Chamonix: Winter's Natural Home

From requisite pursuits like lift-access and backcountry skiing to indoor rock climbing and less-aggressive cold-weather exploration, we preview the best ways to sample this French alpine hotspot.
HEIGHTS OF PERFECTION: The Rhone Alps towering over Chamonix. (PhotoDisc)

In 1786, crystal hunter Jacques Balmat and doctor Michel Paccard stepped onto the summit of Mont Blanc, looking down on France's Chamonix Valley from the mountain's 15,774-foot summit. To the first humans privy to that staggering view, the Chamonix of today would seem almost fantastical—and in many ways that term still describes this unique locale, where timeless, utterly spectacular alpine terrain joins up with every imaginable modern European urban amenity. Skiers can tackle a 12-mile glacial descent in the morning and sip slopeside coffee by early afternoon.

Yet despite Chamonix's love for all things extreme, you don't have to attempt to follow Balmat and Paccard's historic footsteps. Instead, consider delving into the parts of the valley that won't (necessarily) leave you bruised. The town has about 10,000 people—and enough beds for upwards of 60,000 people—and no shortage of the folks who come here earn their fondue with high-altitude tram rides; easy, in-bounds ski tours; cross-country loops; and thermal baths. There are trains that traverse along massive glaciers, climbing lessons at an airy indoor gym, and lovely strolls along the burbling L'Arve River.

So go ahead and huck bergschrunds and scale seracs if you must, but don't miss the soft adventures, either. You can always bring your ice ax to dinner. In Chamonix, no one will ask why.

Published: 3 Jan 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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