Entreves-Pavillon) cost 21.50 Euros return (17 euros one way). My visit was organised by Ski Solutions (020 7471 7749, skisolutions.com) which was offering four nights' half board accommodation at the four-star Hotel Gran Baita in Courmayeur from £795 per person. The price, based on two adults sharing, included flights and transfers departing London Heathrow on March 17 2016.

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