For some people Chamonix may be considered a "not good station" for skiing, for some others, it's fabulous.
Why those conflicting opinions ? It depends about how you want your ski holidays :
- if you want to go directly fro your hotel to the slopes, to have an unique ski pass for the complete resort, not to have to walk or to take the bus, to be sure the weather will be fine, to have a restaurant a each stop : Chamonix is not for you.
- if you don't mind a bit of walking (and, i must admit a bit of waiting while you are in the valley) but want long, long slopes, good snow, gorgeous sights when sunny, a tiny bit of adventure then it's another song.
For instance the Brévent - Flégère gondola lead you to an extraordinary panorama of the Mont-Blanc range (Mer de Glace, Glacier d'Argentière,Grandes Jorasses, ...) and in summer you can hike to the Aiguilles Rouges from there.
The reformed Compagnie du Mont Blanc is (in 2005) revisiting the lift plans and this may lead to some transformations, their goal is to retake the title of 'one of the 5 luxury stations in France'
Equipment Skis and what goes with...
sunscreen, glasses, HAT , energy bars, water
Domaine de Balme (formerly Le Tour) is a great place for beginning skiers - sort of a large (very) rolling hill - a giant cow pasture (literally) to ski down. However the 'backside' of Le Tour also has great tree-skiing towards Vallorcine and some nice off-piste. Located at the end of the valley, on the border with Switzerland - great views of the valley.
If you are a completely rank beginner, there are very flat green runs to the right of the main lift station ( with drag lifts ) - practice here or take a lesson, and when you feel up to it, take the lifts up and ski some nice rolling blues.
Snowboarders (and adventurous skiers) will also find great fun here in the natrual half-pipes (several) which form between the top and mid-station. For expert skiers/boarders, the 'backside' of Le Tour on the Vallorcine side of the Col de Balme lift has some great off piste, but go with people who know the area (there are cliffs).
Free but sometimes scary parking lot if it gets icey (on a hillside, so watch out and make sure you bring chains if it looks like snow).
In high season (holidays and school holidays) be sure to get here early if you are driving - or take the bus if you are leaving after 10am. The parking lot gets full and gendarmes will stop you and force you to park in Montroc or Argentiere and take the bus to Le Tour anyhow!
From the top of Le Tour there are beautiful views down the entire Chamonix valley. New in 2005 a lift services this area from Vallorcine France as well. Parking is easier on this side and the new lift is great.
Equipment Skis or snowboard, lift pass, chains for your car if it looks like snow (this road is the highest elevation in Chamonix so if it is raining in Cham it's often snowing at Le Tour). Le Tour is also known as the Col de Balme in summer, and as a col, it is very windy - be sure you have enough warm clothes.
I highly recommend taking the free Cham Bus there (stops are all over town) if you are in an easy-to-reach hotel, as the parking can be gone quickly in high-season and you may end up being told by the police to park in Argentiere and take a bus anyhow (unless you get there before 10am). Out of high season it's easy to find parking. In school holidays - go to Vallorcine and take the lift from there. It is a bit further from Chamonix but the parking is easier and the new lift is fast without queues.
The way to the slopes of Les Grands Montets starts in Argentiere. It takes about 20 minutes to get there by skibus form Chamonix. You will need bus with table "Les Grands Montets", but not "Argantiere", don't be confused.This area attracts attention of advanced skiers/snowboarders by its variety of black slopes, which are considered to be the steepest in the valley. It also has good snow facilities during whole day as it is north side of the valley and sun doesn't melt it.
Skipass Cham'ski gives an opportunity to spend one day in Italy in Courmayeur. Just 50 minutes by car, trip in tunnel under Mont-Blanc and you are in Italy. At Plaut Checrouit there are quite nice red slopes which can be attractive even for good beginners. But the most interesting slopes are on the north side, towards Zerotta. Here in some mountain restaurant take a glass of hot wine and admire fascinating Mont-Blanc.
Le Brevent is supposed to be the first place to visit as a ski-lift is going precisely from the town. This area has interesting and various slopes for skiers of different levels. It is worth to visit restaurant and sight ground at Brevent at the height of 2500m. There is an interesting black slope from the peak. The best time to do this slope is to be the first in the morning when it is fresh after being prepared by snowcats.
Skiing or snowboarding at le Brévent station is a good choice for families and groups when there are multiple levels of skiers among you. There are pistes for every level (including a small and not steep beginners area with a drag lift at the mid-station) and yet, everyone still gets to go up high on the mountain and ski together for many runs. You also have beautiful views across the valley to see Mt Blanc and the other Aiguilles.
For the more advanced skiers, there are sections of off-piste excitement which the less advanced skiers can follow (by skiing on the cat-tracks), allowing everyone to have fun and still meet up together at various sections on each run. The top station is black run only and leads to some great off-piste when it snows.
