Skiing Chamonix, France: History of a Skiers Paradise
The mystique of Chamonix, captured in photographs and vintage ski posters, reflects the ruggedly spectacular scenery and over 200 years of mountaineering history. The legendary Mont Blanc peak draws climbers and sightseers while the picturesque town, complete with babbling river, provides an excellent base for skiing and snowboarding on the surrounding slopes.
The Chamonix Valley was settled by mountain farmers when two Englishmen “discovered” it in 1741. The stories of their travels sparked a new interest among Europeans to experience this scenic paradise in person. The first guest house was opened in 1770 and the first luxury hotel was built in 1816. The village of Chamonix has come a long way since then. While the year-round population is about 10,000, the village opens itself for up to 60,000 guests in the winter and 100,000 during the summer season.
The scenic Chamonix Valley, known as the “Cradle of Mountaineering,” is nestled among some of the highest mountain peaks in the Alps, including the Mont Blanc massif (4,810 meters/15,632 feet). The valley is situated in the crossroads of three countries. It’s just a 25-minute trip to Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel and about the same amount of time from Chamonix to Switzerland traveling over the Col des Montets.
Skiers and snowboarders have the run of 145 trails adding up to 140 kilometers (87.5 miles). Forty-nine percent of the area’s trails are marked for beginners. The best areas for children and beginners include La Vormaine, Les Chosalets, Le Savoy, and Les Planards. Fifty-two percent of trails are best suited for intermediates. The La Tour and Les Houches areas provide good intermediate terrain as well as the more difficult Les Grands Montets, Le Brevent, and La Flégère ski areas. While only 12 percent of trails are designated for experts, the off-trail terrain is extensive. Locals recommend skiing off-trail only with a guide, though. The Les Grands Montets area offers some steep vertical drops and spectacular glacier skiing. Recently, upgrades have been completed replacing double-seater lifts with quad lifts in the new parking area in Le Brévant.
Snowboarders flock to Chamonix for on and off-trail thrills. The Argentière and the Grand Montets provide a challenge for advanced boarders. Chamonix is recommended for experienced boarders rather than beginners. The Le Tour area has a natural half-pipe and at Grands Montets there is a snowpark and a half-pipe. Cross-country skiers have 45 kilometers (28 miles) of trails to explore in two scenic areas designated for classical and skating style skiing. One runs through the Argentière and the other area starts from the center of Chamonix.
Chamonix is well-known for its good ski schools. One of the most popular is the Ecole du Ski Français. Not just beginners benefit from the ski schools as there are specialized courses in ski touring, glacier and couloir skiing, off-trail, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. The Ski Assis Evasion and the Association Handi-challenge are ski schools for the disabled.
Non-ski activities abound at Chamonix and include snowmobiling, ice climbing (also best done with a guide), ice hiking, snowshoeing, sleigh riding, and dog sledding, among others. Snow hikers can explore trails from the foot of the Drus, La Verte, and Les Grande Jorasses peaks. From the arrival station, visitors can see the crystal gallery, the Alpine fauna exhibition, and the ice grotto.
Those who would like to do a little sightseeing in the area may want to visit the Alpine Museum and the Mont Blanc Observatory. Take an unforgettable cable car ride to the Aiguille du Midi (which rises to the elevation 3,482 meters/11,316 feet). A red cog-wheel train climbs to the scenic Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) glacier. There are historic churches and villages nearby to explore and with more than 280 shops and boutiques in Chamonix, there’s lots of shopping to be done. On March 1, 2006 adults and children will dress up and parade through the streets of Chamonix to celebrate carnival week.
Après-ski is an art form in Chamonix. Restaurants, cafés, pubs, bars, and even a casino fill time not spent on the slopes. There are more than 100 restaurants in Chamonix and 14 mountain restaurants. Choices range from the Chalet le Cerro, a quaint wooden chalet serving traditional foods of the region with a view of Les Bossons glacier, to L’Eden which serves classic French food with a modern twist. Cafés offering a fantastic array of pastries should not be missed. The Casino of Chamonix is popular with both visitors and locals. A free restaurant guide is available at the Chamonix tourist office.
It is no surprise that Chamonix continues to be one of the most popular ski resorts in the Alps. With the combination of exceptional winter sports opportunities and the beauty of this high-altitude alpine town, it is hard to beat. Not to mention the parties . . .