What’s it like? Skiing in Chamonix
With a lot of snow already on the ground and the hope of more to follow, G and I took our chances on a last-minute Christmas skiing week in Chamonix.
It was a bit of a risk as we have been left disappointed by a Christmas skiing in other places due to lack of snow but an early 2017/18 season big dump emboldened us. (In addition, Little Miss was off to her dad’s for Christmas and I don’t like being home in the festive season without her.)
We could have chosen to visit almost anywhere in the Alps or Pyrenees but we ended up in Chamonix and we were not disappointed.
As luck would have it, one of G’s friends offered us his Chamonix Sud apartment for the week and about three seconds later we had booked Easyjet flights from Glasgow to Geneva.
My third time in Chamonix
I have twice visited Chamonix before: Once for a wonderful late summer press trip (see 19 outdoor summer highlights in Chamonix) and then again in January 2017 for a superb but short stay at Blackrock Ski Lodge.
The short ski break in January was affected by tricky mountain weather (ie a lack of snow) and while we enjoyed the skiing it had been limited. This only led to a desire to go again in better snow conditions to find out why the area is so revered and loved by many skiers.
I confess that for a long time Chamonix had been a place that put me off with its reputation for gnarly skiing. I have been skiing for only four years (although I snowboarded for more than a decade) and I had heard that the resorts of Chamonix are a tad tricky. I wasn’t sure if I would find enough of the right skiing terrain to suit my skills.
However, the earlier January experience showed me there is easier skiing as well as tougher terrain if you know where to look and so I was encouraged to go again.
Skiing in Chamonix: The details
We paid for a six-day Mont Blanc Unlimited Saki pass. It cost €306. This allows you to ski in local ski areas, including Brevent – Flegere, Grands Montets, Balme Tour Valloricine (Le Tour) and Les Houches, as well as Courmayeaur (Italy) and Verbier (Switzerland).
It also offers a free local bus service around town and between the Chamonix ski areas, a cable car ride to the Aiguille du Midi, reduced fare on the return bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to reach Courmayeaur, a trip on the Skyway (another awesome cable car on the Italian side of Mont Blanc), and entry to the Montenvers Mer de Glace train and the Tramway du Mont-Blanc.
In addition, the pass gives:
- Unlimited access to the pool, ice rink and museums.
- One decent per day/person on the Luge Alpine coaster at Les Planards ski area.
- Chamonix Cinéma Vox: €3,50 session with a 3 to 21 day passes.
Six days of skiing in Chamonix
We were dictated on some days by the weather. At first we had warm sunshine and then days of snow and low cloud. The range of options in Chamonix, although separate and requiring bus or car transport between them, meant we could choose the destination according to the weather and what type of skiing we fancied each day.
Day 1: Brevent – Flegere
This is a great first day destination thanks to lots of lovely blue and some easier going red runs. It turned out to be very warm and sunny but the snow remained in good condition and we enjoyed rediscovering our skiing skills on the range of pistes and a little off-piste terrain. If the snow had been fresher, the off-piste possibilities would a have been better.
To reach the Brevant ski area you need to walk up a steep hill from Chamonix centre. I wouldn’t be too keen doing this each day. There was a short bus ride option as well but it seemed like a bit of a waste of time to stand in a queue for a bus when we could walk.
Photos of Brevant – Flegere
Day 2: Le Tour / Vallorcine / Balme
We journeyed by bus for about 25 minutes from Chamonix Sud to Le Tour in the morning for more sunny skiing. It was lovely to be out on the ski slopes on Christmas Day. This area is fairly small but is considered the best for less experienced skiers thanks to a greater number of blue runs and some easy green pistes.
We found plenty of easier reds, too, and enjoyed a couple of long-ish blues although there were too many flatter sections joining the slopes together. I would have hated to be on a snowboard in this ski area due to all he flat stuff.
Again, there looked to be a lot of fairly tame off-piste skiing if there had been fresh snow. What we tried was hard and bumpy. Le Tour is a great ski area if you have less experience but if you are a skilled skier you might see it as a good half-day choice.
Photos of skiing Le Tour
Aguille du Midi cable car
In the afternoon we enjoyed a stunning Christmas Day trip on the cable car to the Aguille du Midi.The cable car leaves Chamonix town headed for the Aguille at 3842m. It offers superb panoramic views of the Alps massif and a close up view of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest summit.
