The name Chamonix is whispered in hushed tones in ski bars the world over for its steep, aggressive lines and treacherous couloirs. As Greg Stump said in his 1988 masterpiece “The Blizzard of Ahhh’s,” this French mountain town is the extreme skiing capital of Europe. He goes on to claim that 50 to 60 alpinists die here every year. While that stat is both scary and pretty accurate, don’t let it put you off this alpine paradise.
I have skied in Chamonix my whole life and now call the valley home. Growing up, I loved nothing more than straight-lining from the top of the legendary Grand Montets all the way down to the parking lot.
But after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2010—which I sustained neither on skis nor in Chamonix—I was forced to relearn everything, including skiing. Needless to say, it took more than a few turns and a handful of helpers to get me back to where I was.
On a sunny spring day four years after my accident and after four years of begging someone to take me back to the summit of Grand Montets, I once again got to ski from the very top. I had to be carried down more than 200 metal stairs from the top of the cable car on a plastic chair by two loyal friends because I’m still a bit wobbly from my fall. All of the instructors who had helped get me back on skis since the accident joined me on this monumental day. I gingerly side-slipped down most of the first steep wall. Then, after building my confidence, and appreciating being back where many thought I’d never be able to ski again, I continued my way down before joining the piste near the top of the La Herse chairlift.
I tell this story with the hope of dispelling myths about this amazing valley. Yes, there are plenty of highly technical couloirs and faces, but with the proper guidance, preparation, and the right conditions, any decent skier can take a sip of Chamonix’s legendary cocktail. Hell, I skied (a variation of) one of its famous routes and I couldn’t even walk down the stairs by myself.
There are many reasons why this French mountain town features on many skiers’ bucket lists. The fact that Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Western Europe, that L’Aiguille du Midi is the world’s highest peak served by an aerial lift system, and that the town of Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics, partially explains its fame, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Ultimately, it’s the place to test yourself in mountains that are home to Freeride World Tour Champions like Aurélien Ducroz and Leo Slemett.
I have sporadically lived in the Chamonix valley since 1997 and there’s still plenty for me to ski here. In a valley famed for its steep and treacherous descents, it is a testament to Chamonix’s unheralded diversity of terrain.
I learned to ski in the valley twice, so although I wasn’t born here and I am definitely not one of the local legends, I am perhaps better able than most to offer a balanced view of the more manageable terrain that’s sprinkled around the Chamonix Massif.
Perched at the top of the valley is the quaint mountain village of Le Tour. When I was a kid, someone told me that it’s the snowiest and sunniest village in France. That’s not confirmed, but it is the highest and snowiest village in the valley. At the top of the village, there’s a telecabine that leads up to the Domaine de Balme—the area can also be accessed from Vallorcine, in the neighboring valley (a few ski-lengths from Switzerland).
Balme is a great place to get your ski legs under you as a first-timer to Chamonix. It features some of Chamonix’s more gentle slopes—which are rolling, grassy meadows in the summer—and there are challenging runs to be found if you’re willing to explore. The terrain between designated trails is ideal for building skills and confidence before heading down the valley to some of the area’s more iconic locations. There are no glaciers in Balme, so no terrain is really off-limits. You should always check where you’re going, but there’s no danger of ending up down a crevasse here and much of the off-piste terrain is right off the side of groomed runs.
At the top of Les Esserts chairlift, on the Vallorcine side, you can ski into Switzerland. You are out of the patrolled area now and skiing at your own risk, so hire a guide and always have the right safety equipment. If you ski all the way to the bottom on the Swiss side, there’s no lift back, so as well as your passport, make sure you have money for a train or bus ticket home. Staying in France, there’s more fun to be had directly under the chairlift, to the right of the piste.
Choose Your Own Adventure: Cruise the Legendary Groomers of Val d’Isère or Heli-Ski Under the Shadow of Mont Blanc
Further down the valley, there’s the world-famous Grands Montets ski area. This is where I had my triumphant ride down those stairs on my plastic throne.
There are many variants from the top. Tragically, a fire in the mid-station (Lognan) in 2018 means that there’s currently no lift to the summit, but you can ski most of it from the top of La Herse chairlift (and skin or hike to the top). Combe Secrete, Blanc Chaud, and a few steep couloirs lead back to Lognan. The word on the street is that a new lift will be built in the next few years, once they’ve decided who will pay for it.
As in Le Tour, there’s a lot of inviting terrain between the groomed runs, but the difficulty level and risk go up.
From the top of the Bochard telecabine, in the direction of the Chamois black run, you have options on either side of the trail. It’s very wide, but it’s quite steep, so you need to be a good skier. Most of the routes are within sight of the chairlifts. There are routes all the way down to Lavancher, from which you can take one of the valley’s free buses to return.
The next area that is ripe for bragging rights is Brevent, where the descent from the top, called Les Pentes de l’Hôtel, was the face they used when Chamonix was a stop on the Freeride World Tour. Brevent is south-facing and not too high, so get there early in the spring before the snow melts. Freeski superstar and Chamonix local Tof Henry says he loves the nice couloirs that are all accessible. “You can lap it and find really cool terrain to train yourself,” he says.
Train yourself for what, you ask?
What really gets this ski area on all of those bucket lists is Les Aiguilles du Midi. The famous jagged peaks that sit 12,600 feet above sea level and loom dramatically above Chamonix are the launching point for the region’s most famous descents. There are many routes down, all of varying levels of difficulty. Crevasses are a real danger here, so don’t go without a guide.
The valley may be known for its unforgiving terrain and there is plenty to challenge you, but that shouldn’t discourage a decent intermediate skier from straying from the marked runs at the smaller ski areas. As Henry says: “Most of the good skiers start to ski freeride all around the pistes. They need somewhere to learn and get experience before they go to the big mountain.”
That’s as true for locals as it is for visitors. No matter your level or ambition, every skier should experience the varied and legendary slopes of Chamonix. After more than 25 years here, I’m still not bored.
Trip Planning: Chamonix
Value: Gites Le Belvedere
Located at the bottom of Argentiere, Le Belvedere is a traditional gite (old-style cottage or farmhouse) that offers private, en-suite, or dorm rooms, with breakfast and dinner available.
Family: Rocky Pop Hotel
The Rocky Pop Hotel provides dedicated bus services to the ski areas. Enjoy views of Mont Blanc from the restaurants and bars.
Access to L’Aiguille du Midi: Plan B
Plan B is within walking distance of the L’Aiguille du Midi cable car and it has a bowling alley inside, too. What more could you want?
Sam Dyer, co-owner of eatery Monkey, gives his tips for where to dine around the valley.
Located in Chamonix Sud, Monkey is a popular social hangout renowned for its street food-inspired menu.
Stop into this centrally located spot for a quick burger or crepe, an après beer, or a sandwich.
Great in the mornings for fresh coffee sandwiches and full English breakfasts.
La Crèmerie du Glacier
If you’re looking for traditional mountain grub, La Crèmerie, a log cabin located at the foot of the Grand Montets run, serves hearty fondues, gratins, and croutes.
Après & Nightlife
This list comes straight from Chamonix legend Tof Henry, so even if you can’t ski like him, you can après-ski like him.
This haunt attracts locals and tourists alike with its chill vibe. “We don’t have to shout at each other, we just talk about the day,” says Henry.
A restaurant with good food and a lively bar scene, Moo Bar serves up a Scandinavian ambience.
Bar des Cristalliers
Head to Bar des Cristalliers for a nice French atmosphere and good red wine.
This famed Chamonix club is “a bit crazy for après, but has a really nice terrace,” says Henry.
These guys have been guiding ski adventures throughout the valley for over 20 years and work with 20-plus UIAGM/IFMGA guides in the area. They take private groups on the Vallée Blanche as well as offer hut trips and ski-touring courses.
This British-owned company offers private guiding, scheduled trips, avalanche education, and tours of the Haute Route and the Silvretta in addition to the Vallée Blanche.
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