Chamonix: Winter's Natural Home
|ARCTIC BLAST: Resort skiers and 'boarders bunker down against a winter gale (Photographers Choice)|
Chamonix, like many European resorts, isn't a single ski area but a town surrounded by many ski areas, in this case about ten, including smaller slopes nearby. At first the runs around town can seem either intimidating or limiting, depending on your ability, but so much terrain means plenty of variety. Extreme skiers spend most of their time off the slopes, traversing glaciers and finding chutes on the fringes of the defined ski areas. But in-bounds skiers can still bounce through powder, soak in the views, and stop for a hot chocolate at slopeside chalets with less risk to your skeletal integrity. Although not necessary, hiring a guide to show you the best terrain—even in-bounds—is a great way to make the most of Chamonix.
For the best views of the Mont Blanc massif, the twin ski areas of Le Brévent and La Flégère can't be beat. Reaching up to some 7,860 feet and dropping for about 1,600 vertical feet (or 4,383 vertical feet if you ski all the way back to town), the slopes spread like an icy mural underneath toothy peaks such as the Aiguille Charlanon and La Grande Floria. These areas also tend to be sunnier than those across the valley. Most of the slopes are south facing, so hit them early on a powder day.
To get started, warm up on the wide-open green runs (which are blue in the European system) at La Flégère before working your way over to the steeper shoots at Le Brévent. Along the way you'll have to take gondolas on horizontal journeys over ravines. Best of all, you can get a taste of the off-piste action accessing mini couloirs and steeps—thankfully with easy ways out should your ego tempt you beyond your comfort zone.
Further up the valley you'll find Les Grands Montets, one of the best areas in Chamonix for wide-open, do-as-you-please terrain. Here, open bowls spread for what seems like miles in every direction, giving skiers a gargantuan array of lines that range from easy-as-cake to you-fall-you-die. The cable car starts at Argentière, at 4,107 feet, and rockets up to nearly 11,000 feet, giving you stunning views of famous formations like the Dru, a monolith of granite with sheer, seemingly featureless faces that test climbers' mettle come summer. There's a great little bistro—mais oui!—at the top of the tram, giving you a perfect place to warm your belly before heading out.
If you're bringing kids along, the ski areas at Les Houches and Le Savoy offer ski school programs that allow mom and dad to go ski by themselves for much of the day. Les Houches, located just down the valley from Chamonix, stretches from 3,117 feet to 6,233 feet and has a good mix of intermediate terrain. Le Savoy is smaller, located right in Chamonix, and allows parents to drop kids off before hopping the tram up to Le Brévent.
Buses run regularly between all of these areas and cost nothing to use.
As for passes, you can buy tickets good for numerous places for one day to 15 days of skiing. The "Mont Blanc Unlimited" pass gives you carte blanche for all of the ski areas, including unlimited rides up the Aiguille du Midi tram and on the Montenvers scenic train along the impressive Mer de Glace glacier. Available at any ski area, the unlimited pass costs around $70 for a day to about $725 for 15 days per person. A family pass for two adults and two kids comes in at around $175 a day to just under $2,000 for 15 days. A more economical option, "Le Pass" covers seven ski areas—but not the tram or train—and costs around $50 for one day or about $600 for 15 days. A family of four can get a day pass for about $135 or around $1,500 for 15 days.
Visit www.chamonix.com for more information or call the Chamonix tourist office at +33.450.53.0024.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication