Standing in the center of Chamonix in April last spring, equipped, ready to roll, two skiers glide towards me and ask me: “Where is the ski resort? “. That’s a good question – the most legendary destination in the Alps is a tough puzzle to solve.
I was standing at the base of the Aiguille du Midi cable car in the center of town – the famous lift takes skiers from 2,800m to 3,842m, placing them at the back of the Massif du Mont Blanc and the crevasse – the striated and mythical off-piste of the Vallée Blanche. It may not be the place to find your ski legs on the first day of vacation and certainly confuse new visitors.
But you must come to understand that, despite its fame, Chamonix is not your classic ski resort. A working-class town, rather than a ski village, it has five distinct areas of pistes lined up along a valley, linked by bus – enough to put many off. Admittedly, this does not facilitate the ski-in / ski-out, far from it, but the geography can rather play in its favor. Think of it as adding diversity or structure to a week of skiing. Cloudy days or blue cruising moods are perfect for trees and gentle slopes in Les Houches. There are the sunny south-facing slopes of Flégère, the calmer pistes of Le Tour, and the red, black and off-piste of Grands Montets; choose a different mountain each day, or work with the weather and make the most of the conditions.
And then there’s the terrain outside, so vast it would take a lifetime to explore. This is what Chamonix gets its reputation for; the adventure capital of Europe, if not the world. It is the cradle of mountaineering and it is nicknamed “the retirement home for seasonal workers”. As you walk the streets, you will hear languages from all corners of the globe. The landscape has inspired paintings by Turner, words by Shelley and Byron, and ski lines by some of the best freeriders in the world. Whether you recognize them or not, you walk, eat, drink, and ski beside the gods here.
Yes. There is more than enough to set Chamonix apart from the rest. But with such high expectations, there are bound to be fallouts. I hear “overhyped” and “overhyped” from some, others put off by ego, the bravado of a privileged few, desperate to be part of the famous ski culture, as if they were just there, wearing gear, drinking kool aid, makes you elite. Everywhere has its aspirants, but nowhere more so than in Chamonix.
“Chamonix has its status because of the people who have been and the lines they have skied,” says Charlie Krarup, director of the Chamonix Adventure Base training and guiding company. “But Chamonix for most of us is relatively safe and accessible. It is an amazing place to visit due to its mountaineering heritage. More than anything, it’s inspiring and there’s something for everyone.
Of course, that’s just a tiny fraction of the people pushing the boundaries, exploring new ground and defining the future of the sport. For the most part, these are just skiers enjoying an extraordinarily beautiful place.
It took me three visits (yes, I kept going back) to figure out what it was all about. And I remember my first trip, feeling like the couple I met at the lift station – lost, on the outskirts, wondering what I was missing.
My ‘in’ to Chamonix turned out to be straightforward. On previous visits, I’ve hiked Le Tour, spent a rowdy evening in town, and reached Argentière on a powder day, following random skiers who seemed to know what they were doing (nb it’s never a good idea). It was good, but I could have done better.
Skip a few seasons ahead, and I had some of the best twists of my life following in the footsteps of my guide Neil. Irregular, jaded – the perfect man to cut through crud – his method of operation was to evade people. Taking off from the main roads and skiers going to the peaks, we opted for the fruits close at hand – empty slopes, fresh slopes and isolated viewpoints. We hit best ski time after best ski time.
Full disclosure, the reason I was in Chamonix again was not to give it a third time to shine, but to head straight for the Haute Route – the classic 120km ski tour tracing the horizon between Chamonix and Zermatt. I had arrived in town in a storm that had dropped a meter of snow – maybe two – above 3,000 m. In April. These high mountains are certainly catching the honey, with one of the longest ski seasons in the Alps, but with delayed start plans, waiting for the avalanche warning to fall, I had a few days of skiing in the Chamonix region in the mildest conditions, with a guide who should keep spirits and energy levels high. And so my opinion of the station was transformed.
A highlight was the Vallée Blanche. Normally, for skiing or views of a similar magnitude, you have to earn your turns by hiking deep into the backcountry, or taking a helicopter or snow cat out into the wilderness. But in Chamonix, all you need is vertigo, a guide, about €50 for the cable car, the ability to go easy off-piste, and it’s up to you to ski under the cathedral peaks, next to the blue seracs. icy at the top of the alpine world.
Chamonix well deserves its fame all over the world, whether for the view, the history, the skiing or the life in the mountains. While it’s there for the taking, the tradeoff is that you need some insider knowledge. Invest in it, get to know it, and you will reap the rewards. It’s a place to discover, with always something more to see, to ski. And, just an hour’s bus ride from Geneva, it’s also perhaps the easiest ski resort to get to from the UK.