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Chamonix is the place to go for alpine thrill seekers wanting to push themselves to the extreme. The resort is known the world over for its steep, challenging runs, off-piste powder, and dramatic mountain scenery. Its legendary 20-kilometre (12-mile) Valley Blanche is a high off-piste run, the longest in Europe, and a rite of passage for ballsy skiers on their way to becoming experts. Chamonix hosted the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924 and is considered by many to be the birthplace of alpine skiing. The resort is a large, yet attractive town offering both traditional charm and a lively nightlife.
Chamonix's ski area (1,035-3,842m) is spread across five mountains: Grands Montets, L'Aiguille du Midi, Le Brévent and La Flégère (lift linked) and Le Tour, so skiers must be prepared to travel if they want to ski multiple areas. The good news is that recent lift upgrades mean shorter queuing times.
Chamonix is one of the giants for freeriding. The Aiguille du Midi and Grands Montets cable cars offer access to the off-piste powder on the glaciers. Freeriders will encounter some mind-blowing scenery along the way - deep crevasses, ice falls, clifftops, and caves.
From the Aiguille du Midi (3,812m) you can see the French, Swiss and Italian Alps (including Mont Blanc on a clear day). This is the view just before skiing down the 20-kilometre Valley Blanche - a totally unmarked and unmaintained off-piste run.
Freestylers describe Chamonix as one big playground with an abundance of natural freestyle terrain. There are also two snowparks and a half-pipe. Beginners and intermediates aren't left out in the cold; there are plenty of long green, blue, and red runs with reliable snowcover on which to practise turns.
Chamonix makes up part of the Mont Blanc ski area. There are two ski passes to choose from: Chamonix Pass (€237/week) or the Mont Blanc Pass (€289/week).
Chamonix's popularity means its runs tend to get tracked out by lunchtime, so advanced skiers should head to the high off-piste terrain to avoid the crowds (take the Aiguille du Midi or Grands Montets cable cars). There are many dangers not least from crevasses, seracs, cliffs and avalanches so it's worth getting a handful of friends together and hiring a guide for the day; a guide will not only ensure safety but will show you some of the mountain's hidden gems. Evolution 2, Intersport shop, 306 Rue dr Paccard, Chamonix (+33(0)450 559 022) charges €80 per person to accompany an experienced guide off-piste for the day (groups of four to eight).
The one thing all powder enthusiasts seek is the run that keeps going for miles and Chamonix has plenty of those. The 20-kilometre (12-mile) Valley Blanche is the obvious place to head to. Accessed by the Aiguille du Midi cable car (3812m), The VB has a 2800-metre vertical and some very real dangers; only skiers able to parallel turn on a red run should attempt it (a guide is strongly recommended). There are several variants of the run: the Normal Valley, the Petit Envers du Plan and the Grand Envers du Plan; the latter two are more visually interesting, but are more heavily crevassed and hold a higher risk of avalanches. The VB is best skiied in Feburary/March time (don't leave it too late in the day for safety reasons).
Besides the Valley Blanche, check out the powder on the Lavencher bowl accessed by the Bochard lift. The extreme freeride race, Red Bull Snowthrill, is hosted here each February.
Heli-skiing is another option; many companies offer heli-drops on the Mont-Blanc massif just over the border in Switzerland or Italy (heli-drops are illegal on French National parkland). Evolution 2 runs heliskiing trips to the Val Veny in Italy, 20 minutes from the centre of Chamonix, costing €350 per person (see above for contact details).
First-timers/Children: Chamonix has four nursery areas: Les Planards, Les Chosalets, Le Savoy, and La Vormaine, all of which are covered by the Chamonix Pass. Ski kindergartens operate in Le Savoy (1049m) and La Vormaine (1480m). The Chamonix Ski School, 190 Place de l'Eglise (+33(0)450 532 257) take children from three years. The Paradis des Praz children's ski park (+33(0)661 732 300), located behind the golf course in Les Praz, is open Wednesdays, weekends, and school holidays and is popular for its snow rafting; €2,50 for 20 minutes.
Beginners: The only complaint about Chamonix's beginner ski areas is that they're a little fragmented from the rest, but there is a good choice. Les Chosalets (1,230m) is 500 metres from the Lognan/Grands Montets cable car in Argentiere and ideal for beginners of all ages. Les Planards (1,062-1,242m) is a large ski area for both beginners and intermediates with four runs (one red, one blue, two green) and a mountain restaurant; snow cover here is guarenteed with 41 canons.
Intermediates: There is a good choice of long blue and red runs to practise turns, particularly in La Flegere and Les Houches. The disadvantage of Les Houches is that it's not covered by the Chamonix Pass and it is also littered with drag lifts. The higher slopes of Les Grands Montets (2,765m) offer long, wide runs as well as steeper, more challening terrain to test your skills as your confidence improves later in the week.
Chamonix has two snowparks: one in Les Grands Montets and the other in Les Houches. Les Grands Montets Snowpark is located at the mid-station of Lognan. Freestylers of all levels are welcome: the Fun Zone is ideal for beginners with its practise area of gentle jumps; the Snow Bowl attracts the more advanced for its table-top jumps, big kickers, and banked turns. Most years there's also a natural half-pipe.
