Chamonix Guide / Recommendations

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Chamonix Guide / Recommendations

Postby ChrisC » Wed Jan 19, 2005 1:03 am

I really enjoyed my time in Chamonix and would highly recommend the resort. Out of the resorts I have visited on one other ski trip to Europe (Zermatt, Cervinia, and Interlaken/Junghrau (Murren, Grindewald, etc)), I did enjoy Chamonix the best. My impression of Switzerland is that it is beautiful, expensive and attracts a clientele that can afford it who tend to be a little older and a little more sedate. I would rather be in France or Austria if I were to ever take another trip, since they can be cheaper and the mountain equal - if not better.

Chamonix seemed very popular with everyone - French, Germans, Brits, Italians, Aussies -- and a few Americans. People were friendly-- no more than usual annoyance with tourists (even Americans) that occurs in any resort town.

Travel
Chamonix is about 1hr from Geneva's airport. Very quick. Almost like driving from Salt Lake City to Park City. There is a four lane highway until last section. It was a lot easier than I expected.
There was no snow until you go through a tunnel and you are in the beginnings of the Chamonix valley. As a base, Chamonix is near lots of resorts -- Verbier (Switzerland), Courmayeur (Italy) and Megeve (France)are no more than 1 hour.

Chamonix geography / Car or no car?
We rented a car. Car rentals in Europe are almsot always manual. And a little pricier than US. However, the freedom was really worth it.

Chamonix is really, really spread out. There is no Chamonix ski mountain but resorts all on the same lift ticket scattered up and down the valley. There are a few key resorts in the valley:
1.)Brevent & Flegere (connected)
2.)Les Houches
3.)Les Grands Montets
4.)Le Tour/Domaine de Balme
5.)Aguille du Midi -- access to the Vallee Blanche

The parking at all the resorts was super convenient - always by the lifts - and always free (well, Brevent charged 1 Euro per day). Finally, you can not walk to any skiing from Chamonix. The exceptions are Aguille di Midi cable car and possibly Brevent. The nest reasons for a car -- no standing outside cold in the morning, having a seat when roads were busy coming back to Chamonix, and getting to other nearby mountains. Parking a car was not an issue.

Lift Ticket
If you plan to ski Courmayeur, Megeve or Les Houches -- get the Mont Blanc pass versus the Chamski pass which does not include these mountains. Also, the Mont Blanc pass includes 2 tram rides to the top of Les Grandes Montets.

Lodging
We stayed in a small apartment in South Chamonix (5-10 minutes to downtown). It was adequate, but not luxurious. I think Chamonix really shines here. Most places are within walking distance and you can find lodging at all different price levels. A lot of other resorts can be quite expensive (especially Swiss resorts, Courchevel, Cortina).

Skiing
Overall, Chamonix is just OK for beginners and intermediates. There are some pistes for them at each mountain. However, I thought they were crowded. Chamonix really shines in its off-piste and expert skiing.

I think every mountain below is worth skiing once. Exceptions: Les Grands Montets should be skied twice by true experts. Les Houches is a storm/windy day place.

1.)Brevent & Flegere
These are really beautiful areas. Great views. Big open bowls. They are marketed as intermediate places. However, I think the expert terrain is amazing too. Just traverse a bit off-piste. The only tricky chutes to access are those from the Brevent cable car that drop into the Cornu area. The issue is their due south exposure. Ski on a day when the sun will soften the snow OR when new snow has just fallen.

2.)Les Houches
Nice cruising when all resorts in Chamonix are closed. At least something is open.

3.)Les Grands Montets.
This is an amazing place! The expert skiing is perhaps unparalleled. I would almost consider getting a guide if you really want to do some extreme stuff (friends have been lowered into super steep chutes, skied off the backside, etc).

4.)Le Tour/Domaine de Balme.
This is primarily an intermediate resort. However, experts will like the fact it is so open (no trees). Therefore, day after freshies should be easily found. Also, the off-piste on the skiers far right from Balme Quad is really great!

5.)Aguille du Midi/Vallee Blanche. This should be done once. It is not too difficult. IT REQUIRES A GUIDE. Try to ski on a nice day for the views.

Snow
Quality - The snow was much better than anything the Pacific Coast mountains recieve. I was there in late Dec/early Jan -- so the temps were very cold and I though the snow was Utah/Jackson like.

Quantity -- I would not recommned going until Feb 1 during any year. Coverage was barely adequate for Christmas (120cm base while I was there). I would have waited, but work dictated the timing. A freind who spent 4 seasons in Chamonix siad that Christmas was always hit-or-miss, but never great! Also, the Vallee Blanche is typically opened late January to April according to the Chamonix Off-piste Guide. If Chamonix does not have a 100 cm base, I would cancel a trip. Coverage would be too low. Chamonix probably does not really ski well until about 200cm

Snowmaking -- It does not really exist. Chamonix will make snow at Les Houches for the World Cup and on the exit pistes at Les Grands Montets and Le Tour. That's it.

Lifts/Lift Lines/Trail Crowding
Lifts. The Chamonix lift system is nothing to brag about. I'd rate it as fair-to-poor. A lot of older lifts. Not too many drag lifts though. Some exceptions: Les Grands Montets has a modern system and part of Le Tour. The rest of the areas have not seen a lot of new investment.

