Top Lift: 3842m
Ski Area: 110km of piste
In a Nutshell
One day, if you ski or snowboard long enough, and well enough, you’ll end up in Chamonix – unable to resist the lure of its hard-core terrain, and stunning glacial scenery. Don’t rush to get here, though. It’s far better to wait until you’ve got the skills, and the courage, to do it justice.
Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
Tourism first came to Chamonix in 1741, when two heavily-armed English explorers, William Windham and Richard Pococke, took three days to reach the valley from Geneva. Pococke, for reasons best known to himself, was dressed as an Arab.
They gazed up at the ice fields and vertiginous crags in wonder: and cannot, in their wildest dreams, have imagined how their fellow man would one day use this dazzling and dangerous landscape as a playground.
The extreme-skiing capital of the world
Now of course, the little town of fin-de-siecle villas and grand hotels is stuffed to the gunwales with ambitious skiers and boarders. They’ve come from all over the world to prove themselves against the long, steep descents of the Mont Blanc massif, and they’ve imbued the place with special atmosphere. No doubt about it: this is one of the greats.
Don’t expect it to be like other ski areas you’ve visited, though. Chamonix looks and feels like a workaday town, rather than a ski resort, and its satellite villages stretch for miles up and down a vast valley. The lift system does the same – with big, impassable gaps in between. Whatever you do here – whether it’s cruising the pistes or plunging down couloirs – you’re going to spend time commuting.
For intermediate skiers, this is a royal pain in the a*se: it’s fine for a weekend, but for a longer stay the bitty-ness of it will bug you. For those who’ve come for the rough stuff, however, it’s just part and parcel of the experience. The terrain here is just too good for it to matter.
Here’s an example of what we’re talking about, courtesy of the absurdly talented guide and film-maker Seb Montaz-Rosset. Check out one of the many videos he’s posted from Chamonix.
In Chamonix you can party as hard as you can ski – mainly on two streets: rue Docteur Paccard and rue des Moulins, and when it comes to eating out the buzzing town offers everything from McDonalds to blow-the-budget gastrodomes. On the mountain it’s a different story, and it’s been said that the best Chamonix lunch comes out of a rucksack. That said, there are a few atmospheric places in which to take a break from the rough and tough skiing.
But Chamonix is not just for skiing – bizarrely, it’s also a good choice for non-skiers too, as there are plenty of other activities on offer here. You can take a trip on the Montenvers Mer de Glace cog railway or up the Aiguille du Midi cable-car for spectacular views. You can paraglide, horse-ride, go husky-sledding, or just walk. You can even try virtual climbing – thanks to the Tairraz Exhibition Centre (+33 450 55 53 93). It has an interactive exhibition where you can experience the sensation of mountaineering, discovering the five major summits of the Alps using mountaineering equipment.