LA POUDRE BLANCHE DE CHAMONIX
Published: July 2005
Chamonix is a bustling town in the French Alps that's been attracting mountain visitors since the late 19th century when a group of scientists began researching in the region and put the place on the map. Prestigious names such as the Deluc Brothers, Vallot, and Pasteur all contributed to the reputation and subsequent fame of the town; it now boasts over ten thousand residents of around 40 different nationalities. Chamonix itself lies in the Chamonix Valley, which stretches 20 kilometers from the Mont Blanc mountain range in the south to the Aiguilles Mountains in the north. During the peak summer months the town's population balloons as up to one hundred thousand visitors pass through each day. Even in the "low" winter season, around sixty thousand ski and snowboard enthusiasts per day flock to the area.
The main draw is the spectacular alpine peaks towering over Chamonix. These are home to some of the finest and most challenging mountain climbing in the world. The headline act is Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak. It towers at a staggering 4807 meters above sea level. Even using the easiest summer route, a climb to the top takes a full two days, climbers camp halfway up just below the snowline and glacier.
Any effort expended on the ascent is amply repaid once you reach the summit. Weather permitting, the vistas are without doubt "totally" awesome. Rugged peaks and deep valleys stretch off in all directions, into three countries; Italy, France and Switzerland. This is one ascent for the experienced mountain climber and not the faint hearted. More than a thousand people have perished on Mont Blanc's slopes. But there's also a wealth of easier climbs, each one unique, which can be accessed from various points throughout the valley offering an ideal beginner's experience for those still gaining the confidence and skill required to take on "La Dame Blanche". Each summer the Tour de France heads to the Chamonix area, setting some of cycling's most gruelling tests, and of course, when the winter snow drifts in, so do hoards of powder lovers, carving up the mountains, both on and off the piste.
Winter sports are far more my cup of tea than donning a set of crampons and hauling myself over cliff faces. In fact, it's true to say that I find the time spent on chair lifts can be as enjoyable as some of the runs back down. The slow draw up the mountain gives skiers and riders the chance to relax and enjoy the vistas, and it's definitely an easier way of getting to a glacier than walking! Each time I take a chair lift I can't help but be impressed by the views, and even if you can't, won't or don't "do" skiing, at least take a lift up, savour the experience, take a few photos, and then get the lift back down (remember to check that your chosen lift allows return trips, otherwise it may be a long and slippery walk back!) You won't regret it.
There are a total of 11 ski areas in the Chamonix region. Le Tour has the bulk of the easier slopes with more testing pistes to be found in all of the others. Typically, the runs are high, (usually above the tree line) long, and steep, so if you like your snow and scenery wild, then this is definitely the right resort for you. Valle Blanche is the must see area. It has ample crevasses, ice and seracs, and offers views of spectacular rock spires in the distance. The run is exceptionally long at 24 kilometers but generally isn't steep and so is well within the limits of a confident intermediate. Do be warned though, that on busy days the crowds can drive you insane so either book in advance with a guided group (this is especially recommended to ensure you avoid the lurking crevasses), or head out early. It's also worth saving this run for those days when the snow's particularly good. Otherwise it can be rocky and icy.
Another favorite run in the area is the Kandahar, part of the World Cup Circuit. This long black run tests the best and offers some excellent off-piste tree skiing either side of the main piste. After a particularly handsome dump of snow I strapped on my board and took on the run accompanied by Jason from AlpEscape on skis. We opted to try out an off piste line under one of the chair lifts slightly too quickly, and gave the passengers above plenty to jeer at as we bounced off rock after rock before ending up buried to the hips in fine powder. Trying to unbind a board and seek out firmer land is a real challenge in these conditions and it's fair to say that we actually had to swim out of it at times! Unfazed and keen for more we re-ran the run with equal pleasure and slightly better balance - who says boarders and skiers can't ride together?!
Chamonix sits in the middle of the valley, with satellite villages Le Tour at one end and Les Houches at the other. Amenities and mountain access are divided between them.
Chamonix's by far the biggest of the three and offers the widest range of shopping, entertainment and information. Regular buses connect the satellite villages and people often have to commute to visit their chosen piece of mountain each day. Road access and public transport ensure all areas are well covered, so selecting your base has become more about comfort than proximity to the action. There's a choice of nearly 65,000 tourist beds in the area so visitors on any budget are catered for. Camping's always been a hit with outdoor enthusiasts and Chamonix can accommodate over 4000 people. Other options include self-catering apartments, which guarantee freedom but aren't necessarily suited to individuals or couples hoping to make new friends. Hotels of all standards are available providing a typically high level of service and facilities, but sometimes at the expense of informality. My personal favourite that offers something in the middle between a hotel and the self-catering experience is a catered chalet. True, some are self-catering but why not indulge in a spot of pampering? Fully catered for, you can combine your testing outdoor days on the mountain with lazy nights spent in front of the fire while your meals are carefully prepared and lovingly served up. The catered chalet consisting of breakfast, a three or four course dinner with wine included, and of course homemade tasty cakes at teatime, is proving a real hit.
Discussing your day on the slopes with like-minded people over a glass of wine simply adds an air of homeliness to the mix. There is a whole range of chalets to choose from, varying in size, facilities and price. My tip is make sure your chalet offers guiding, airport transfers and guests who speak a common language!
I tried out Chamonix with AlpEscape, staying at Chalet Shiraz in Les Houches. Run by Jason and Lisa, AlpEscape caters for those wanting luxury, comfort and quality service on their alpine conquest. All of the rooms are modern and spacious, and they come en-suite. Satellite television, modern computer gaming and a selection of traditional games will keep younger visitors entertained while all guests will enjoy a dip in the outdoor hot tub, especially on those cold, snowy evenings. If you're feeling really brave then a quick dive in the snow on the way out should leave you suitably refreshed! Meals are well presented and informal, a chat over a Genepi (a French alpine liqueur) in front of the open log fire is the perfect way to round off yet another magnificent day in the Alps.
When you wake next morning and head off for another strenuous day in mountains, your home-from-home behind you, Europe's tallest peaks may seem like just a walk in the (albeit a very big one!) park.
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LA POUDRE BLANCHE DE CHAMONIX
Ged Cleugh is one of our most experienced producers. Ever the adventure traveller, he takes on the projects in the farthest reaches of the planet. From the Amazon to the Nile to the Mekong by boat, train and chopper if there’s action to be had then he’s there. Ged’s worked in temperatures from +50°C to -121°C and loves pushing technological boundaries to bring the exotic and remote back on film. His scariest moment? Sleeping in a tent surrounded by lions, crocs and hippos in Mozambique.