Just the abbreviation (bro-breviation? brah-breviation?) of the place—”Cham”—is guaranteed to elicit one of a few basic responses. People who have been usually just nod their heads and take a breath, as if to say, “Yes, I know. It’s rad.” Skiers who have yet to visit the place may express awe, intimidation, or eye-rolling. “Yes, we’ve heard… it’s rad.”
Before I had been to Chamonix, my perception of the place secretly alternated between thinking it was probably overhyped and wondering if I would pee my pants with fright upon exiting the Aiguille du Midi. But what I actually experienced during two trips, skiing with friends who lived there and others who spend lots of time there, made me a convert. It was more approachable, less intimidating, and more amazing and mind-blowing than I ever thought it could be.
1. It’s not a ski area
It’s actually something like eight different ski areas if you count the beginner hills. Chamonix is the valley, and within that miles-long valley, the Chamonix-Mont Blanc Company operates six main spots—all massive resorts worth checking out. Le Tour/Balme or Vallorcine is way up valley, and tends to have lots of tourists and piste-skiers and lots of wide open off-piste. The Brevent is classic Chamonix, with easy access from town to amazing views and south-facing corn, plus lots of cliffs and lines of every possible size you can scout from the lifts. It’s connected to Flegere which has similar terrain and possibly the most ski tourers I have ever seen in one spot heading up above the top Poma. The Grand Montets is stunning, with huge, long glacier runs, tree skiing and massive vert—if you had to pick one for purely fun skiing this might be it, although the Brevent would be a close second. Les Houches is further down valley and I haven’t skied it, but it’s supposed to be great, and I would imagine has less tourists. The Aiguille du Midi is the crazy tram to the pinnacled peak that you always see photos of, and this is the one where you need a guide and all the requisite hardwear.
2. The Aiguille du Midi isn’t really a ski lift
The two gravity-defying trams were built by the French government as a tourist attraction in 1955, and it just so happens that they top out at 12,600 feet in one of the most spectacular mountain settings anywhere. Because the French are so laissez-faire, they allow you to bring skis up if you so choose. Something like if Seattle let you go up the Space Needle and paraglide off.
3. Normal, fun, low-consequence skiing does exist
One tends to equate Chamonix with the super-gnar—rappeling into lines over exposure, crevasses at every turn, harness and crampons required—but you can actually go there, ride lifts and ski trees, powder, and corn without risking wreckless endangerment. Sure, you want to be heads up and use common sense: pay a few bucks extra to get the Carte Neige (rescue insurance) and put the heli number in your phone, never follow tracks unless you know exactly where they go (even if there are fifty tracks as those people may have been all guided with harnesses and ropes), don’t duck ropes and treat off-piste as if it is the backcountry (beacon, probe, shovel, partner, knowledge). Everyone always says to hire a guide; if you can swing the cost for even one day—your first day there or a bluebird powder day—it will pay off exponentially. But you could also stay entirely on-piste and on marked runs and still have an amazing time, as evidenced by the bazillions of European families there on vacation, doing just that.
4. When you want to go isn’t necessarily when you want to go
Chamonix is a tourist mecca and can get crazy overrun during the high season. It pays to do research—early season, not everything might be open. Holidays are crazy. The first half of January is usually pretty mellow and then it’s hit and miss for a month or two depending on various European vacation weeks and holidays. Spring can be incredible and far less crowded.
5. The free buses aren’t actually free!
I have been to Chamonix twice now, both times without a car, and have stayed a 15-minute walk out of town and managed to be fine walking or bussing it everywhere, with the exception of one rather uncomfortable late-night walk home in ski boots with all my gear after missing the last “nuit bus.” I just planned a few extra minutes in the morning, studied the bus schedule, stayed patient and got everywhere I needed to go, all the while marveling at how cool it was that they offered this free bus service. You can ski down a different valley than the one you came up and just hop a bus back. What a country!
Turns out, you’re actually supposed to buy a bus pass for a few Euros a week and they can check for passes at any time. Whoops! Ignorance and English as a first language are bliss.
6. A semi-budget trip is conceivable
Yes, it’s a high-end tourist destination for uber-wealthy Russians, and there’s five-star everything, but for every fur-covered czaress parading the cobblestones, there’s a dreadlocked Brit sharing a flat with five others and skiing every single day on scavenged equipment. Hostels, buses, and delicious and filling French “fast food” (such as Beluga, which serves massive sandwiches with French delights like Montrachet cheese and veggies squashed between grilled bread, meat and french fries optional) fuel the ski bum undercurrent here. Really, the only cost that can’t be avoided is the high ticket and pass prices. Supposedly if you arrive later in the season you could ask around and buy someone else’s pass who has left for the year—but I have honestly never done that and you didn’t hear it from me.
7. The biggest hazard might not actually be the mountains
Last time I was there, we were cautiously descending the arete off the Aiguille du Midi, a knife-edge ridge with exposure on either sides, using crampons and axes. We glanced behind us to see a dude in sunglasses and rear-entry boots, no crampons or gear with his skis over his shoulder, followed by his friend in a similar get-up, but moving even slower and sitting on his butt because he was wearing snowboard boots. They looked about as competent as newborn cows on ice skates, and we were right in their line of fire should they fall. My friend Stian began firmly and politely asking them to stop and wait in both English and French but they feigned ignorance and kept proceeding every time we faced forward. Stian became more adamant and they gave us a bit more space until eventually the one guy slipped and fell and somehow managed to stop himself right above a crevasse 20 feet below. That seemed to sober them up and they waited until we were safely out of their way. By the time we had our skis on and were dropping in, a line of 50 or so people was backed up behind these guys still inching their way down. If someone nearby is acting unsafely and it could potentially affect you, don’t hesitate to say something.
8. French people aren’t snobs; they are actually quite nice
Especially if you attempt a few French words… Ok, so even then they aren’t going to knock you over with Southern-style hospitality, but I chalk our perception of French rudeness up to a simple cultural difference: they just don’t take things so personally. We North Americans care a lot what others think of us and are quick to view a restaurant meal or grocery-checkout interaction as an opportunity to connect with another person; French people just see it as a business transaction. If someone tries to cut a powder day liftline on our continent, feelings get hurt and words might potentially be exchanged—that’s enough to even piss off a Canadian. Whereas in Europe, whoever wants it the most gets it, pure and simple, and chucking a few elbows is just part of the game. No hard feelings necessary. That grizzled old French guide who nudged you out for first tram certainly doesn’t have any—he’s planning to have a coffee, pull his one-piece out of his ass crack and get on with his day, preferably shredding the gnar with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and hair in the wind, and then make out with a Russian princess later on. C’est la vie.