Skiing in Chamonix
An introduction to skiing in Chamonix and the ski areas that make up the Chamonix Mont-Blanc Ski Area.
By Alex Bhagat.
Skiing in Chamonix is something that any keen skier must experience at least once in their life…
When, in the early Spring of 1760, Horace-Benedict de Saussure began his first journey to Chamonix he most definitely hadn’t imagined the scale and beauty of this “Valley of the Kings”. So entranced was he by Mont Blanc that he offered prize money for the first successful ascent, which took place in 1786 by Paccard and Balmat. After scaling the monolith of Mont Blanc himself in 1787, he was able to claim that he had trembled upon, and conquered the tallest mountain in all the Alps. What followed was not only fame for him in European capitals and alpine cities such as Geneva but in the Chamonix valley itself, and from this point people flocked like birds to discover and establish one of the finest mountain resorts in the world.
I first skied in Chamonix in 2010 and have returned many times, following in my father’s footsteps and enjoying the magnificence of the Chamonix valley. Here are my top 5 ski runs and an outline of each of my favourite ski areas that represent skiing in Chamonix.
Skiing in Chamonix – My Top 5 Runs Across the Chamonix Valley
The Point de Vue run from the Grand Montets down to Argentière is a whopping 8km in length and a 2,000 metre descent, a must-do for any adrenaline junkie. This run takes you via the Glacier des Rognons and looks over and back up the beautiful Glacier d’Argentière, which is littered with beautiful crevasses.
Tête de Balme in Le Tour where you can decide whether to launch yourself down the Belle Place to descend all the way to Vallorcine or the Bechat Esserts and then continue your journey through the Esserts tree line.
The Charles Bozon-Les Nants pivot with a blue run linking the two (Vioz) is a spectacular descent down from Le Brévent (2525m) to the Chamonix floor. Starting with the powdery Bozon black run accompanied by the mellow blue Vioz run which feeds into the Nants home run which winds you through the forests back home to Chamonix. This section is only open with good snow conditions.
The Lachanel and Lez Praz combination is another beauty of gnarly runs which starts with a steep red based in Flégère called Lachenal which is situated under the shadow of the Chapelle de La Glière. This scales down powdery snow and feeds into a winding black called Les Praz which bobs and weaves like a champion boxer through the forest back to the valley floor. The second part of this run is only advisable in good snow conditions. However the recent upgrade to the ski lift in Les Praz makes a full descent to the valley floor something you don’t have to do only at the end of the day with the crowds.
For families looking to introduce their children or even start out themselves La Flégère has perfect green runs to practice the basics and essentials such as the Trappe and the Libellules, both energy efficient runs that descend either side of a frozen lake.
Chamonix – The Town
Today Chamonix is one of the largest ski resorts in Europe and is renowned for being an area for “intermediates or above”, as my ski instructor told me in 2010 when I began my journey through the valley.
Once in Chamonix it is hard not to sense a shiver down the spine as you are surrounded by beautiful peaks on both sides, and it is in this moment you realise you are at Ground Zero – the beating heart of the Alps. It is easily accessible from airports such as Geneva and you can reach Italy via the Courmayeur-Chamonix pass that runs under Mt. Blanc. From the centre of Chamonix, the famous Brévent-Flégère pistes can be reached via cable car. Argentière and Le Tour are other famous ski areas in the valley with excellent routes from Chamonix via car or the Chamonix ski bus services.
The town itself is a busy hub full of nightlife but also quieter rustic cafés and restaurants. One of my favourite restaurants in the Chamonix centre is Les Canailles Chamonix which is an artisan style food place. The Micro Brasserie is a cool venue that serves home-brewed beers and some of the best burgers we have ever enjoyed. For a quick lunch/dinner, or something to soak up the beer on the way home at night, drop in on Poco Loco, a tiny joint on the main pedestrian street that is a locals’ favourite. And if you’re stocking up on sandwiches for a day on the mountain, the Fournil Chamoniard near Chamonix Sud does the best baguette Parisienne and cafe éclairs you could hope for.
Chamonix is the largest resort within the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass which gives access to the whole valley (as well as the high altitude cable cars such as Grands Montets and Aiguille du Midi) and over to St Gervais as well as Courmayeur in Italy and Verbier in Switzerland. Such a wide variety of terrains make skiing in Chamonix so captivating and ensuring skiers return to this mountain mecca.
1. Skiing in Chamonix – The Brévent Ski Area
This area of pistes is easily accessible from Chamonix town on the valley floor via the Plan Praz cable car which takes you to the first zone at 2000m altitude. From here you can scale up to Le Brévent at 2525m which offers the greatest views of the Mont Blanc massif, cushioned in snow caps and glaciers as well as the famous Aiguilles (Needles) with wonderfully daggered rockfaces. Brévent is perhaps a little harder to ski than Flégère but has nice beginners pistes at its bottom where many ski schools teach and look after children beginning their skiing journey.
One of Brévent’s great runs is the Charles Bozon, a long and gnarly black which is perfect for soaking up the views and really testing your skiing techniques. Due to its altitude this piste maintains great snow through the season up until April, despite it facing south. This piste is reached via the Brévent cable car from Plan Praz.
The reds on the Brévent side of the mountain can be accessed via a series of winding blue runs such as the Blanchots, which is a great run for beginners and intermediates ready to traverse towards the Cornu chair lift which takes you to the bosom of the Aiguille de Charlanon. From here you can take the red run Cornu, a steep descent down the face of the mountain where you can return or take a detour via a steep and exciting red called the Retour Stade.
The Nants piste is popular in good snow conditions in the late afternoon after a day of skiing and enjoying great alpine food, and maybe even a glass of vin chaud. This is a piste that takes you via the forest back to Chamonix town centre. Nants is a long run that on a sunny day offers some picturesque views across the valley towards the Aiguille du Midi, Mont-Blanc, and the valley below. Near the ski school where I first began is an excellent run for beginners where the basics can be taught such as the snow plough. This area is littered with cafés for a lunch break if you have children with one of the many ski schools in Chamonix. However, if you catch yourself up at Brévent in the afternoon, pop into the panoramic “altitude 2000” which serves great food and has a balcony with a panoramic view of Mont Blanc.
2. Skiing in Chamonix – The Flégère Ski Area
La Flégère has lots of fun runs, mostly easy in comparison to its neighbour Le Brévent, and boasting big open off-piste sections for letting rip on a powder day. The ski area is accessible via the liaison cable car across the valley with Brévent and also the new 2,000 passengers per hour gondola up from the valley floor at Les Praz.
Speed junkies can hit the Chavanne slope where you can race the clock down a designated run. La Flégère is beginner-friendly but harder runs can be found at the Lachenal piste which is a challenging red run, giving good intermediates a taste of what is to come in areas such as the Grands Montets as it’s physically demanding. If you take the little Floria draglift from the top of the Index Chair, you’ll find the Crouchues and Floria pistes which are great runs for long steep skiing. With the Crochues being the less difficult of the two, they’re great for carving on early in the day. The shorter Chavannes chairlift gives access to some easier blue runs and the green runs from the gondola station such as Le Trappe and Libellules are perfect for beginners. After a snowfall those skiing in Chamonix and trying powder for the first time can always find some gentle off-piste for practice.
3. Skiing in Chamonix – Argentière/ Les Grands Montets
Situated further up the valley Argentière is 200m higher than Chamonix and is accessible via a 15 minute bus or car journey. The Grands Montets is its ski area, a huge north-facing mountain slab situated between the Glacier d’Argentière to the east and the Mer de Glace to the West. The peak of the Grand-Montets is at 3275m and while the icy comb of the Aiguille Verte above it looks close, it is a further 847 metres higher up. This area is not so easy for beginners as it consists of a relatively few ski runs, mostly reds and blacks.
Expert skiers come here for its off piste runs which I discovered when taking the descent from the top of the Grand Montets down to Argentière, a 1km descent down the back and side of the mountain overlooking the glacier d’Argentière. There are few pisted runs on this mountain hence why you should really avoid it if you’re a beginner and get the practice done in Brévent/Flegere or Le Tour. Its 28km of pistes are steep and/or mogulled – you have been warned.