This area also connects via lifts to La Flégère, which is another ski station with lots of blue and red runs on the same side of the valley, making this the biggest (and only) connected station (so far) in Chamonix.
If you are a strong intermediate or advanced skier and the snow coverage is good you can ski down from the midstation of either one into the bottom station. This is usually preferable to waiting in a queue to go down the bubble lifts or gondola at the end of the day. If you can't ski down, and it's crowded, definitely leave from the Brévent midstation as the Flégère single slow gondola means longer queues.
If you are here for only a few days and are buying day passes know that a day pass to the Brévent will more than do you (don't ever be fooled in Chamonix into buying the more expensive multi-area day pass that allows you to go to the Grandes Montets and Brévent -- the areas are so far apart you will never make proper use of the pass - do the 2 areas on different days!)
See the Compagnie du Mont Blanc website for prices/lift times/opening and closing day/runs open etc..
Equipment Skis or snow boards! If you want to avoid expensive food prices, bring hot drinks and snacks in your pack. On a sunny day it is easy to picnic near the restaurant. On colder or overcast days you'll want to venture inside for a warm up break, so bring a few euros for a hot chocolate.
If you are going to do any of the off-piste available from le Brévent, don't forget your arva/beeper, avalanche probe and shovel! It does avalanche here so be sure to take an avalanche safety course before venturing off unaware. The pisted area is generally safe, but after big snowstorms, be cautious and stay off any pistes marked off - limits, as they do not always clear avalanche dangers that quickly in this valley (preferring to close the slopes rather than hire more workers!!)
To avoid parking charges in the Brévent parking lot, park in town and hike it up the hill. Or, park near the Savoy beginner's piste (located just behind the Club Med complex) and if you have a season or weekly 'all area' pass, you can just take the Savoy drag lift up to the top, and ski a few meters down into the Brévent parking lot and station!
The Vallee Blanche is a famous off-piste glacial ski 'run' which starts at the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car and typically finishes near the Montenvers train station (or in the Chamonix Valley near the beginner's piste called Les Planards if there is enough snow cover). The level of skiing required is a person who can do red runs (to do the typical 'voie normale') up to expert to do variations such as the Plan d'Envers and others.
There are places where you need to ski across crevasses on snow bridges (which can collapse in Spring or at any time) which are quite narrow and other places where you need to ski down a steep hill and stop on a dime to avoid the crevasse at the bottom. Sometimes the route has sections which become very icey where the voie normale, and other routes come together to descend the most tricky parts of the glacier.
This run is beautiful, and most people do it for the scenery and not as much for the skiing. However the skiing on it can be wonderful too given the right conditions. At end of the season without a lot of new snow, it can really suck going down the seracs, which end up as simply glacial ice slides due to inexperienced snowboarders and skiers side-slipping the most dangerous sections.
Do yourself a favor - hire a mountain guide or go with expert skier/mountaineer friends who have done the route MANY times. Only travel with a group - never do the Vallee Blanche alone so that if something does happen, someone is there to possibly assist.
Each year there are several to many people who die trying this route alone or with little or no mountain experience. I don't say this to shock, but to give fair warning that this route is not to be taken lightly. The run starts out looking deceptively easy but quickly runs into very deep crevasses. The part just off the arrete is quite easy and can lull the unwary. You follow someone's tracks, not knowing that you are suddenly led down a steep serac/crevasse field, and suddenly whoops .....
Equipment Mountain guide
4 locking carabiners
Backpack to carry it all
Extra layer in case of sudden weather change
(Average time to do the route is 2-3 hours depending on route taken, skier ability etc. though experts who do it regularly during the season certainly can and do make it down faster)
After a fresh snow, often the routes are not tracked and you can quite easily get lost or end up on top of a cliff with no easy way out.
Even with tracks, do you know which ones to follow? Maybe the person who put those tracks in ended up at the bottom of a crevasse or enjoys launching over cliffs.....do you?
If you don't know why you would be carrying the above items, hire a mountain guide to assist you.
See this website for some true stories of those who tried and screwed up...
There are some nice runs at Les Houches. The sport shops there rent out all the necessary gear. Be prepared for long queue's for the telepherique, especially when kids are off school.
Equipment Usual ski gear and warm clothing
I say a lot of scary things in this tip - but just so you know - my husband and I and our friends all enjoy off-piste skiing here A LOT.
Several ski areas exist in Chamonix, with great off-piste access within the ski areas themselves. These are easy places to start to get your first taste of powder if you have never skied in it before. Be aware that the Grandes Montets is popular (too popular) and gets 'tracked out' very quickly after big snows.
The famous 26km (only in good snow years - otherwise more like 15km) Vallee Blanche run starts from the top of the Aiguille du Midi and goes over the Mer de Glace to the Montenvers station (or into Chamonix in good snow years). Get a local to go with you or hire a guide to take you. You should have a rope and ice axe in addition to normal off-piste gear as this route goes over a glacier.
