L'Esprit de Chamonix

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Chamonix, France, is not a quaint town, nor is it a quiet town, nor even a particularly safe town. People don't come to Chamonix for quaint or quiet or safe. There's plenty of that elsewhere in the world. But there is no other spot on the planet quite like Chamonix.

This was apparent moments after the doors to my train slid open, and my friend Anne and I entered Chamonix for the first time, snowboards under our arms. The place greeted us as subtly as a three-ring circus. Here was everything we'd ever wished for in a mountain town — times 20, times 50, perhaps, revved into adrenalized overdrive. Tiny French cars, swarms of them, careened down tiny French streets. A hundred neon gear stores displayed a million coveted gizmos. Pedestrians clogged the narrow sidewalks, some wearing furs, some wearing climbing harnesses, a few wearing both. A seductive smell hypnotized us at every corner, and lured us inside: chocolate crjpes sizzling on burners; cheese wheels piled chest high; jungles of sausages swinging from ceiling hooks; racks of baguettes emerging from ovens.

And then, lingering aura-like over all of town was the unmistakable esprit de Chamonix — the spirit of the place, the attitude that has made Chamonix alternately celebrated and reviled and feared, the basis for the town's unofficial motto: Death Sport Capital of the World. On the streets you could hear it in snippets of conversations, smell it in the ambient sweat, spot it in the glint of ice axes peeking from backpacks. I had the distinct sense that every Chamonix local as a matter of course engages in activities that are borderline lunatic — speed skiing; BASE jumping; free climbing; extreme snowboarding. The town is awash with testosterone. It's a sanitarium of sorts, a safe house for the world's adrenaline addicts, a place where any mountain fantasy can be attempted, free from boundary lines, free from liability laws, free from safety nets. It's a place where commercial helicopters are not allowed to fly because rescue choppers need the airspace to pluck bodies off the glaciers. A place of machismo and one-upmanship and contagious insanity.

As for me, I found Chamonix instantly entrancing (and more than a little intimidating). It was mid-March and Anne and I spent our first afternoon waltzing around the cobblestone streets, buzzing off the energy, every few minutes bending our heads backward and gaping up at the endless array of mountaintops.

Shiny Chamonix
The area referred to as Chamonix, it must be explained, is far more than a caffeinated town at the foot of a very big peak. For someone who has never skied or snowboarded outside of North America, a visit to Chamonix redefines the proportions of a mountain resort. Chamonix is actually an entire valley — the 20-mile-long Chamonix Valley — located in eastern France near the Italian and Swiss boarders, a two-hour train ride from Geneva. The valley encompasses more than a dozen different villages (the largest of which is also called Chamonix), one flowing into the next, and 13 separate ski areas, all of them accessible with a single lift ticket (and none of them named Chamonix).

Encircling the sheer-walled valley like a spiked fence is the famed Massif du Mont Blanc, a realm of pinnacled ridge lines rising to the smooth white dome of 15,774-foot Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in Europe. Spilling down from the treeless mountains, poised like frozen waterfalls, are a series of startling glaciers seemingly ready to bury the valley floor in a mass of condo-size ice blocks (and occasionally doing so, as the historical photos at the Musie Alpin graphically showed).

It was too much to absorb at once. The combination of jet lag and sensory overload and a perfect bottle of ctte du Rhtne turned our heads to putty. We managed to find our hotel, a bustling villa called the Gustavia, and dropped into dreamless sleep long before the alpenglow had faded from Mont Blanc.


About the Author : Michael Finkel is the author of Alpine Circus: A Skier's Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World, and his work has appeared in National Geographic Adventurer, Audubon, Outside, Skiing, and numerous other magazines. Michael's adventures in Big Sky biking and snowboarding, and his discussion with GORP readers, have been featured on GORP.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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