Nestled in the shadow of Mt Blanc (Europe’s highest mountain), Chamonix has been attracting thrill seekers for nearly two centuries. The peaks around here are like nowhere else on Earth: sheer faces, tumbling glaciers and pinnacles of rock dominate the view on either side of the famous valley. Not for nothing is this place hailed as the capital of the Alps, and indeed ‘Cham’ (as it’s known to the locals) is as cosmopolitan as most capital cities, the adopted home to climbers and wintersports lovers from across the world.
Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, which sparked the construction of a vast network of lifts across five different areas: Les Grand Montets, Brevent, La Flegere, Le Tour and Les Houches.
What are the runs like?
Let’s get this out of the way – Chamonix is not a great place for beginners. Pistes here are generally steep and (compared to North America) imperfectly groomed. For intermediates and above, however, there is mile upon mile of fun, challenging terrain to explore. For sun-soaked slopes with plenty of bumps to huck yourself off try south-facing Flegere, or for fast, wide open turns look no further than Le Tour.
What are the lifts like?
With such a huge area to cover it’s no surprise that the lifts vary in age and quality. The system is overseen by the Compagnie du Chamonix Mont Blanc and consists mainly of express chairlifts and cable-cars, with the odd two-man relic and even a funicular railway thrown in. Queues can be long, especially after a fresh dump, and be warned – tickets are eye-wateringly expensive. Nevertheless, it’s all worth it for the Aiguille du Midi alone: this two-stage cable car sweeps you up to a dizzying height of 3800m, depositing you on a rock spike boasting unparalleled views of Mt Blanc and the high Alps. Only the French could build a tourist attraction in such an insane location – it’s the closest you’ll get to full-on rock climbing without busting out the carabinas.
Is there a park?
Chamonix is not known for its freestyle facilites, though there’s a small park in Les Grands Montets maintained by the shaping crew known as H05. Expect a modest collection of boxes and rails and some average-sized kickers. In truth, if jibbing’s your thang you’d be better off going elsewhere.
What about the freeriding?
Now you’re talking! Chamonix comes into its own after a fresh snowfall – nearly three quarters of the riding here is to be found off-piste – and its incredible powder terrain is the reason it should feature on every rider’s bucket list. For steep, sustained pitches, get up early (and we mean early!) and join the powder pilgrims queuing for ‘first bins’ at the Grand Montets cable car. If you fancy getting airborne, the slopes around Flegere are packed with cliffs, cat tracks and wind lips. It’s an unwritten rule that everybody should do the ‘Mer du Glace’ descent at least once: book a guide and head to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, from where you negotiate a precipitous hike before dropping down onto the vast glacier that gives the run its name (literally, ‘The Sea of Ice’). It’s a humbling experience as you journey through tumbling seracs beneath towering walls of rock.
It should be noted that Chamonix’s gnarly terrain – and the freedom granted visitors to ram where they like – comes with a serious risk attached: avalanches and accidents are all too common; in fact the valley averages around a death a day across all sports! When exploring the backcountry here you need to be equipped with at least a shovel, probe and transceiever (as well as the knowledge to use them) while it would be wise to employ one of the excellent local guides.
Is the nightlife any good?
Yes! Chamonix is a large, thriving town with a buzzing seasonaire community. There are tons of restaurants and bars, and every year the town is re-energised by an influx of fresh blood. For great sit-down food, try Munchies or La Moustache et Filles; for cheap late night eats the huge portions at Midnight Express are legendary, while the sandwiches at Belugas are a Chamonix institution. To get the party started, head to Soul Food, a funky watering hole run by two French brothers with a penchant for jazz and soul. Y-Bar and Le Toff are also worth a look-in, but if in doubt just follow the nearest thumping bass line to its source…
Go… if you like epic scenery, genuine Alpine history and challenging powder terrain
Don’t go… if you’re a park rat who’s scared of avalanches.