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Chamonix, France

Chamonix, France

The typical Chamonix day? There isn't just one. Chamonix's appeal is anything but North American in style.
By Susan Reifer Ryan
posted: 01/28/2008

Set at the foot of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak, Chamonix was once a quiet French provincial farming village rich only in its surrounding landscape. These days it's a bustling mini-city that attracts ski bums, rock rats and adrenaline junkies the way Hollywood attracts aspiring stars. And while it's true that le ski extreme was born here in the 1970s, when some gutsy Frenchmen developed a technique that would allow them to ski the radically steep, narrow and exposed off-piste terrain that surrounds Chamonix in abundance, it's also true that skiers of all levels find themselves loving Chamonix without getting anywhere near "you fall, you die territory.

Chamouney, as it was originally called, is tucked into the Eastern border of France, abutting both Italy and Switzerland, a short 50 miles from Geneva on major highways. Mont Blanc rises more than 12,000 feet above town, crowning an upthrust of land called the Mont Blanc Massif - 18 miles long by eight miles wide and covered with more than 50 square miles of glaciers.

A typical Chamonix day? There isn't just one. Chamonix is so dynamic that everyone - international freeriders with fat skis and fatter attitudes, Londoners with winter chalets, fifth-generation local hoteliers and even first-timers - thinks he's having a typical Chamonix day. But Chamonix's broad appeal, while undeniably magnetic, is anything but North American in style.

Chamonix's four main ski areas and three lesser ones are scattered along the 10-mile length of the valley. The diverse array includes nursery slopes for beginners at Le Savoy, La Vormaine and Les Planards; intermediate pistes rolling through mid-elevation bowls at Domaine de Balme and Flégère; bump runs at Brevent and Grand Montets; treeskiing at Vallorcine; and big untamed mountain faces, couloirs and the popular glacial excursion from the dizzying summit of the Aiguille du Midi through the spectacular Vallée Blanche. While covered under a single ski pass, the areas are neither contiguous nor conveniently interconnected. Some lifts are new and fast, but just as many are old and slow. Some queues are nonexistent (even on a sunny powder day) while others - particularly at the upper tram at Grand Montets - are excessively long.

The title of mountain guide is the highest honor in the valley - and visiting the Mer de Glace, France's biggest glacier, in the company of one such guide remains the quintessential Chamonix experience. Most skiers do this by riding a two-stage cable car more than 9,000 vertical feet up to the Aiguille du Midi (the "needle of high noon), which is capped by an even more vertiginous tower and viewing platform. Here, packs of tourists lean into the wind and peer over the edge as skiers, roped to their guides, begin the slippery, meticulous walk down the curving, knife-edge pathway that leads off the rock. The main ski route winds 10 miles down the gentler slopes of the dramatic "white valley, dodging crevasses amidst a panorama of rippled glacial wilds and granite towers before eventually joining with the Mer de Glace. Even with several thousand others making their way down the same valley at the same time, a tour of the Vallée Blanche is an exceptional experience.

But so is walking through downtown Chamonix as alpenglow kisses the already rosy Aiguille Rouge or eating a late lunch of croute au fromage with a glass of mondeuse at a crêmerie hidden in the woods. Chamonix is the birthplace of both skiing in the Alps and the Olympic Winter Games, and it's easy to understand why. Some of Chamonix's exceptional experiences are easier to survive than others, but none are easy to forget.

Chamonix is a bustling place that manages to serve a broad spectrum of ski society. The cobbled pedestrian center and its patchwork architecture is fun to explore, and delivers lodgings from elegant four-stars to hostels where skiers stack four to a room. Food ranges from haute gastronomie at Hameau Albert 1er to boeuf du jour at McDonald's. In some corners of the valley, sipping wine while reading in front of a fireplace is ample après - but in downtown Cham après can mean hundreds of revelers spilling out of a double-decker bar while a live band rocks the street.

Skiing Snapshot
Intermediates can explore the pistes at Domaine de Balme, Flégère and Grand Montets on their own, but be wary of gridlock in the line-ups for the Grand Montets trams. Don't step off-piste without avalanche safety gear. Advanced and expert skiers should hire a mountain guide from Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix ( target=_blank> for the duration of their trip.

Ultimate Adventure
Tap Denis LeRoi or Christophe Duscastel for a descent of the Pas de Chèvre, arguably Chamonix's most distinguished off-piste route.

Hameau Albert 1er, Chamonix's finest (from $355, target=_blank>; Grand Hotel des Alpes, newly renovated and in the center of town (from $370, target=_blank>; Hotel Excelsior, a three-star in a quiet area (from $96; target=_blank> All prices are per room, double occupancy.

On Mountain: La Crêmerie du Glacier, famous for their croute au fromage and local wine; La Bergerie de Planpraz, a rustic cafe at Brevent (avoid the cafeterias).
In Town: Hameau Albert 1er, order the tasting menu at this Michelin two-star; La Caleche, a local fave.

Micro Brasserie de Chamonix; No Escape; L'Aventure; La Terrasse

Local Secret
The upper slopes at Grand Montets often open late after storms. Hit the lower mountain early and be prepared to jump in line.

Getting There
Fly to Geneva, rent a car and drive one hour on major highways. The ski areas are not convenient to most lodging, so renting a car is essential.

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