Chamonix

France

Sitting in the shadow of Mont Blanc, Chamonix is a mecca for extreme skiers with almost everything about the place being big and steep. The thriving town is heaving with fat-ski-carrying, harness-wearing mountain types, and there are several resorts in the area to choose from. If you’re an intermediate or beginner, fear not as you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy a trip to Chamonix.

Scout Loves

  • The steeps, the deeps, the cliffs, the glaciers, the couloirs … and the views.
  • Ski the 20km-long Vallée Blanche – the longest and most famous off-piste run in the world.
  • You can feel the might and power of the mountains – they dwarf you from every direction.
  • Chamonix is a bustling town with a mountaineering history.
  • Ski in Italy (Courmayeur) and Switzerland (Verbier, St Gervais or Megeve) from your base in Chamonix and using a Mont Blanc unlimited card.

Scout Tips

  • There are six small to mid-sized ski areas in separate parts of the valley (only two are linked via lifts). You will need to use buses to get to the ski areas, and they often can be jam-packed.
  • The best way to experience the area is with a guide – any off-piste can be extremely dangerous if you don’t know where you’re going, especially on glaciers.
  • Les Houches and the tiny Les Planards and La Vormaine are the best ski areas for beginners.
  • There are different ski passes that include different resorts.
  • Ride the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi for the views and the experience, even if you’re not skiing from there.
  • The town and parts of the ski areas can be shady and cold in midwinter.

Scout Review

Millions of years ago a gargantuan glacier made its way from the roof of Europe, Mont Blanc, and carved out a huge, deep valley below. The glacier has long gone but it left behind soaring valley walls on top of which lie some of the best ski areas in the world. Chamonix the town sits way down in the valley, nestled in the shadow of the cliffs and mountains around it. It is bursting at the seams with adventurous skiers and boarders who come to test their skills on some seriously gnarly terrain, on and off-piste.

Chamonix the town is vibrant and happening. A roaring river runs through its center and parts of it have European charm, particularly the cobbled, car-free main street and squares with old buildings and churches. But there are a lot of big, ugly buildings and apartment blocks and the traffic in and around the center is like in any busy major town, thus diminishing Chamonix’s overall ambience. The nearby villages of Le Tour, Argentiére and Les Houches are more peaceful.

As you would expect in such a big town, there is a huge variety of shops, restaurants and bars – many of which are excellent, and some of which feel like a tourist trap.

The major drawback of Chamonix is the inconvenience of getting to and from the slopes, no matter where you are staying. All but two of the ski areas are separate, with most requiring buses to reach them. Even the most centrally located ski area, Brévent, has its lifts starting at the top of a steep hill requiring quite a climb from the town. The cable car up to Aiguille de Midi is the easiest to get to, but anyone skiing from here is only doing so on the 20km off-piste run called the Vallée Blanche, since there are no other lifts or pistes at the top. Even if you choose to stay close to one of the resorts, such as at Argentière at the base of Grands-Montets ski area, you will want to explore some of the other ski areas if you’re here for a week so will undoubtedly end up on a bus. Free buses link the ski resorts, but they can be notoriously crammed. The easiest solution is to hire a guide for your stay, who will pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation, and also give you the best ski experience since they know exactly where to go depending on the conditions.

Chamonix Skiing

Until you get familiar with the ski areas, understanding where to ski in Chamonix can be confusing: It’s one town plus several separate villages, six main ski areas, one of which doesn’t have any pistes plus there’s additional tiny beginner areas that are essentially separate ski areas. So we’ll break it down to be simple.

Brévent and La Flégère:

These are the only connected resorts in Chamonix – usually referred to as Brévent Flégère – they are also the most scenic in the valley with views of Mont Blanc on a fine day. Brévent starts from a cable car at the top of a steep hill in Chamonix town. La Flégère has its base in the village of Les Praz. Although both have a black ski run taking you all the way back down to the valley they’re tricky and only good when conditions are really great – so mostly you download via the cable car. The two are connected by the Liason cable car that crosses the valley between them, though it can often be closed in high winds. Both have some groomed runs, powder bowls and wonderful off-piste areas where small hikes will be rewarded with great runs. There is a small beginner area at La Flégère and at the base of Brévent but in general the ski areas are best for advanced skiers.

Grands Montets

Rising above the village of Argentière is Grands-Montets another favorite of the advanced skiers. It’s also the most favored ski area in Chamonix for boarders. The slopes face north and northwest so it’s often the best place in the valley for powder, especially since it’s combined with steep, wide, mostly off-piste runs. Access up to the ski area will be even better this season thanks to a new ‘switchable’ gondola that replaces the old Plan Jordan chair. The pistes are spread over three slopes – the Argentière glacier, Lognan and the Pendant. There’s a snowpark and boardercross and you can ski back to the village via a red run. Best for strong intermediates and advanced skiers.

