Things to Know before Going to Chamonix

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I’m writing this while I wait for my flight home to Colorado after a 10 day trip to Chamonix. The time I spent here literally redefined how I see and understand skiing. Heading over here last week I thought I knew what to expect, I’d seen some of the bigger lines in movies and magazines, but the immensity of the area doesn’t really hit you until you are there. So in hopes of making you better prepared than I was, here’s a list of things to know before you arrive in Chamonix. Because if you aren’t currently planning a trip there … you should be.

 Huge, Steep and All Yours

The first impression I had is that there is so overwhelmingly much terrain that I didn’t know where to start. You’ll see ski tracks down things that look impossibly steep, and skin tracks that disappear over cols that would drop you down into a valley 20 miles away. But the most overwhelming part is that it’s all fair game. See a rope? Feel free to duck it, just make sure you know where it’s going to end up. The European approach is very different from the American approach. Pistes may be marked as open and closed, but once you are off-piste … everything is fair game, and no one is going to tell you you can’t ski something, even if it’ll kill you.

Endless possibilities off the back of Brevent
Endless possibilities off the back of Brevent
The Vallee Blanche is a must do for anyone with glacier experience
The Vallee Blanche is a must do

Powder Lasts Forever

We arrived on Saturday morning to sunny skies and lots of fresh snow, the area had picked up about two feet of snow over the last few days. Used to the Summit County resorts in Colorado being tracked out by 9:30 am on weekend powder days I didn’t hold out much hope for the remaining fresh snow by the time we got out Sunday morning. I could not have been more wrong, on day eight we were still skiing lift serviced untouched powder from that same storm in places. After the first couple days you may have to hunt a little bit for it, but if you can’t find fresh snow you may be following the euros too closely, which brings me to my next point…

Eight days after the last storm, and still fresh
Eight days after the last storm, and still fresh
Still finding soft untracked snow inbounds seven days after the stormFinding untracked snow inbounds seven days later

Radder Than Thou

There appear to be two distinct groups of people who ski Chamonix. The first group likes the groomers, and doesn’t really stray from them, this makes up the bulk of the people around. The second group exclusively skis lines I could never touch in my wildest dreams. Maybe this is just a reflection of my lack of local knowledge but everywhere we went the way to fresh snow was to ski lines marginally less extreme but no less fun than the later group. Tangent to this … Don’t follow someone else’s tracks unless you really know where they go. Best case you may end up in a different country, worst case you could be cliffed out and unable to hike back out.

7,000 vertical feet of “sidecountry” off the tram at the top of Brevent

Take Your Skis Off

For some reason people love to traverse but hate taking their skis off to access terrain. We found numerous massive traverses weaving their way around the mountains to access zones of fresh snow, often taking 10 minutes to get out to the farthest traversable point from a lift. Many of these traverses were punctuated by 50-100 foot climbs where people sidestep up the entire slope, skis on the whole way. But when we got a little bit more adventurous we found tons of untouched lines that required a 30 second boot pack off a groomer. Four, five, six, and seven days after the storm we could all but guarantee ourselves fresh snow just by taking a little walk.

A 30 second hike can open up a whole new world of untracked terrain

Untracked inbound steeps rivaling anything found in Jackson

Wear A Helmet

Not as much for the terrain, although that component should probably go without saying. But people are obsessive about the safety bars on lifts and will crush your skull in to secure themselves the second they sit down. It’s uncanny.

Get Ready For Glaciers

If you really want to get after some of the bigger lines (hint: you do) you should have the requisite glacier travel gear and the appropriate knowledge before you go. A harness, light rope (30m x 8mm), pulley system, and materials to build an anchor should do the trick most places. The key is understanding how to use them in different circumstances. If this sounds overwhelming, you should plan to hire a guide for a day (~300 euros/day) it will open your eyes to all of the terrain that’s really at your fingertips and what you can ski safely without glacier gear.

Cham isn’t complete without some glacier skiing
Terrain like this isn’t usually lift serviced in the states

Know Where and When to go

I mean this both in regards to where to ski how as well as how to avoid the lines and choke points, here are a couple tips:

  • You can reserve your spot in a cabin on the upper Cable Car at Grand Montets and on the Aguille Du Midi either that day or the night before. These two lifts offer access to the best and most terrain in the area and on good days the lines can easily exceed an hour.   
  • Know your aspects: We were there in mid February and by late afternoon the sun was pretty strong. As a result, by day three or four the more southerly aspects were pretty baked out and only really good midday when it was warm, on the other hand, the northerly aspects held light dry snow until the day we left.  
  • Many resorts are accessed by cable car from the valley floor; in the morning and afternoon these act as big bottle necks. Sometimes you have the option for a chair or a gondola, and when you do I would strongly recommend avoiding the cable cars. If that isn’t an option try to arrive early, or prepare to wait.
  • The lack of structure in lift lines may surprise you. For many of the lifts it is an all out shove fest to get to the front and don’t expect to sit with the people you are skiing with. Another tip, the middle of the line moves faster than the outsides so do like the locals and shove your way into the middle right away.
  • Know where to find the snow you’re looking for. There’s no reason to get too far out right after it snows, there will be plenty of easily accessible snow for a while and the avalanche danger subsides relatively quickly in the maritime snowpack.

Sad to leave, but I’ll definately be back


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