Even in the European Alps, where ski lifts as varied as the blades of a Swiss Army knife scale mountain after mountain, the 60-passenger téléphérique to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi leaves you breathless.
It is the highest gondola in Europe, topping out at 3,879 metres, and the king-of-the-world view spans three countries – France, Italy and Switzerland.
The tram rises from Chamonix, site of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, and ends atop the fortress-like granite needle that looms next to white-domed Mont Blanc, which, at 4,846 metres, is the highest mountain in the Alps. It covers the distance in two ear-popping spans – one of them the longest of any aerial tram in the world.
And as if these superlatives aren't enough, the Aiguille du Midi is also the starting point for the longest lift-serviced ski and snowboarding run in the world: the 21-kilometre-long Vallée Blanche. It's often called the greatest ski run on the planet.
"A ski day on the Vallée Blanche is the snapshot of the Alps you will carry in your mind all summer," promises veteran Chamonix mountain guide Armel Faron as we board the tram for the Aiguille du Midi.
Given the right conditions, any strong intermediate skier or snowboarder with a sense of adventure can cruise the 2,831-metre vertical drop – the equivalent of stacking the resorts of Whistler, Tremblant and Mont-Sainte-Anne on top of each other.
More than 2,000 skiers and snowboarders descend the glacier every winter. The standard route back down to the village of Chamonix follows the ice-jumbled Glacier du Tacul before merging with the Mer de Glace, France's largest glacier.
And for much of its length, it resembles its name, a rough sea suddenly frozen in storm. It is an unimaginable stretch of snow and ice and deep-blue depths, littered with seemingly bottomless crevasses.
Other dangers include train-car sized séracs – large masses of ice isolated by intersected crevasses – that can tumble and crush a skier.
The drama of the Vallée Blanche run begins the very moment we step out of the téléphérique station. Roped together, with our skis cinched to our rucksacks, we inch carefully down the steep, snow-plastered, knife-edged ridge that leads to the head wall of the Glacier du Tacul.
On our right is a 160-metre drop to the Col du Midi; on our left, Chamonix is 2,800 metres straight down. Faron heel-steps his way down one side of the narrow ridge while I inch along parallel to him on the other side, joined by the umbilical cord of the rope.
In theory, if one of us slips and plunges down one side, the other could fling himself off the opposite side as a counterbalance.
At a level, airy perch at the bottom of the ridge we exhale gratefully, step into our skis and descend a nicely pitched snowfield to the glacier. There 's nothing but blue sky above us – and danger below.
Much of the glacier consists of fields of crevasses intersected with porcelain-blue séracs.
Faron scans the snow: a bulge might indicate hidden crevasses. He skirts all potential disasters with wide arcs and I follow in his tracks, zigzagging and banking like a bobsledder.
Suddenly, Faron skids to a stop just a few feet before the lip of an eerily blue crevasse, hundreds of metres deep.
We carefully traverse the edge until we find a narrow snow bridge. As I tiptoe across on my skis, I try not to dwell on what would happen if the bridge gives way and Faron's belay rope fails to catch me. But it holds, and we schuss on.
After countless turns picking our way through the glacier's obstacles, we stop and sit in the snow using our planted skis as backrests.
With the surprisingly warm sun on our faces, we savour both the extraordinary view, and fat baguettes and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône.
After lunch, our final escape off the glacier involves skiing kilometres over gently sloped, windblown hard pack. Reaching the tree line in a controlled fury, we cruise on increasingly rubber legs down trails winding through the pine forest.
After 21 kilometres of skiing, we reach Chamonix. (If snow is sparse in the final stretch, as it often is late in the season, skiers can bail out near the toe of the glacier at the Montenvers ice cave, where a cogwheel train travels back to town.)
Clomping through Chamonix in our plastic boots, with our skis and climbing rope slung over our shoulders, we blend right in.
Not only skiers and climbers, but paragliders, extreme parachutists and all manner of alpine adventurers are drawn to this remarkable valley, where the lifestyle is fuelled on adrenaline.
The 19th-century village is pure Alpine charm. Walking tours focus on the legends of Chamonix's mountain history.
The Alpine Museum has a photo collection of early mountaineering equipment.
The Richard Bozen Sports Center contains a library, national school for skiing and alpinism, and outdoor and indoor swimming pools, as well as a skating rink.
Helicopter sightseeing trips and dogsledding also are offered in the valley.
A sprinkling of boxy, concrete hotels stand on the edge of town, but the atmosphere is nothing like the purpose-built, all-lifts-and-no-ambience resorts that dominate so many other French ski areas.
And you don't have to tackle the Vallée Blanche to enjoy the local skiing and snowboarding.
The Chamonix valley has 12 separate ski areas with 49 lifts and 145 marked ski runs ranging from mom-and-pop cruisers to in-your-face steeps.
Chamonix's après-ski scene is among the liveliest in France. Locals gather at Chambre Neuf for drinks and live music, followed by the far-reaching dinner menu at Le Monchu.
Choucas and Dick's Tea Bar are favourite watering holes. There's even a chic casino.
Yes, Chamonix has it all – the best scenery in the French Alps, huge and wild skiing, centuries-old tradition and nightlife worthy of Aspen.