Located on the border of France, Switzerland and Italy, Chamonix is the original home of alpine sport. Since the 19th century, thrill seekers have sought adventure amongst its towering peaks, and tales of their daring climbs and first descents are the stuff of local legend. When entering the famous valley, views of flowing glaciers, steep mountain walls and of course Mont Blanc (4810 m) will not go unnoticed; this is a resort that looks like no other.
Having hosted the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, Chamonix developed a vast lift system operated by the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc Chamonix (or just ‘The Company’ as it is more ominously known) and now offers the full spectrum of riding, from easy to very extreme terrain. That said, many of its lifts are long in the tooth, and it is the gnarly side of Cham – epitomised by an insanely steep cable-car that sweeps you up a pinnacle of rock known as the Aiguille du Midi – for which the place is rightly famous. You know a resort must have some pretty special steeps when freeriders like Neil McNab and James Stentiford call it home.
THE PARKS – 2/5
Unlike places like Avoriaz or Breckenridge, Chamonix is not known for its freestyle. In recent years, however, Les Grand Montets has played host to the valley’s first snowpark. Maintained by H05 parks, it features some small and medium sized boxes, gaps and rails. You might call this an intermediate park as opposed to a pro park. There’s also a small park at Bellevue Les Houches, and another on the Brevent area. In reality that one is little more than an airbag, but they do claim to have a small 5-rail set-up as well. No matter what the park situation is, the bottom line remains; if reliable, cutting-edge freestyle facilities are your priority, Chamonix probably isn’t for you.
THE POWDER – 5/5
75% of the snowboarding in Chamonix is found off the beaten track; so it should go without saying that you’ll need to be equipped with at least a transceiver, backpack, shovel and probe to start your backcountry adventures here. This is a resort that comes into its own when blessed with fresh pow, and for people wanting to get extreme and out of the way of whooping skiers and snowboarders, the terrain off the Aguille du Midi offer some of the most technical and demanding descents in the world.
After negotiating the arret, a typical route would be the classic Vallée Blanche, known by locals as the “monkey” or “punter” route. Other variations include the Envers du Plan and Grand Envers for the more adventurous rider. A descent down this area of Chamonix will open your eyes to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, where you’ll be riding through serac fields and crossing snow bridges. Not for the faint hearted!
On a powder day, the early bird catches the worm. You’ll have to be at the Grands Montets cable car by no later than 8 in the morning to get ‘first bins’, since the majority of locals and holidaymakers will all make their way here. Expect to share the queue with bearded, ice-axe wielding Swedes and, once at the top, to be swept up in a stampede for the freshies. To be fair, though, Les Grands Montets is popular for a reason: the long, consistently steep runs here are incredible.
If you’re into backcountry freestyle, look no further than La Flegere, which is packed with cliff drops, wind lips and big natural booters. If the conditions allow you can do some pretty big jumps, satisfying anyone’s hunger for airtime and fluffy landings.
THE PISTES 3/5
The Chamonix valley is made up of five resorts: Les Grand Montets, Brevent, La Flegere, Le Tour and Les Houches. Each offers varied riding dependent on snow conditions and visibility, but if it’s south-facing sunshine you’re after head to Flegere, while Les Grands Montets is the place to go for steep, north-facing runs with consistently good snow – just be prepared for a crazy queue if it has recently snowed.
Although pistes are (by and large) well-groomed, the majority of the runs in the valley are for intermediate to advanced riders due to the steeper gradients of the local mountains.
Once your riding has come on a little you’ll find loads of fun to be had in the lumps, bumps and cat tracks littered all over the place, but at the end of the day Chamonix’s pistes are not where you’ll find the best of the resort.
THE PARTIES 4/5
Chamonix has a reputation for good nightlife. Unlike other resorts where all you can find are nightclubs playing cheesy music, there are a few real gems here – assuming you still have the energy after riding!
Soul Food is a smallish bar run by two French brothers who really know how to create a fun and friendly atmosphere. Specialising in jazz, funk and soul music, it’s a great place for a boogie – though they do pack people in and it can sometimes feel a little claustrophobic. As with most places in the valley, the bar closes at 2am. Also be sure to check out the White Hub nightclub just off the Rue des Moulins. After 2am you can make your way to Le Toff, which is traditionally a gay bar but is really good fun for all. They play the kind of cheesy music you just love to dance to during the sozzled last couple of hours.
Food wise, Le Moustache et Filles offers fantastic, reasonably priced dishes and vintage ski décor. The MOO, a relatively new brasserie, is proving increasingly popular, while Midnight Express and Belugas are THE place for late-night monster sarnies.