Chamonix was always mythical place to me growing up. As a young teenager I would read books of Bonnington and Whillian’s exploits on the Dru and Freney. I would pour over John Norris’ photos in Fall Line magazine, and finally when the Blizzard of Ahh’s ski movie came out in ’95, those shots of Glen Plake and Scott Schmidt inspired me and a generation of fellow skiers to go out and get into the big couloirs Blizzard of Ahhhs Chamonix Segment. I even bought the iconic yellow and black ski suit.
These days Glen Plake lives there and you may well end up rubbing shoulders with him or any number of seasoned pro’s on the Aiguille du Midi. Just bring your phat skis as the mountains are big and the runs long.
The picturesque town of Chamonix has a year round population of 10,000 and is situated at the foot of Western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc (4807 m). In town you will find a plethora of bars, cafes, restaurants, gear shops, sport centres, cinema, banks, post office – pretty much everything you expect to have in a UK town, except for cheddar and rashers of bacon!
Ski Areas and Must do Runs
Chamonix is split into 6 skis areas that over the ten mile long valley. Les Houches is situated at the lower end and holds the easiest skiing. In summer its rolling Alpine meadows and ideal for the mountain biking.
On the south facing side are Brevent and Flegere that are linked with a cable car. Suitable for all levels of skiers, Brevent holds some of the best lift accessed skiing anywhere when the snow lies to the valley floor. For the aspiring ski mountaineer check out the ENSA and Bellin couloirs as you head up the cable car. A guide is recommended if you which to attempt to explore them but are worth it when they are in condition.
Grands Montets is located at Argentiere and is Chamonix’s premiere and largest ski resort. Access the vaste offpiste area of Lavancher bowl from the Bochard gongola or take the top cable car to access to the whole of the Argentiere basin with its impressive chain of North Faces comprised of the Aiguille Verte, Les Droites, Les Courtes and the Triollet. The Pas de Chevre, Rectiligne and Poubelle Couloirs are also found here. These are good introduction lines for the advanced skier wishing to explore couloir skiing. While access to these lines are easy, the exit onto the mere de Glace is not so a guide is recommended here too.
Le Tour is sited at the head of the valley and offers a contrast with rolling red and blue runs on its sunny sun with stunning views to the Mont Blanc Chain with more demanding offpiste skiing on its darker north facing slopes over looking Vallorcine. Be warned that although this area is one of the least intimidating of the Chamonix resorts, snow slides are frequent due to the underlying grass meadows and can be one of the most dangerous placed to ski off-piste.
The final area is the Aiguille du Midi. I call it an area as it’s a lift on a 3842 m mountain that gives access to the ‘haute montagne’ or high mountain environment.
Skiing with a harness, crevasse gear, rope, crampons and ice axe are mandatory. There is no ski patrol, no piste, and no avalanche control. If you want to ski here but are unsure, employ a mountain guide to ensure your safety. It certainly accesses some of the World’s best skiing. Like me, if you stay in Chamonix for several years the impossible becomes possible here, in this area. That said, you don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to visit the Aiguille du Midi and it is one of Europe’s biggest tourist attractions.
The cable car itself is an engineering marvel with a 2.5 km free spanning cable. The top station provides incredible views, a cafe, an expedition of the history of alpinism and skiing, and a glass floored balcony hanging over the void that is spectacular once you overcome the fear of standing on glass over a drop of several hundred metres. If you are lucky you might catch the wingsuiters fly from the top platform down the Rond exit couloir and the Bossons Glacier.
Classic routes (remember they are not runs – no patrol, avalanche control etc) vary in order of increasing difficulty from the scenic Valley Blanche, Petit Envers and Grands Envers on the South side, the Cosmiques Couloir and Glacier Rond on the West Face, and of course all the spine chilling test pieces on the North Face such as the Mallory, Eugster and Frendo.
Chamonix is also the start of the classic ‘Haute Route’ which is a multiday high level traverse of the mountains from Chamonix to Zermatt. It also hosts literally hundreds of other great day tours that you can read about in the guide books listed below. The Flegere ski area is the start of several tours in the Aiguille Rouge on non-glaciated terrain at lower altitude that are idea if you are not acclimatised or if the weather is poor in the big mountains. Another favourite is the Breche Puiseux that crosses the Perriades ridge by way of cute 3-man bivi hut then descends the glacier under the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses.