Expert guide to Chamonix
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Europe’s long-lasting favourite
Chamonix has been at the sharp end of Alpine adventure since 1760, when a Genevois scientist offered a prize for the first ascent of its famous local mountain – Mont Blanc, 4,807m, the highest in the Alps. The resort had its first growth spurt in the Victorian era, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and has re-emerged on the freeride wave as the capital of all-mountain skiing and snowboarding, especially for experts.
Inside the resort . . .
With a resort height of 1,035m and a top lift at 3,842m, the range of skiing on offer in at Chamonix is exceptional and versatile – long runs below the tree line offer good sport in bad weather, and big glacier runs at high altitude are often at their best in April. This is a landscape built on a heroic scale that makes other resorts seem tame by comparison.
Chamonix resort itself is a busy town of 9,000 permanent residents at the foot of Mont Blanc, just below the French entrance to the Mont Blanc road tunnel. While it can’t be described as a tranquil Alpine retreat – a steady stream of heavy trucks schlepping up through the hairpins does nothing for the mountain ambience or the air quality – Chamonix’s setting beneath the cliffs and tumbling glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif is tremendous.
The town’s old buildings have kept their sedate Victorian and more fanciful Belle Epoque look and, since the centre is traffic-free, it offers pleasant strolling, with cafés overhanging the river Arve’s torrent and a wealth of interesting shops – galleries, bookshops and speciality food, as well as souvenirs and the latest technical snow-sports clothing and hardware.
Since its four separate ski areas are spread out along the valley, making the most of Chamonix requires planning and some patience with bus rides and queues – but its long descents are ample reward. Being within an hour of Geneva airport means it makes a good destination for a weekend too.
Chamonix’s smaller villages, such as Les Houches, Argentière and Vallorcine, offer access to the same top-quality slopes but a quieter place to stay. The extensive Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass covers more slopes than the other option, Le Pass, including resorts such as Courmayeur through the Mont Blanc tunnel in Italy and Verbier in Switzerland.
On the slopes . . .
Navigate Chamonix’s ski area with our insider’s knowledge of the local slopes and beyond, on and off piste, ski schools and terrain parks.
Chamonix gives access to not one top-class ski area, but three, at least. Opting for the Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass rather than more limited Le Pass also covers the resort’s fourth main area, Les Houches, and the Aiguille du Midi lift from the centre of town to the shoulder of Mont Blanc. What’s more, Megève and Saint-Gervais in France and Courmayeur in Italy are also covered, with a 50 per cent price reduction for Verbier in Switzerland.
Half a dozen smaller, easy resorts along the Chamonix valley are also covered by both passes. Le Pass best suits novices unless staying in Les Houches. Its small local ski area has its own lift pass as well as being part of the Unlimited pass. Le Pass can be upgraded to an Unlimited pass at any time by paying the difference.
Chamonix’s revival owes much to the opening of the Argentière/Les Grands Montets sector back in 1963. The top of the Grands Montets ski area is an immense freeride playground, much of it glacier, punctuated by two long black pistes of 1,300m vertical back to the mid-station, Lognan, and 2,000m vertical for the full descent down to the valley.
Those who want to get to the off-piste on the Argentière glacier can access the area under their own steam from the top of the Bochard gondola. The 250m of vertical ascent takes approximately one hour using touring skins.
Bochard and the other Grands Montets lift above Lognan, the Herse chair, themselves serve terrific terrain, including a few groomed intermediate pistes, and there is a dedicated beginner area at Lognan, but this is not a mountain for easy cruising. The red run down from Lognan to the valley, Pierre à Ric, is great in the morning, when hardly anyone uses it, less enjoyable from mid-afternoon, when it’s packed.
The Brévent-Flégère sector on the sunny side of the Chamonix valley, accessed by gondola from Chamonix to Brévent or Les Praz to Flégère, is a game of two halves. Each half has a broad fan of intermediate pistes above steep forest, with a single black run down to the valley, marked on the map but rarely open. A new Flégère gondola opened in 2019, replacing an old cable-car.
A flat two-way linking lift near the treeline, Liaison, connects the Brévent and Flégère sectors, the whole being a splendid wide-open space for sunny cruising with classic views of the Mont Blanc-scape. Many keen adrenalin-junkies who obsess about Argentière spend hours queuing when they could be enjoying great conditions in this sector – powder, spring snow or groomed corduroy pistes depending on the time of year and time of day.
The two-stage cable car from Chamonix town to Plan de l’Aiguille (2,170m) and Aiguille du Midi (3,842m) is an engineering marvel and sightseeing highlight in itself. The famous Vallée Blanche run (an unmarked, unmaintained, unpatrolled off-piste itinerary route) runs from here back down through the glaciers to Chamonix, and delivers some of the most spectacular scenery the Mont Blanc range has to offer.
It starts with an exposed ridge walk and often finishes at the longer, steep stairway up to the Montenvers railway back to Chamonix. If snow conditions are particularly good, it may be possible to continue down through the woods to the Planards chairlift. The run itself is a long scenic cruise with a few tight sections between gaping crevasses – fairly easy, but dangerous. There are more challenging routes down the Vallée Blanche, but even for the main so-called tourist route, it’s advisable to go with a guide.
Balme-Vallorcine is an M-shaped area with gentle open slopes and reliable snow at the head of the valley, ideal for confidence building and entry-level off piste. Balme is accessed via gondola from La Tour, between Chamonix and Argentière, with an easy link to the attractive woodland runs and more rugged terrain above the village of Vallorcine.
Les Houches has long runs through the woods of a kind more often associated with Austria, including La Verte – Chamonix’s World Cup downhill race course. Although it’s graded black, it’s not especially difficult unless taken at downhill racing speed. There is also a top-to-bottom blue run, Aillouds, but the terrain is essentially intermediate, with good lunch options. The trees lining the runs also help with visibility on snowy days.
Who should go?
Ski instructors and mountain guides come here to qualify, and every dedicated skier and snowboarder has its challenges on their bucket list. But there are nursery slopes and blissful fast-cruising pistes as well as all the rough stuff, and the stunningly scenic 20km Vallée Blanche off-piste run is doable by confident intermediates as well as experts. The resort is also popular for those looking for a weekend break in the mountains, due to its proximity to Geneva.
Know before you go . . .
Ambulance (samu): dial 15
Police: dial 17
Fire (pompiers): dial 18
Emergency services from mobile phone: dial 112
Tourist office: See chamonix.com, the website for the Chamonix Mont Blanc Tourist Board, for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from the main office in the centre of Chamonix or at one of the smaller bases in the satellite villages.
Telephone code: from abroad, dial 00 33, then leave off the zero at the start of the 10-figure number.
Time difference: +1 hour
Local laws & etiquette
- When greeting people, formal titles (Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle) are used much more in French than in English.
- The laws of vouvoiement (which version of “you” to use) take years to master. If in doubt – except when talking to children or animals – always use the formal vous form (second person plural) rather than the more casual tu.
- When driving, it’s compulsory to keep fluorescent bibs and a hazard triangle in the car in case of breakdown.