By Annie Fast and James Stentiford
Chamonix is tucked into the southeastern corner of France, just miles from northern Italy and Switzerland. Chamonix might just be the best resort destination in the world-big claim, but once you’ve been there you’ll agree. There’re four resorts in the deep valley of Chamonix: Les Tour, Grand Montets, Brevent, and Les Houches (not including the vast off-piste area accessed from Aiguille du Midi) each offering something completely different
You can’t actually ride Chamonix, unless of course you’re hitting rails in town, but the village is a destination of its own, filled with bars and discos popular with the die-hard shredders and packs of Swedish girls. Above it all, “Cham” has scenery to last a lifetime. Figure out a way to visit … and then figure out a way to stay.
Les Tour: This is the best place to go if it’s dumping in Chamonix, not because it’s the steepest, but because of the off-piste runs through the trees and mini cliff/bush jumps off the back. Hot lap it all day. Also, check out the natural pipes on the frontside or go for a little tour on the backside and shred the cattrack to Vallorcine and grab some lunch.
Summit elevation: 2,150 meters (7,053 feet)
Grand Montets: This is where freeriders can test their skills, but consider hiring a guide-venture off-piste, and you’re in crevasse country. The cable car takes you up 3,275 meters (10,744 feet) to the top of the Grand Montets, and the runs stretch out 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) back down, making for an epic powder-day scenario.
Summit elevation: 3,275 meters (10,744 feet)
Brevent/La Flegere: Take the cable car to the top-it’s usually above the clouds, and the 360 view with Mont Blanc is insane. There’re fun mini-hikes along the ridge above the runs, or take a mellow groomer down. If it’s getting too crowded, traverse over to Flagere to ride the off-piste bowls, trees, and hit some cattrack jumps.
Summit elevation: 2,525 meter (8,284 feet)
Les Houches: A little farther away than the other resorts, Les Houches is a beginner/intermediate place. It’s also good for weather days thanks to the tree runs. You can get here from a cable car in town center.
Summit elevation: 2,525 meters (8,284 feet)
Aiguille du Midi: This is the jewel in Chamonix’s crown. It’s Europe’s highest cable car at 3,890 meters, and it accesses miles of off-piste glaciated terrain including the option to ride 9,000 vertical feet in one run. If you’ve got some cash for a UIAGM guide, you can shred the Vallee Blanche. This’ll be one of those days you remember on your deathbed.
Summit elevation: 3,843 meter (12,608 feet)
Do This: Take the cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, have some hot chocolate, and walk around in awe. Also, be sure to wake up for first chair, which starts between 8:00-8:30 a.m. at most resorts.
Shreducation: Swedish college girls sleep six deep in condos in Chamonix Sud (south), so they can “study abroad” in Chamonix to “learn French.” You’ll see them out every night and on the slopes the next morning. You can’t miss them.
Deals: Cham’Ski packages are a good deal. Get a six-day pass for 181 euros and use it at all of the Chamonix resorts over the next seven days. Most importantly, you avoid standing in ticket lines and you also get two free tickets to the top of the Aiguille (not valid at Les Houches).
Don’t Do This: Avoid Chamonix during the month of February-France has rotating holiday weeks throughout the month and lift lines suck. Spring is best.
The local swimming pool complex is amazing, but most shredders steer clear. There’s a Speedo-only rule in effect, no boardshorts-so very French.
Food: The MBC, a Canadian owned microbrewery, has a great pub atmosphere with live music and a good menu. Midnight Express on the main walking street has cheap late-night sandwiches and burgers. Get your crepes at Creperie Gentiane. Grab a sandwich for a high-Alpine picnic at Mojo’s in the middle of the village-a way better option than dealing with the on-hill restaurants. If you want to do traditional French fondue, the Brasserie du Sport is the place for dinner. Casa Valerio, an Italian restaurant in the middle of town, has reasonable prices and the very best pizza.
Nightlife And Aprà¤s: Goophy’s bar is a good place to start or La Cantina for live music and Max, the best damn bartender. The Garage nightclub stays open after the bars have closed. Disco ’til dawn and still get fresh tracks.
Aprà¤s shred over by the Aguille and the train station at Elevation 1904-they have delicious paninis here, too.
Lodging: The Tourism Office in the center of the village can help you find available lodging. La Cantina and Le Vagabond both offer inexpensive hostel-style lodging with convenient in-house raging bars and good restaurants.
Getting Around: Chamonix has an elaborate bus system, so you won’t need a car … or want to deal with parking one here. When it’s time to leave, jump on a train to Geneva, or better yet, get an airport transfer on a bus service. The Tourism Office can help you here, too.
A Season In Chamonix: If you want to spend a season here, arrive early in November to give yourself a chance to find work and somewhere to live. The English chalet companies are a good source for jobs and some come with a bed. Apartments are hard to find in Cham and expensive-you just need to get lucky. It doesn’t matter when you buy your lift pass, it’ll cost the same-they don’t need to entice people here.
“Greeted by the massive dome of Mont Blanc, followed by the jagged peaks of the Aguille du Midi, Chamonix is like nowhere else on Earth. I’ve spent a long time here and my tick list is still a mile long. The possibilities are endless, from mellow powder slopes to 55-degree death couloirs that are only sometimes rideable. I find myself daydreaming about runs I’ve had up here even in the middle of summer. This place will get under your skin.”-James Stentiford
Tourism Office: +33-0-4-50-53-00-24
Web site: Chamonix.net
James Stentiford has been regularly racking up turns like this every day all season long for the last twelve seasons. Not bad.
Roxy girl Tina Birbaum chooses the most direct route into one of Cham’s many technical lines.
Imagine waking up to this beauty every morning-the Aiguille du Midi.
PHOTOS: Dan Milner