Chamonix Snow Sports
Simply the best – and we’re not alone in thinking so. Even James Bond agrees – they filmed the ski sequences for ‘The World Is Not Enough’ in Chamonix.
No wonder, either. The combination of altitude and pitch make for the most incredible snow slopes just about anywhere. Renowned as the world’s leading off-piste resort, Chamonix virtually created sport of extreme skiing and its deserved reputation still attracts many of the world best skiers and snowboarders each winter.
However, this status belies the variety of skiing available. Chamonix is not just about the steep and scary. Each ski area has its particular character and vibe and there is plenty for every level to enjoy.
Click one of the areas below for a brief summary:
Still the signature mountain in the Chamonix valley, there is enough skiing on this hill to last a lifetime. Indeed many locals never ride anywhere else during the winter. With over 2000metres of vertical dropping from its 3275metre peak and a predominantly north-facing aspect, Grands Montets keeps its snow well into May each year.
The top cable car accesses glaciated terrain, so proceed with caution up there, but the sensational pitches are well worth the trip. Throw in the Bochard gondola and Le Hearse chairlift and you have an incredible breadth of terrain and slope to go play with. The pistes are good, but the off-piste is better.
The Grand Montets really is like a mountain canvas – nothing is out of bounds and everything is possible. It remains the least beginner-friendly of the lift areas, but, once you have your ski legs, it’s a must for every aspiring skier and snowboarder to add to their snow CV.
Top Tip: At busy times, the top cable car needs to be booked in advanced. You can do this through the Internet from your lift ticket the night before you are going. Check out the Compagnie du Mont Blanc for details.
Not much can beat the pleasure of luxuriating in a sun-lounger and sipping on a thick hot chocolate gazing out across the Chamonix valley at the jagged ridgeline of the Aiguille du Midi and the imposing snow-capped dome of Mont Blanc from the top of the Brevent cable car. The sun-kissed slopes of Brevent offers some of the most incredible views in the world and accompanying this is some of the most accessible skiing in the area.
A new high-speed gondola whisks you from the bottom station just up from the centre of town onto Les Plans de Praz – the high plateau at the heart of the Brevent lift system. From there, you can continue by Cable Car to the top of the mountain and some of the most exciting off-piste in the valley (ENSA couloir and Pente de l’Hotel, for example).
For the intermediates and piste-skiers, there are a collection of wide-open rolling pistes on Brevent and you can even track all the way over to Flegere to get some serious miles under your skis or snowboard.
Beginners love Brevent too. With the gentle incline of the plateau, they have the chance to ride novice slopes, but still be high up a mountain.
Top Tip: Queues for the Cable Car can be very busy coming down at the end of the day. Either scout out the ski route down, head down early on the lift or persuade La Bergerie restaurant to serve you Vin Chaud until the queue diminishes.
Flegere suffers from accessibility - on a quiet day, you can be up enjoying some of Chamonix’s most scenic riding within a matter of minutes. On a bad day, it can take you two hours. No doubt about it, the Flegere cable car is a travesty in this day and age. However, if you get there early and perhaps choose to descend from Brevent (the two areas are inter-connected these days), then it can provide some fantastic riding.
Blessed with a natural back-country terrain park, Flegere is actually popular with park rats as much as powder hounds. Yet, it also has a number of gentle flowing pistes that really suit intermediate cruisers and the more adventurous novices. The area catches the sun, the whole day long, meaning that it is warmer than Grands Montets in early winter and then becomes the ideal spot to catch spring snow in the morning in March and April.
Top Tip: Over the back of Flegere accesses some of the finest ski-touring anywhere. Either get a guide or consult the route maps and you can find yourself riding endless fields of powder in seemingly forgotten valleys before catching a train back from the little hamlet of Le Buet.
Situated at the head of the valley, Le Tour sometimes seems like the smaller, softer sibling nestling amongst its sister ski areas. There is a grain of truth to this. Le Tour provides some of the gentlest skiing in the valley on its wide-open front face. Broad, rolling pistes, sparkling under a warming sun, offer some of the most flattering and confidence-inspiring slopes for the novice and intermediate rider.