G has climbed in this area and he was excited to show me some of the routes he completed. I found the height and exposure a little overwhelming but it was a fantastic way to enjoy a very different Christmas afternoon and early evening.
Aguille du Mid photos
Day 3: Courmayeur
Courmayeur in Italy is renowned for great intermediate skiing and sunny slopes and we chose Boxing Day to head to this beautiful resort. (We had planned to go on Christmas day but the bus was not running.)
On arrival, we rode the Skyway cable car and while it was a day of low clouds the experience is highly recommended. We will go back again when we can see more of the promised views.
The snow fell gently almost all day in the resort and we had a very enjoyable day skiing on a few inches of fresh white stuff on almost every slope (mostly red) that we could find. There was still not enough powder to enjoy a lot of the off-piste areas.
My tip is that it’s a good idea to alight the bus at the Skyway just outside the end of the Mont Blanc tunnel and return the same way. If you stay on the bus you end up in Courmayeur centre, which requires is a long-ish walk or another paid-for bus ride to the ski area. Unfortunately we did not know this until after we descended to the main resort station and had to find our way to Courmayeur centre.
Photos of Courmayeur skiing
Day 4 & 5: Les Houches
Les Houches offers good skiing generally but it is the best place to head when it is snowing. The forecast was for a lot of snow so we spent two days in this popular ski area.
Be warned as it can be very busy on poor weather days and while the slopes did not suffer from overcrowding the bus to and from the slopes from Chamonix was very full.
Les Houches is home to the superb Kandahar Alpine Ski World Cup route and this is our firm favourite piste in this ski area.
G also insisted we ski every bonkers off-piste descent that he deemed safe. I found some of it very challenging and ended up taking a tumble. I wasn’t hurt but I did end up in deep snow!
While in Les Houches we met with Blackrock Ski Lodge friends Lizzie and Paul and also the Scottish climber Nat Berry and her partner, film-maker Chris. As well as skiing on our own we enjoyed hooking up for a few ski runs with friends.
Thanks to Paul’s local knowledge we were able to follow him on a wee off-piste outing through deep snow, which we greatly enjoyed.
The other great asset of Les Houches is the Kitsch Inn for food and drink.
I have another tip for Les Houches, too. It is a good idea to catch the return bus from Bellevue instead of Prarion because you have a better chance of getting a seat. Indeed, it is an even better idea to catch the bus on the opposite side of the road from the gondola and ride it to Prarion where it turns around to pick up more skiers and then returns to Chamonix centre. If you do this you are less likely to spend the whole journey standing up and being thrown around and jostled.
Day 6: Grand Montets
After some good snowfall on previous days we decided to take on some of the tougher terrain that Chamonix is famed for at Grand Montets, near the village of Argentiere. This ski area had long been on G’s must-ski list and while he did not get to explore as much of the off-piste as he had wanted to we did brave the notoriously tough black-graded piste from the top of the ski area.
I was nervous about skiing Grand Montets, especially the steep blacks, but I womaned-up. The light was dull and the cloud had descended before we finally made it through the tediously long queue and on to the packed Grand Montets gondola to reach 3275m. This made a very bumpy and often steep black run on the Glacier des Rognon even harder to ski.
Top tip: We didn’t know this until someone told us in the long queue but you can reserve a place on the Grand Montets gondola, which means you get priority uplift. You can do this only once per day and you have to turn up at a set time for your booking.
Skiing the black run from the top wasn’t easy. I found it tough in places and I confess I felt scared and out of my depth but I made it, slowly and sort-of surely. Without good light it was difficult to see where you were skiing next and some of the bumps were large and difficult to ski with any kind of style or confidence. G must have found it very slow because he is a much better and braver skier than I am but we did it bit by bit together.
I loved the Grand Montets ski area because of the superb views (when the sun is out) and the many challenges. It would be good to return when conditions are better and the light is less flat. The off-piste opportunities look truly gnarly and there are crevasses to look out for so I think I would feel safer with a guide. Sadly, we did not get the chance to venture off-piste on our final day of skiing.
Photos of Grand Montets skiing
See Chamonix Skiing for more information about the various areas and lift passes.