Six-day ski pass:
+33-4 50-53-00-24; chamonix.com
The host of the first-ever Winter Olympics in 1924 and the birthplace of all things extreme, Chamonix is still the grande dame of Alpine skiing. Young Scandinavians strut its cobblestone streets, ice screws dangling from their harnesses, while drunken Brits crowd the bars. And far above it all, the mountains are as sinister and serene as they've ever been. Jagged 12,605-foot Aiguille du Midi casts a shadow over the valley floor, while 5,000 feet below, the gentler slopes of Le Brévent and L'Index bake in the sun. Everywhere-truly everywhere-are lifts: five gondolas, eight trams, 17 chairlifts, and innumerable T-bars split among five major ski areas.
On-Piste: Pylons, the valley's toughest marked run, drops 3,500 vertical feet over two miles. For the first three dozen turns, you're skiing the traditional start of the Haute Route, looking down upon the crevasse minefields of the Argentiere Glacier.
Off-Piste: Starting on the Aiguille du Midi and ending 16 miles and 9,200 vertical feet later, the Vallée Blanche is arguably-and deservedly-the world's most famous backcountry run. The 30- to 35-degree pitch is manageable, but seracs and gaping crevasses make a guide advisable (guides-du-montblanc.com).
Aprés: Picking a bar is like picking a country to visit. Hang with the Aussies at Wild Wallabies or the Brits at l'Arbate, or try Jeckyll and Hyde (Irish), or Chambre Neuf (Swedish).
Shelter: Clean rooms, home-cooked communal dinners, and a sauna make Gà®te Le Belvédère ($16; gitebelvedere.com) a big step up from Chamonix's other, more beer-stained hostels. Owners Patti and Phillipe also run the more upscale Hôtel de Savoie ($60) next door.
The Tip: Hidden in a strip mall below the Grand Montets-and adorned with all things monoski-is Le Rencard. Drink enough rum and the pictures of owner Ziggy doing huge, neon-tinted monoski backscratchers start to look pretty rad.
Must-Know: Buy the optional carté neige insurance ($4/day) along with your ski pass-it covers heli evacuations (the phone number is 18). Timing: When flying into Geneva, arrive by 4:30 p.m. or you'll miss the last bus ($40; altibus.com) to Chamonix.