However, there is a different side to Le Tour and, for many people, this is where its true character comes out. Over the back of Tete de Balme heading down towards Vallorcine (nowadays an alternative access point too), there is some of the most enjoyable off-piste riding in the whole of Chamonix. Open bowls at the top give way to tree glades down below and, when the snow begins to fall, this is where many locals choose to head. Trust them, they value their turns.
TopTip: Le Tour is very beginner friendly. La Vormaine is a perfect spot for youngsters to take their first turns. Even better, non-skiers can enjoy a ‘Vin Chaud’ or ‘Chocolat Chaud’ on the terrace of the Olympic Hotel whilst watching the kids honing their newly found skills.
The lowest of Chamonix’s resorts, Les Houches is sometimes neglected as a result. Yet the resort is the home of Chamonix’s only World-Cup ski race and has some of the best piste-skiing in the valley. If honing down perfectly groomed pistes is your bag, then Les Houches delivers in spades. Cordueroy is everywhere and with the slopes always seemingly quiet, there is no better place to practice those Giant Slalom turns.
Beware though, due to a complicated dispute between the owners of Les Houches and the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, the ski area is not included on the main Mont Blanc lift pass. Annoying? Just a little. Ridiculous? Of course. Why? …er, dare we say it… probably not… well, let’s just say it wouldn’t happen in Austria.
Top Tip: In bad weather, the tree-lined slopes of Les Houches come into their own. Go there to avoid the crowds and the storms.
Not so much a ski area, as a mountain with a lift on it, Aiguille du Midi is a world famous tourist destination, itself. And no wonder. The lift station, somehow hewn both into and atop this jagged needle of rock, is itself an architectural masterpiece. It’s French bloody-mindedness at its most brilliant and imaginative best. No other country would have had the gall to build such a structure on such a precipitous spire of granite and no other country would have had the flair to create a structure that so seamlessly melds into the mountainside that it actually only adds to the magnificence of the Aiguille du Midi.
It is worth the trip up, whether you are planning to ski it or not. Beginners are recommended to take a morning or afternoon off skiing and take the vertiginous cable car ride to the top. Once there, savour the inspiring juxtaposition of natural grandeur and man-made majesty.
Make sure you also take the time to climb into the glass elevator up to the viewing platform to watch those daring enough to ski down or those brave enough to climb Mont Blanc. From the top you can actually see the curvature of the earth and view distant mountains such as the Matterhorn and look across France, Italy or Switzerland.
And then there’s the actual skiing! The route down to Montenvers from the Aiguille du Midi is normally known as La Vallee Blanche (“the white valley”). This takes skiers and snowboarders down from the upper slopes and onto the notorious Mer du Glace (the “sea of ice”). The views here are genuinely incredible - make sure you take your camera with you. It really is even better than all the hype. If you are up to it, then it is definitely worth the trip.
There are actually a number of routes down and some offer tremendously challenging technical skiing, while others provide a far more relaxed pitch for the less aggressive skier. If you can ride red and black pistes safely, then you are good enough to take on the ‘Classic Route’.
However, BE WARNED – you should always book a High Mountain Guide to do this descent. The Vallee Blanche is all on glaciated terrain and navigating the correct course down requires expert knowledge. The crevasses and bergschrunds are deadly and claim the lives of a number of skiers and snowboarders each winter, normally the under-prepared and the unwary.
The Mountain Guide will ensure you have the right kit (harness, transceiver, crampons, etc) to deal with any eventuality and also ensure that you follow the safest route down for your ability level. However, their expertise is not all about self-preservation – it also means that they will find you the best snow and help you to have the most fantastic off-piste experience of many people’s lives.
Top Tip: If considering the Valley Blanche run book your guide in advance for a day towards the end of your break when you have had the time to acclimatize to the altitude. If possible aim for March and April when the weather is better.