The choice of where to go skiing in Europe is easy for myself and Vanessa given that a friend of ours lets us use his chalet in Chamonix for free. Chamonix has been at the sharp end of Alpine adventure since 1760, when a Genevois scientist offered a prize for the first ascent of its famous local mountain – Mont Blanc, 4,807m, the highest in Europe. The resort had its first growth spurt in the Victorian era, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and has re-emerged on the free-ride wave as the capital of all-mountain skiing and snowboarding.
As Chamonix is not a connected resort and is quite spread out it is highly recommended to hire a car if you are self catering, this also acts as your transfer to and from the airport. If you are on full package where your transfers are included you will have to rely on the extensive bus network to get you around the Chamonix Valley. There are regular services to all the main ski areas, although it can be a squeeze getting on the buses during busier times. On our first trip to Chamonix we went fairly late in the ski season, in March, here we did not see any snow on the valley floor. Because of this we were a little blasé about having snow tires or chains during our most recent visit in February. This nearly caused a problem when it snowed heavily on the way up to to the high altitude resort of Le Tour where our SUV was skidding all over the car park. Also on the way back from Courmayeur we nearly got stuck in Italy after another heavy snowfall. Next time we go we will definitely pay the extra for snow tires!
Self catering is obviously cheaper than paying for a package with a meal plan. To save money the 2 times we have self catered we have stopped off at one of the giant Super U supermarchés on the way to Chamonix. We usually stock up on about €100 worth of food and drink for our 7 night stay and plan to eat out a couple of times too. Chamonix, like many ski resorts, is not a cheap place to eat out, so expect to pay €70 – €80 per couple for an evening meal in a nice restaurant. The town itself is very picture-esque and has some great ‘cheap eats’ for snacks and lunch. My favourite is the tiny Poco Loco on the main street. Griddled sandwiches named after famous mountains of The Alps served with a local Mont Blanc beer and pomme frites goes down a treat at any time of day.
The Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass gives access to all the ski areas in the Chamonix Valley in addition to Les Houches, Megeve, Courmayeur and a reduced rate for Verbier in Switzerland. This is great value for money, even at close to €300 per person, if you are planning to ski most days and want to explore around. Having the pass gives you flexibility to go where the weather is best and to the slopes which have the best snow. In addition to the ski resorts mentioned you also get access to the Aguille Du Midi cable-car, the Tramway to Mont Blanc, the train to the Mer Du Glace (where the Vallée Blanche finishes) and a few other bits like access to the indoor pool and cinema in Chamonix.
The skiing, or in my case the snowboarding, is varied across the Chamonix Valley but leans towards the more advanced level. There are lots of Reds and Blacks and of course there is the famous Vallée Blanche glacier run. Here you have to catch the vertigo-inducing Aguille Du Midi cable-car before hiking down a slippy, precipitous arrêt walkway all the while carrying your ski gear and supplies just to get to the start point. A guide is an absolute must as they know the safest route down and how to avoid the cavernous crevasses that proliferate the glacier. We were happy to go up and take in the amazing views across The Alps on this ‘bluebird day’ while watching the skiers and boarders start their descent.
Another interesting non-ski activity is the Mer Du Glace. The train departs every hour from Chamonix town centre and takes about twenty minutes to climb the 1,000 metres up to the Montenvers-Mer de Glace attraction at an altitude of 1,913m. Once here a stunning panorama opens out with the glacier below. From there it is a short gondola ride and walk down the steps to the ice cave. Sadly due to global warming the number of steps that need to be built is increasing year on year.
By luck on our first full day the Kandahar World Cup skiing was on in Les Houches. Earlier we had got chatting some British people who had ‘All Access Passes’ from the day before and that we could use for free. This meant we could skip the queues and get good views from behind the finish line. It was fantastic to how fast they go in real time.
The apres-ski in Chamonix is also slightly different to more connected resorts. It is a town first and an apres-ski venue second. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any good places to have a well earned drink after a day on the slopes. There is indeed now a Folie Douce at the bottom of the beginners slope of Savoy as well as the top of Megeve- Saint Gervais ski area. In the town centre the best bars are found towards the train station at Chambre Neuf and Elevation 1904. However the ‘place to be’ changes year to year so keep an eye on the latest.
For equipment we use the family run Desaillouds Sports at 21 Rue Joseph Vallot. You can book the type of equipment you need before and then they will tailor measure it for you in shop. Great value with friendly service.
In terms of the actual skiing and snowboarding, Le Brévent, is the only major ski area accessible from town. It is is a steep walk or short drive from the town centre to the Plan Praz cable-car. Le Brévent is linked to the La Flégère sector, which is also accessible by a brand new speedy and large cable-car a couple of kilometres up the valley. The most famous ski mountain in the Chamonix area is Les Grand Montets, 9km up the valley above the traditional village of Argentière. However in 2018 there was huge fire which has put the top of this resort out of action until 2021 for all but ski tourers. The Les Grands Montets cable car starts at the small village of Argentiere and leads to the middle station Lognan (1972 m) before continuing to the Grands Montets mountain station at 3275m. The destruction of the mid station meant both lower and upper sections cannot currently be used.
Beyond Argentière, at the north-eastern end of the valley, is the small village of Le Tour, whose skiing offers a gentler mix of open bowls and woodland glades which are also linked to another village, Vallorcine. On the other side of Chamonix at the south-western end of the valley is the Les Houches sector, home to the Kandahar world cup downhill (see above). This is a good area for mixed abilities, with most of the easier skiing higher up, and some longer, steeper runs through the trees back to resort. We maximised having the car by driving through the famous Mont Blanc tunnel to the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur. Here we tackled some lovely wide blue and red runs such as Dolonne, Maison Vielle, Pra Neyron before the weather closed in dramatically. As a result we went to our favourite restaurant on the piste Christinana and settled in with a pizza and a few Morettis before attempting to get back to Chamonix.
Chamonix offers a great range of slopes in a fantastic setting. The town is home to 9000 people so there is a wide selection of bars, shops and restaurants. It is close enough to Geneva Airport that you can visit for a long weekend, but better of course to stay for a week to really get to know the area. Due to its spread out nature planning your days and reacting to local weather conditions is recommended to maximise your time. Bon Ski.