Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-10-22
Capital of mountaineering since 1821, Chamonix is the 3rd most visited natural site in the world. More contemplative visitors come here to admire the Mer de Glace, the Aiguille du Midi cable car and the resort's Belle Époque architecture. As for skiing, freeriding, snowboarding and skating enthusiasts, the Mont Blanc massif constitutes an inexhaustible playground with some of the most outstanding slopes in the Alps.
An historic resort
More than a winter sports resort, Chamonix is a legend nestling amid peaks and glaciers! From the first ascension of Mont Blanc in 1786 to the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, the old Savoyard village of "Chamouni" quickly metamorphosed into a cosmopolitan town with no less than 40 nationalities.
Until the Second World War, Chamonix was in fact a fashionable place as popular as Nice and Monte-Carlo, as witnessed by the Majestic, which was at the time one of the biggest luxury hotels in the world and today houses the Alpine Museum.
But Chamonix would not be what it is without the English! Be they mountaineers, painters or poets, the children of the great London bourgeoisie occupied the site in large numbers, to such a degree that they had an Anglican chapel (photo opposite) built there in 1857.
The most famous of them is the mountaineer Edward Whymper (1840-1911), who conquered the Matterhorn ("Mont Cervin" in French), Grandes Jorasses and Aiguille Verte. His name has been given to the town's most beautiful street, near the one that bears the name of his companion Michel Croz, the famous guide from Chamonix who tragically died while descending the Matterhorn.
The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice)
As soon as you reach Chamonix by road or rail, there is just one thing you want to do: head up to the peaks that surround the valley! To "test the water" head for the Mer de Glace, like the first explorers of the 18th century.
At the time, the mountains were cursed and Mont Blanc seemed inaccessible. The "Glacier des Bois" (the original name of the Mer de Glace) on the other hand, aroused the curiosity of travellers and inspired the Romantics from Goethe to Wagner, via Byron, Dumas and Mary Shelley.
Three km (less than 2 miles) from Chamonix and at an altitude of 1,700 m this glacier, which stretches for 12 km (7.5 miles) and seems to want to submerge the valley, is the biggest in the French Alps.
The first person to explore it and give it its present name was the Englishman William Windham, in 1741, who described it as a sea, agitated by a breeze, which seemed suddenly to have frozen
On site, the panorama of the Obélisques du Dru and Les Grandes Jorasses is sublime.
You can also head down into an ice grotto that is hollowed out and carved anew each year.
The old Hôtel du Montenvers, built in 1880, overlooks the glacier and houses a museum and an inn.
To get there, one of the last cog trains in France makes its way up slowly from Chamonix, through the forests and crevasses.
This 5 km (3 mile)-long railway, built from 1893 to 1910, is a technical feat and allows you to admire several works of art that are magnificently integrated into the surroundings.
Allow 2 hours for a return trip and tour of the site.
Measured and explored for over 100 years, the Mer de Glace is the most well known glacier in the world. Its thawing in particular is closely observed: it apparently receded 614 m between 1925 and 1960. This living glacier is nevertheless unpredictable, sometimes receding, sometimes advancing. At the present time, it is advancing once again by 100 m per year, or 1 cm per hour!
The Aiguille du Midi cable car
The Aiguille du Midi is to Chamonix what the Matterhorn is to Zermatt: a presence that is observed at every hour of the day and which, depending on the weather, invites or deters you from going up to the peaks. Climbers, extreme skiers and paragliders all head there.
However, if you have a heart condition and are prone to vertigo, it's best to give it a miss; the Midi cable car takes you from an altitude of 1,000 m to over 3,800 m in under 20 minutes.
One single span of cable enables you to fly over the crevasses of the Glacier des Pèlerins, then follows the impressive north face, whose corridors of snow are regularly besieged by roped parties, and skied or surfed down!
The panorama from the south terrace is unique and enables you to admire Mont Blanc and its succession of prestigious peaks rising over 4,000 m.
A technological feat
Initiated and directed by Turinese engineer Dino Loratino, the construction of the cable car was epic! The objective was to reach the summit of the Aiguille du Midi (3,842 m) in just two sections. From 1951, 11 km (6.8 miles) of cable were carried up manually, then brought back down by abseiling. One hundred workmen worked in extreme conditions until 1955 (minus 40°C, winds of 150 kph/93 mph). The cable car was renovated in 1991. The cabin can now carry 70 people and covers 12.5 m per second. Allow at least 2 hours for a round trip.
Vallée Blanche, a legendary itinerary
Accessible from the station that the cable car arrives at, Vallée Blanche (White Valley) offers 20 km (12.4 miles) of spectacular runs as far as the Glacier du Géant (return to Chamonix by the Montenvers train). Here you enter the realm of the upper slopes!
Internationally renowned, this itinerary does not require an exceptional technical level. However, it is not marked out, maintained or secure: the supervision of an experienced guide is therefore essential. This guide will be able to choose the day depending on weather conditions and avoid the dangers of off-piste skiing, such as crevasses, seracs and avalanches.
A skiing area open to all
With its long runs winding through a grandiose high mountain setting, Chamonix offers the most beautiful skiing area in Haute-Savoie.
Beginners can practise at La Balme skiing area (2,270 m) whose slopes are moderate and have good snow cover until May, as well as on certain easy pistes at La Flégère (1,894 m), above all renowned for its panorama of the Mer de Glace.
More experienced skiers will thoroughly enjoy taking the cable car up to LeBrévent (2,525 m), which offers a magnificent panorama of the Mont Blanc massif and Aiguilles-Rouges (in clear weather, you can even see the Jura in the distance). This sector has some famous pistes, such as the Charles Bozon black run and the red runs of La Combe de la Charlanon and Col Cornu. You can also have lunch on a terrace dominating the entire valley of Chamonix, at the Bergerie (near the cable car).
For good skiers, Les Grands Montets (3,275 m), which is spread over three sides, offers varied itineraries, slopes with long gradients and an exceptional quality of snow. You will ski, notably, at the foot of Aiguille Verte, at an altitude of 3,300 m!
In any case, we recommend reserving your ski pass online (for 6 days, reckon on €186 - around £127 - for an adult and €130 - around £89 - for a child) in order to avoid the queues at the cash desks. You will then receive a badge by mail and just have to show it at the first access point to the ski lifts.
For further information
Office de Tourisme de Chamonix Mont-Blanc (Tourist Office)
85, place du Triangle de l'Amitié
Tel: +33 (0)4 50 53 00 24
Train from Le Montenvers to the Mer de Glace
Journey time: 20 minutes. The train runs every day, but times vary depending on the weather.
Information on +33 (0)4 50 53 12 54.
To explore the Vallée Blanche and reserve your ski pass online:
How to get to Chamonix
Direct access via the "Autoroute Blanche" motorway (connected to the European motorway network) 16 km (10 miles) from Switzerland via the Col des Montets and 15 km (9.3 miles) from Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel.
Plan your route on ViaMichelin for information on closed passes and major road works. Condition of the roads: +33 (0)4 50 53 05 51
French TGV high-speed train is direct as far as Annecy, Saint-Gervais or Geneva. Then take a connecting train to Chamonix station.
Geneva-Cointrin airport (88 km/55 miles from Chamonix).
Daily bus links between Geneva-Cointrin and Chamonix.
Many airlines fly to Geneva from the UK (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, East Midlands, Newcastle, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast) and Ireland: British Airways, Easy Jet, Bmibaby.com, Flybe.com, aerlingus.com (5 direct flights per week from Dublin)...