Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Skiing in Chamonix

Going skiing or snowboarding in Chamonix is very much either love it or hate it. Some just don't 'get' Chamonix. Afterall, the ski areas are spread out across the Chamonix Valley and aren't really linked, there aren't that many lifts and the lift pass is one of the most costly in the Alps.

But there is something undeniably magnetic about skiing in Chamonix. Skiing or boarding on the pistes is only half the story, as the true magic of Chamonix is in her off piste prowess. If you find yourself off piste in one of the endless bowls at Les Grands Montets on a bluebird powder day, it will probably be the best day's skiing of your life.

If you've got a good level of skiing, the chances are you'll want to do the Vallee Blanche, the famous off piste itinerary from the Aiguille du Midi lift right back down to Chamonix skiing on the Mer de Glace glacier. There is also the gruelling Chamonix to Zermatt multi-day ski touring route which is a must for proficient ski tourers.

So what does all this off piste heaven mean for beginner skiers in Chamonix? We'll be honest, it's not the most convenient place for arranging rendezvous points for ski school, but because Chamonix is one of the most sought after ski resorts in which to work, the level of instruction is excellent, as the crème de le crème of the ski instructors are attracted to the resort. We heartily recommend La Vormaine next to the Domaine de Balme ski area at the end of the Chamonix Valley for beginners.

Brevent is the closest ski area to the centre of Chamonix and offers pistes for all abilities, so all levels can have fun at the same ski area. From Brevent you can also take the cable car across to La Flegere giving direct access to the pistes. La Flegere can also be accessed by a cable car from Les Praz village just outside Chamonix.

At first glance Flegere has few lifts and not many pistes either. Many think there is little to write home about at La Flegere, but get a guide for a couple of hours and you'll be whizzing around some truly amazing hidden off piste couloirs.

At the far end of the valley, Balme can be accessed via Le Tour village (which is next to La Vormaine beginner area) or from Vallorcine, the last outpost of France just 4km from the Swiss border over the col des Montets. We always say Balme is excellent for finding your ski legs and although getting from the Le Tour side to the Les Esserts back side of the ski area involves a very long traverse, it leads to some excellent pistes and off piste possibilities too.

That just leaves Les Grands Montets, the ski area in Argentiere. This is the real deal. North facing, what the area lacks in sunshine during the first half of the ski season it makes up for in steepness and long-lasting snow. If we're honest the pistes here are long and challenging, but not they're not the centre of attention. It's all about the off piste. For a first taste of big mountain skiing, you can head in the top Grands Montets cable car where they are two black pistes on the glacier.

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