Aiguille Du Midi

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a different ski area – Aiguille du Midi has no lifts or pistes, just two sensational cable cars that take you from 1035m to 3840m in 20 minutes and one incredible 20km off-piste run back to the village. The only way most skiers should do this run is with a guide. Not only do you require full safety equipment (ideally including a harness and crampons) but crevasses on the glacier can be hazardous and invisible to the untrained eye. The start of the run is via a nail-biting ridge-walk and it can often be freezing cold. The run down is incredibly scenic, but it isn’t actually that steep (snowboarders may struggle) so in the right conditions it is within the capabilities of a strong intermediate. There are plenty of guide operations in town that offer private or group tours and we recommend saving it for the best weather day in the week. Depending on the snow you can either continue all the way to the village or will have to catch the train from Montenvers (after climbing up a steep stairway from the glacier).

Even if you’re not skiing, a ride up the cable car to the cafeteria (claimed to be Europe’s highest) is well worth it for the stunning views. Visitors can also “step into the void” on a glass-floored structure after which you’ll have a good idea of whether you suffer from even the slightest bit of acrophobia. Access to the glass-floor platform is free.

Balme

Stretching above the villages of Vallorcine and Le Tour, the Balme ski area is well suited to beginners and intermediates and often has some of the most reliable snow in the area. There are some lovely tree runs as well and cruisy runs away from crowds. Le Tour also has the best beginner area in the valley (called Vormaine).

Les Houches

At the start of the valley lies the peaceful village and ski area of Les Houches. With its gentle tree-lined runs it is the place for a more relaxed style of skiing, particularly intermediates and beginners. In keeping with the relaxed theme, there are some good restaurants on the slopes. Les Houches is also the best place for all skiers to come in bad weather (and on those days the buses can be incredibly crowded). Les Houches is only included in the Mont Blanc unlimited pass.

Courmayeur, Italy

If you have a 1-21 day Unlimited Pass you can ski in Courmayeur. Access is via daily shuttles from Chamonix (for a fee) or via the cable cars that link to Aiguille du Midi.

Verbier, Switzerland

If you have a 6-21 day Unlimited Pass you can ski Verbier. You can access Verbier via a weekly shuttle available on Thursdays from Chamonix, or by private car.

Chamonix For Families

Chamonix is not the most ideal resort for families. The biggest reason is the lack of convenient access to the resorts which will make it challenging at the start and end of the day. Secondly, unless your kids are gun skiers, there is limited beginner and lower intermediate terrain for them to enjoy. Most of the ski schools do have some childcare and Les Houches or Balme would be your best bet for kids ski school facilities. If they are first timers there are also two small areas in town, Les Planards near the Montenvers train station (it also has an alpine coaster track) and Savoy at the bottom of Le Brévent.

Chamonix Accommodation

From 5-star luxury to budget hotels, or stylish to simple self-catered apartments, Chamonix has it all. Everything is fairly spread out, and some are better than others if you want to be able to easily walk around town. Look at the location carefully since you’ll want to be near the bus stops for easily getting to the ski areas.

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Resort Activities

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There are plenty of exhilarating activities for the more adventurous: from heli-skiing (in Italy) to paragliding, speed riding (skiing and paragliding combined) and snowkiting, ski joering (skiing behind horses), dog sledding, ice climbing and ski touring. There are also some fun tourist attractions, such as catching the Montenvers Mer de Glace railway (built in 1908), the associated ‘Glaciorium’, igloo village and glacier tours (where you’ll see the full effect of global warming), and the “step into the void” platform at the top of Aiguille Du Midi. There are also ice skating, gyms, pools, spas, a cinema, casino and blowing center in town.

Getting There and Around

Chamonix is just an hour by car from Geneva, making it one of the French Alps’ most accessible resorts. There are several options for frequent shuttle buses direct from the airport to Chamonix. It’s also simple to catch a train into the heart of Chamonix – there’s a direct TGV (fast train) from Paris on Fridays and weekends or via Annecy on other days.

The center of Chamonix is easy to walk around, particularly the pedestrian friendly main street. For the rest of the villages and outer town area you will have to use the resort’s free buses or your own car (or your guide’s).

When To Go

Different ski areas open at different times, with partial openings of the main three resorts in early December and full opening just before Christmas. Most ski areas shut by the last week of April, though Grands-Montets remains partially open until the start of May.

Facts & Figures

Mountain Information   Lifts   Terrain    
Base Elevation 3400ft / 1035m Lifts 49 Green 23%  
Summit Elevation 12,600ft / 3840m Terrain Park 1 Blue 31%  
Vertical Drop 9200ft / 2805m Halfpipes 2 Red 33%  
Pistes 106 miles / 170km Cross Country Trails 53km Black 13%  
MAGAZINE
Photo: Corbet\'s Couloir at Jackson Hole.

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