Ten minutes from café to adventure: a place like this leaves a mark on you.
Late on my third day in Chamonix, I stabbed myself in the mouth with my ski pole. Not the way you might think, in a dramatic fall down a glacier or couloir. Nope, I was in my room at the Hotel Prieuré, getting up to go pee in the dark of night when I tripped on an ottoman and face-planted into my backcountry pack, to which I had strapped my collapsible trekking poles, ferrules up, for a ski tour the next day in Courmayeur, Italy, just through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Cham.
I felt carbide tearing through lip flesh and lurched to the bathroom, expecting bone, but it was actually just a small slice on my lower lip.
Turned out we wouldn’t ski-tour after all. The late-March warmth had rendered Courmayeur’s south-facing slopes dangerous. Just as well. It meant another day in the famed Vallée Blanche with my friends Hervé and Renée—who, when I met them for café au lait and croissants in the morning, accused me of having gotten into a bar fight.
Draining a flank of Mont Blanc, the 13-mile-long Vallée Blanche is the classic run at France’s best-known ski destination, and skiers get there by riding the world’s most famous lift, the tram to the iconic Aiguille du Midi. Exit the tram and survey the yawning glacial valleys and impossibly serrated ridges and you know you ain’t in the Rockies anymore. Though we weren’t touring, my mountaineering gear wasn’t out of place. About every third tram rider had AT gear, including a harness—mandatory equipment in Chamonix’s glaciated terrain.
The topographical drama of the French Alps is hard to sense from the quiet valley floor. Cham feels like a classic alpine town, with its narrow, cobbled alleys and its train-station clock (which is instantly familiar to American fans of Greg Stump ski films). Walk the streets, though, and you’ll see plenty of evidence that the town sits squarely in contemporary ski culture. Young freeriders crowd the bars, shouting in English, French and Swedish.
That afternoon, after following Hervé and Renée through the powdery uppers of the Vallée, I sipped tea on the deck of an ancient stone refuge perched on the glacier’s edge. They smoked roll-your-owns while I kicked back in the sunshine, loosened my boots and applied extra sunscreen to my lower lip.
Your choice, from modest to five-star. Hotel Prieuré is a clean, convenient option that won’t break your budget. Tip: Don’t expect complimentary internet anywhere.
EAT & DRINK
Cosmopolitan Cham offers varied cuisines, from local baked-cheese-and-ham establishments to sushi at intimate, family-owned Satsuki.
Chambre Neuf is Cham’s legendary rowdy nightclub, with live music every day and a DJ spinning into the wee hours, but quiet glasses of wine can be enjoyed just about anywhere.