To the Extreme
Chamonix's reputation precedes it, but that's only part of the lure of this iconic winter destination.
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Host to the first winter Olympics in 1924, Chamonix is one of Europe’s classic winter sports destinations. Its pedestrian-friendly downtown oozes French alpine charm and, like the similarly picturesque villages and hamlets along the Arve Valley, inspires adventure, dominated by the massive bulk of Mont Blanc and the elegant rock spires known as aiguilles.
With endless backcountry routes, steep faces, and gnarly couloirs, Chamonix’s reputation slants to the extreme. But the valley’s 10 ski areas, some connected, appeal to all levels of snowsports enthusiasts, each offering distinctly different views and experiences. Meanwhile, the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, which operates the Chamonix areas, is in the midst of an ambitious 10-year plan to improve facilities across its properties. That includes new lifts and a dedicated beginner area this season at the Grands Montets ski area—sadly offset by the closure of its two-section tram, whose infrastructure was destroyed by fire in September. The good news is, ski touring routes to the Grands Montets summit have been established, providing access to the area’s vast glaciated terrain to those willing to work for it.
The Chamonix Checklist
Ski the Vallée Blanche
A 12-mile, 8,900-vertical-foot journey from the Aiguille du Midi, the skiing is accessible to intermediates, but you’ll want to hire a guide. The world’s highest vertical-ascent cable car leads to a short but exposed downclimb, then a schuss down the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) among crevasses, seracs, and ice formations.
Chill out in Vallorcine
For a low-key ski experience with few crowds, take the local train upvalley to Vallorcine, a traditional mountain village bordering Switzerland. Near the top of the resort, drink in expansive views from the Franco-Swiss border marker. Enjoy family-friendly runs in all directions, plentiful off-piste powder, and, if possible, an authentic French lunch or dinner at Le Café Comptoir.
Taste Italy’s Charm in Courmayeur
A half-hour ride through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, Courmayeur is a popular alternative when the fog settles on Chamonix. This charming Italian resort on the south flank of Mont Blanc boasts often-sunny slopes and invites lingering over fabulous pizza and coffee. Gawk at the views from the Skyway Monte Bianco’s 360-degree rotating glass cabins, with an option to ski from the top back to Chamonix.
Explore the Guided Backcountry
The world’s oldest (1821) and largest (240 members) guide organization, the Compagnie des Guides du Chamonix is an essential component of a Chamonix vacation. Two lift-aided tours to ask about: the Col du Berard, from Flégère ski area to the tiny village of Le Buet; and the Col du Passon, which climbs above the Argentière Glacier (with extra skinning and less skiing this season due to the Grands Montets tram’s closure) then descends the northeast-facing slopes to Le Tour.
Indulge Your Appetite
No French vacation is complete without a gastronomic tour. Start at Chamonix’s only Michelin two-star restaurant, the Albert 1er, offering artful Franco-Italian dishes. In narrow, cobbled Rue des Moulins, seafood-focused Le Cap Horn blends the cuisines of France and Japan, plus other international influences. Finally, La Calèche serves Savoyard specialties in a lovely space.
Après in Downtown Chamonix
Near the train station, rowdy locals dance on tables at Chambre Neuf. Nearby Elevation is a more laid-back hangout for mountain guides, while MOÖ Bar draws everyone in—and has a self-serve beer tap. Chic but friendly, ChaChaCha is a wine bar and spirits shop with soft music and frequent tastings.
Make Chamonix Happen
An overnight flight from the East Coast, Geneva has the closest international airport to Chamonix. Several shuttle companies make the hour-plus run to the resort, most dropping you off at your hotel door.
Four high-speed trains per day zip from Paris to Geneva in a little over three hours. Then, it’s about as long with two train changes to Chamonix, although the final leg from St. Gervais on the Mont Blanc Express is a scenic experience in itself. Or, take a six-minute train ride from Geneva’s train station to the airport and catch the minibus shuttle.
It’s easy to rent a car at any European airport, but beware that Geneva’s airport has rental agencies on both the French and Swiss “sides,” and that driving on Switzerland’s main highways requires a $40 toll sticker.
Find the Chamonix tourism bureau’s website at chamonix.com; comprehensive visitor information can also be found at chamonix.net and chamonet.com.
Originally published in the December 2018 print edition of SKI Magazine.