The Pointe de Vue is one of the most exciting of these pistes and is a challenging run which takes you all the way from the top back to the valley floor. Take a break to admire the scenery en route or halfway down at the Lognan mid-section. But if you really want to earn a beverage at the bottom, a non-stop descent makes the hot chocolate or beer far more satisfying as you look back up the mountain and retrace your steps. A guide will show you some fun alternatives to the route and offer tips if it’s your first rodeo down this mountain.
Equally exciting is the Bochard piste, a looping red run with a shorter distance. A variant of this is the Chamois which is accessed via the same Bochard gondola. Start on the Bochard piste and then bear left and over the ridge. You enter an enormous bowl and are quickly into fast descent. This black is the only piste so the rest of the bowl is for powder hounds. You can swing back over the ridge to pick up the blue Cocqs run back to the mid station, or continue and join the blue Arolles run that ends with a schuss down to the mountain hut restaurant and the Retour Pendant chairlift.
One of my favourite off-piste runs is the Italian Bowl. This is secluded and at the foot of steep cliffs resulting in shelter from wind and good snow. Exit the Herse lift onto the Pylones slope and stay right. After navigating a rocky patch you will drop into the bowl. There are plenty of lines to choose and all will bring you out onto the Pointe de Vue piste. An exhilarating run which you will have to yourself more often than not.
There is a terrain park near the Marmottons lift which has rails and ramps and is great fun. The Grands Montets is in my opinion the toughest ski area in the Chamonix valley but if you’re looking for a thrilling day of skiing this is the place and at times, I’ve exclusively done a week here to brush up my technique.
Places to eat in Argentière
My favourite places to eat in the area for the evening include Le Dahu which is a fun restaurant serving French food with some great fish dishes. Others are Le Grenier which serves authentic local dishes, crêpes and burgers and has a fun buzz in the evening. Argentière is a destination in its own right and has enough to keep you entertained, particularly as you will have tired yourself out on its beast of a mountain all day.
4. Skiing in Chamonix – Le Tour / Domaine du Balme
Le Tour is situated further upstream from Argentière and normally takes 25 minutes to reach via bus from Chamonix. Le Tour is the highest of the ski areas in terms of the town which is located 1462m above sea level. This ski area gives you a great view over the entire length of the valley and the snow-capped monolith of Mont Blanc. A view similar to that which Neptune must experience when looking across the solar system to the Sun. A view with unrivalled quintessence. Le Tour also offers views towards the Emosson dam, the Dents du Midi and the canton of Valais, Switzerland.
The peak of Le Tour is the Tête de Balme which sits at 2250m. One of the best runs from here is the red run Solonges which is a great looping run that feeds into a peaceful blue run called the Retour Charmillon which can connect you back to Le Tour via the Charmillon chair lift.
The jewel in the crown of Le Tour however starts at the Tête de Balme just like Solonges. However here you have two options. Take the scenic red which is deceivingly called the Belle Place, a steep run which will really test your technique. The name is a juxtaposition as the run is both beautiful but tough. Or you can descend via the Bechat Esserts. These two runs feed into the excellent ‘blue run’ called the Esserts which a beautiful journey through a less steep but mellow forest. The bottom of the run sits in a bowl. Either carry on down to Vallorcine via the red Forêt Verte or take the Tête De Balme lift back up to the top giving you a lovely view of the skiers traversing the runs through the trees. From this cable car you can see deep into Switzerland as it’s located on the Swiss border.
This is just a glimpse of what awaits you in this amazing valley and I haven’t even mentioned Les Houches or the Aiguille du Midi and its Vallée Blanche descent. Chamonix is not the easiest of ski resorts to navigate. Skiing in Chamonix requires some investment in time and effort. Yet it is more than a ski resort. Before skiing it was already famous as the world’s centre of alpinism. It is a year-round destination with even more visitors in summer than winter.
This is why, for me, it is so special.