Lift lines.
Overall, I did not think the liftlines were too bad. They were equivalent to busy days at Vail or Whistler (5-15 min). Cable cars can always be a bottleneck - Europe is no exception. My experience with US Cable cars Jackson (30-45min), Snowbird (20-30min) is proabbaly similar to Europe.

You need to learn to be aggressive in lift lines. No lift attendent will ever do anything. Lifts are not loaded to capacity. People will puch by you. You need to stay close to the person ahead of you and not be afraid to stick your ski out sometimes. For example, in Italy - an Italian female friend had to yell at many other Italians for physically pushing by her. The were suprised at her Italian since she was hanging out with a bunch of Anglos (Americans and Brits). Unless, you can speak directly in a native tounge, stay close and be strategic.

Trail Crowding. On the groomed pistes - higher than US. Many of the groomed slopes were simplay not as wide as Western US counterparts. Also, the number of groomed choices from a lift were mayb 1 or 2 - hence this created traffic.

Also, Europeans use their safety bars on the lifts. Go figure. However, if you are 6 ft or taller, forget about using a ski rest on the lift. You're too tall.

Day Trips

For experts: Verbier, Switzerland. The terrain is amzing. Lots of tight chutes that open into big bowls.

For intermediates: Courmayeur. There is a lot of cruising terrain here. Nothing too steep. The town is really beautiful. Nicer than Vail, Aspen or Sun Valley. It needs to be seen. Dinner would be a good idea too. Escape from the cheese and fondues for a night. [/b]

What Is Great About Europe?

1. Nothig is closed. It's only a suggestion. Really. Feel free to duck any ropes. However, when avalanch conditions are high, often resorts will simply close lifts to prevent access.

2. Lifts are open from 8:30am to 4:15-4:30pm no matter how dark it is. The Alps are all mountains more northern latitiudes -- even further north than Whistler.

3. Food is very, very good!

4. There is beautiful, beautiful terrain - especially at the larger resorts. The scale is genrally larger than most American resorts - both choices and vertical.

5. The terrain is radical enough to require a guide. I would be very uncomfortable trying some things without one.

What is bad about skiing Europe?

In short, operations

1. Poor liftline management. Do not expect US liftline management. The lift attendents do not have to check tickets (there all smart cards, read without contact as you go through turnstiles), they do not have to pair people up, they generally do not hold the chairs, and they do not have shovel snow on the ski ramps. (At Courmayeur, it was even against ski company policy to talk to lifties Rule #2 out 20 - weird).

2. Snow. Sometimes. The resorts simply do not get as much snow as their US counterparts. Too bad! The Alps are also very rocky, so they need the snow base. Also, most resorts have not made the required investments in snowmaking to have coverage on either -- 1. ski-outs and/or 2. a few core ski trails. Therefore, Christmas can be brutally painful some years.

3. Interconnections can be weak.
Yes, European resort sprawl to unprecedented levels. However, sometimes you can be forced on a poma lift to connect to other places as the only possible way (a la Verbier). Also, the trails might not have snowmaking and be skied off just due to traffic.

4. Age of Resorts and Lodging
The US resorts often have had a lot of capital improvements (in the late 90s especially) and a lot of new real estate investment. This trend has not taken place in Europe to such a degree. A lot of structures were built in 60s/70s and not as many since.
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Re: Chamonix Guide / Recommendations

Postby Patrick » Fri Jan 28, 2005 3:29 pm

Great summary of Chamonix Chris,

I would like to add a few things.


ChrisC wrote:TravelChamonix geography / Car or no car?
We rented a car. Car rentals in Europe are almsot always manual. And a little pricier than US. However, the freedom was really worth it.

Chamonix is really, really spread out. There is no Chamonix ski mountain but resorts all on the same lift ticket scattered up and down the valley.


All areas are interconnected by a bus / train service. If you want to go and want to save alot of money, do what I did, take the bus. You only need a valid multi-day lift ticket to use the public transit free.

Lodging
We stayed in a small apartment in South Chamonix (5-10 minutes to downtown). It was adequate, but not luxurious. I think Chamonix really shines here. Most places are within walking distance and you can find lodging at all different price levels.


Chamonix is not as expensive as resort town, you can find some good deals. Hostel are cheap and very adequate.

What is bad about skiing Europe?

4. Age of Resorts and Lodging
The US resorts often have had a lot of capital improvements (in the late 90s especially) and a lot of new real estate investment. This trend has not taken place in Europe to such a degree. A lot of structures were built in 60s/70s and not as many since.


This can be an advantage Chris. Ski areas in Europe compared to North America hasn't seen massive capital improvements, the result of this is the lift tickets prices has risen slowly compared to the important increase seen on this side of the ocean, keeping Europe an affordable alternative to the West.[/quote]
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re: Chamonix Guide / Recommendations

Postby Tony Crocker » Sun Jan 30, 2005 10:40 pm

Latitude of the Alps is about the same as Seattle or Quebec City. But the mountains are so much higher than the ski areas near those cities that snow preservation should be outstanding if north-facing. But if the lower slopes into town don't face north (south at Brevant-Flegere, west at Verbier) coverage problems can develop with excessive skier traffic. Verbier was fine when I was there, but a ski book I read said that's an issue sometimes.

Otherwise great summary. I'm the rent-a-car type myself, but I was on a media trip with transport provided every day.
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