Les Houches' Area 43 is a mobile park unit - basically a container dropped into place by a helicopter (like the one in Kitzbuehel) featuring boxes, rails, and tables. Although smaller than Les Grands Montets Snowpark, more modules are expected to be added to the park over time.
Freestylers don't have to limit themselves to the snowparks: Chamonix has an abundance of natural freestyle terrain, such as jumps, quarter-pipes, and gullies, particularly in Le Tour and La Flegere. The latter is also home to the popular Big Tit Jump, which is the largest natural kicker in Europe.
La Petite Kitchen, 80 Place du Poilu, Chamonix (+33(0)450 54 37 44). The little kitchen, open from 9 a.m., has just a handful of tables and serves traditional English breakfasts, pain au chocolat, and fresh fruit smoothies to fuel you up for the day.
Le GouThe, 95 rue des Moulins, Chamonix. For a quick energy boosting sugar fix, grab a sweet galette (crepe) and wash it down with a cup of thick hot chocolate with gingerbread or pistachio infusion.
La Bergerie (2,000m), Brevent/Flegere, Argentiere (+33(0)45 053 0542). This mountain restaurant, set at the mid-station of Brevent, has awesome views of the Mont Blanc massif. Taste hearty mountain dishes such as the cassoulet - a rich, slow-cooked bean stew.
La Caleche, 18 rue du Docteur Paccard, Chamonix (+33(0)45 055 9468). Tuck in to traditional alpine favourites, like fondue and raclette, in this rustic restaurant decked from floor to ceiling in pine. La Caleche's walls are adorned in everything alpine: a Swiss cuckoo clock, old skis, books about the mountains, and a bobsleigh from the first winter games of 1924.
The Bistro, 151 avenue de l'Aiguille du Midi, 74400 Chamonix (+33(0)450 535764). Michelin-starred chef Mickey experiments with seasonal ingredients and textures to create mouth-watering dishes like the warm chocolate macaroon with raspberry and red pepper coulis. Three courses from the Classic Menu cost €28.
Hameau Albert 1er, 38 Route de Bouchet, Chamonix (+33(0)450 530 509). Serves two-Michelin-starred French cuisine with influences from the Mont Blanc and Italian Piedmont regions. Specialities include seasonal white truffles or the spit-roasted duck foie gras (€95/two people) which must be booked in advance.
The Clubhouse, 74 Promenade des Sonnailles, Chamonix (+33(0)450 984 220). Serves simple unfussy food like steaks, salads, and Sunday roasts in relaxed surroundings. Round off the evening with a glass of vintage Armagnac dating back to the 19th century.
Creperie Gentiane, 64 Rue Lyret, Chamonix (+33(0)450 532 693. Slightly off the tourist map, this little creperie next to the river serves a good choice of sweet and savory crepes in a friendly, casual setting.
MBC, 350 Route de Bouchet (+33(0)450 536 159). This Canadian-run micro-brewery is popular for its Blonde de Chamonix, Soute des Drus, and Granite Pale Ale. During the winter months, MCB hosts live music twice a week (usually Tuesdays and Fridays).
Casino Barriere, 12 place de Saussure, Chamonix (+33(0)450 530 765). Located in the centre of Chamonix, the casino is open until 2 a.m (3 a.m weekends) and is restricted to the over 18s. You'll find fruit machines (from 10 cents) and gaming tables with roulette (English and French), black jack, and stud poker. It also hosts a range of events and shows throughout the year.
In terms of ski pass prices, advanced/expert skiers should opt for the Mont Blanc Pass rather than the Chamonix Pass as you get nearly four times the terrain for just €49 more per week: 400km/€289 compared with 110km/€237.
If you're planning to ski the Valley Blanche, avoid the 20-minute wait to board to the Aiguille du Midi cable car, by pre-booking your place in advance for an additional fee of €2 (free with MBU pass). To book: +33(0)450 532 275 (then press 4) or visit one of Chamonix's ticket desks.
Plan your trip to coincide with the Freeride World Tour in January (Jan. 21-27, 2012). This event is a six-stop international tour where the world's best freeride skiers and snowboarders battle it out for the $250,000 (USD) prize money. Each year around 3000 cheering spectators gather to watch the Freeride World Tour in Chamonix. http://www.freerideworldtour.com
Before leaving, be sure to catch the funicular railway up to the Montenvers station, which is poised on a rocky ridge at 1913 metres. At the top you'll find a restaurant with sun terrace from which to enjoy the impressive views of the Mer de Glace and the peaks of Les Grands Jorasses and Les Drus. In summer there's an ice grotto with scupltures and caves, which is replaced by an ice museum in the winter months. The Montevers Railway has been running since 1908 and is a popular attraction throughout the year.
Those on a budget should avoiding drinking on the mountain (€9.50/ large beer) and instead hit happy hour in resort bars (usually 4-7 p.m.). Self-catering guests can stock up on out-of-town supermarkets on the way into Chamonix rather than using more expensive in-resort shops.
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