The Chamonix valley is long, high and steep, but the lift system gives access only to small bits of it. This isn’t a problem if you’re tackling the big off-piste descents for which it’s so deservedly famous. But it will frustrate you if you’re used to the seamless on-piste cruising of resorts like Courchevel and Tignes.
These are the main sectors:
1. Aiguille du Midi cable-car: leaving from the southern end of Chamonix, and rising to 3842m, it gives access to the celebrated 22km Vallee Blanche glacier run, through staggeringly beautiful scenery. What’s more, the classic route is an easy ski, once you’ve hiked down from the cable-car. See our Intermediate and Advanced sections for more.
2. Le Brevent and La Flegere: two separate, south-facing areas above Chamonix – which are linked by cable-car. There are some nice pistes here, though most are fairly short, and there are queues for the lifts at weekends. There’s good powder skiing/boarding here after a snowfall, too: Le Brevent has the steeper stuff, La Flegere the more rolling terrain.
3. Les Grands Montets: the most popular sector for lift-serviced off-piste, and one of the world’s greatest ski mountains. The pistes here are long, and snowsure – but what makes this place famous are the big, backcountry descents such as the Pas de Chevre. For steep on-piste skiing, this is the place to head – notably for the two blacks, Point de Vue and Pylones. When linked to the Pierre a Ric red to the valley floor, either will make for a superb and thigh-bursting 2035m descent.
4. Le Tour and Vallorcine: known as La Domaine de Balme, is up against the Swiss border, at the far end of the Chamonix Valley. There’s a lot of new building going on in Vallorcine, and new infrastructure is being added on the mountain – though there are still some drag-lifts around too. The area offers some good novice terrain, some rewarding runs on the Col de Balme and great tree-skiing down into Vallorcines. You need to be very careful off-piste, however, because of the avalanche risk. “It’s full of wind-slabs,” says guide Roland Stieger, who’s worked in the valley for 25 years. “It’s the place I am most tense when I ski.”
5. Les Houches: at the Geneva end of the valley, and home to the valley’s World Cup downhill race course (the Kandahar). It’s very low-altitude for these globally-warmed times, but the runs are tree-lined, and it’s the best place to ski when it’s snowing hard.
Chamonix for intermediates
Lots of Chamonix’s on-piste skiing is excellent in places, but broken up into itty-bitty packets, with boring commutes (by a free shuttle bus service) and/or lift queues in between. We wouldn’t recommend it for a whole week, but for a weekend – provided you don’t mind riding the buses, it’s okay.
Of all the areas, La Domaine de Balme, above the village of Le Tour is the best place to cut the corduroy, on well-groomed and snowsure pistes. There’s a good mix of open and tree-lined terrain here too – the only drawback being the bus ride from Chamonix to get there (in fact, if all you want to do is ski them, you should consider staying in Le Tour or Vallorcine rather than in the main town).
The Vallee Blanche
Chamonix is dominated by the 3842m Aiguille du Midi, reached by cable-car from the southern side of town. This is the starting point for the famous Vallee Blanche, a glorious 22km descent past yawning crevasses and house-sized seracs (ice boulders) all the way back to Chamonix. Anyone who can ski parallel, has a head for heights, and can handle the odd mogul and patch of ice can tackle it – but a guide is essential.
The worst bit, by far, is the start. To get down to from the cable-car station, you have to walk down a long series of ice steps cut into the spine of ridge. They’re not in themselves always difficult, but the 2000m sheer drop to your left gives plenty of people the wobbles.
After that, the easiest of the four routes is surprisingly flat – too flat, in fact, for snowboarders – and the only real distractions from the stunning scenery are the crowds, and the variable snow conditions (don’t come here when the snow is thin).
Freestyle is not what Chamonix is about
There’s a small terrain park at Les Bossons, on the road out of town towards Les Houches, and another on the Grands Montets. But for the most part, if anyone’s catching air here, it’s on natural lips and rollers on the mountains. La Flegere is a favourite sector of the lift system amongst the big-air brigade. However, just because it’s underused, that doesn’t mean the terrain park is entirely bereft of talent.
Experimenting with new terrain?
We still think there are other resorts – Verbier, Val d’Isere, Tignes, Jackson Hole, for example – which provide a better environment for advanced (but not expert) skiers. But there’s a lot to be said for the inspiration Chamonix’s stunning scenery and adventurous spirit can provide.
There’s plenty of easily-accessed off-piste here too, notably above the Lognan cable-car station, though it’s skied out in an instant after a snowfall, and quickly becomes a vast mogul field. If what you’re after is easy powder to experiment on, then you’re better off over in the Flegere sector.
One of the great testing-grounds of ski talent
Chamonix’s sky-high reputation is thoroughly deserved. It’s a shame there’s so much competition for fresh tracks on a powder day, but it’s no surprise, given the quality of the runs on offer. If you’re coming here for the first time, there’s only one rule: hire a guide. No amount of reading is going to prepare you for the challenges that await. When you do, make sure he/she has the gold-standard UIAGM qualification – and is therefore allowed to take you skiing on glaciers.