The Vallee Blanche is often over-crowded in peak season. But, this run is a bit of a 'must do' on people's tick lists and of course it is very unique so don't miss it if you want something different. Just be prepared to wait a lot in high season and realize you will not have the high mountains to yourself. Out of prime season it is fabulous.
Unless you are god's gift to off-piste skiing and have full-on glacier travel knowlege too (in which case you probably are not reading Virtual Tourist for tips on off-piste skiing!!), don't go down anything but the beaten path on the Vallee Blanche, especially if no one with you has also never been on anything but the classic route. Crevasses, cliffs and avalanches await those who decide to become Darwin award candidates. Go only with other experienced skiers or guides on the other tougher routes down the Vallee Blanche.
Be sensible and err on the side of caution when going off-piste. If there is a high avalanche risk posted by the mountain guides office, they are not joking about it.
Equipment Avalanche beacon, probe, shovel etc. are required. And be sure you know how to use your gear and how to read slopes for avalanche danger. The number of idiots we have seen here who purchase these things and put them into their packs thinking that their very presence will somehow magically cause knowlege of their use to sink in by osmosis is astounding.
Ski buddies are part of your equipment too. Don't ski off-piste alone. This is not a joke - a guy who went alone in 1998 was found dead in 2000 at the bottom of a crevasse. No one knew he was there when he fell in. He just failed to show up at his hotel one night.
Every year we here stories of people who had 'epic' experiences on the Vallee Blanche. From last season: a guy went down the classic route of the Vallee Blanche one time with a group of locals and then decided he knew what he was doing. He took an inexperienced girl with him the next time he went up - to impress her. This was after a big snow and he couldn't find the same path anymore. They ended up off the classic route and in some very big crevasses. She got very scared and cried and tried to take her skis off because it was too difficult for her and she was afraid of falling into a crevasse (but that is worse as ski boots just slip on the ice). In the end they made it back after dark into the train station and spent the night there after missing the last train......
There is NO avalanche control (except nature and unintentional human intervention) in the backcountry here. Though a lot of avalanches can be avoided by skiers who have training, some will always tumble down even when 'everyone said it was safe'.
A mountain guide who taught avalanche safety courses was killed in a massive avalanche late in the season last Spring while skiing towards the Italian side from the Aiguille du Midi, proving that even knowledge of the area and lots of experience doesn't guarantee safe passage after a big Spring snowstorm makes the snow pack unstable.
Chamonix is 1 hour drive from Geneva Airport. Hire a car for the weekend or take an airport transfer with www.chamexpress.com. They offer a door to door service & online booking of skipasses
We stayed a Hostel Chalet - Gite 10 minutes walk from Chamonix town centre which cost 15 Euros per night. www.chamoniard.com
The chalet was clean & basic, but did the job for a cheap weekend away in the snow. It's also suitable for families as it's possible to get a room for 4 in bunk beds. The toilet & shower is very small & is the Gite's worst feature. There are plenty of other chalet-Gite in Chamonix if this one is full. A nice hotel in the town centre with character & rooms with balconies overlooking the town is
Food & Drink We bought our own breakfast & coffee from supermarket in town. We ate lunch at one of the many cafes & restaurants on the mountain. In the evenings after apre ski, we ate at Pizza pasta at one of the many restaurants. It was all very reasonably priced.
We loved the burgers at Pero Loco, on the main st of rue Paccard.
‘Cham' has a fine range of après-ski options. The Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (350 route du bouchet) is good for beer and live music. It's at its busiest between 5pm & 7pm when everybody converges to see the rock band & down a few jugs of beer. Café de la Terrasse (43 place Balmat) has two floors of music seven days a week until 0200 and a daily happy hour.
Read reviews about food at www.chamonixrestaurants.com
Getting About We used our hire car or the free bus available which operate in the Chamonix Valley between Les Houche, Argentiere & the other ski fields in Chamonix. Hiring a car from the French side of Geneva airport is cheaper but officially does not allow you to use the Swiss Motorway to travel the few km from the airport to France because of the road tax.
Comments Les Houche, a few kilometres from Chamonix is used for the Olympic down hill run & we found this the best place to ski & board. It has several good restaurants & long runs.
Equipment We hired our skis, boots & snowboards online at chamsports.online.fr/accueil-gb.html. Booking online gains you a 15% discount.
There is Le Tour next to Argantier, it is also available by skibus or train (railway station Vallorcine). A ski-lift from Vallorcine will take you up to Aiguillette des Poselles. Here you will find wide snowy fields which give opportunity to ski just for pleasure.
Chamonix not only caters for downhill-skiers in the winter but also 'Ski du Fond' or cross-country ski-ing. For those fit enough to try it here is a plan of the many routes on offer. It make be more physically tiring than downhill ski-ing but it does mean you are not lettting all that glorious mountain scenery rush past you.
Equipment Equipment for hire right near the entrance - even help novices like us select the right length of ski!