Thrilling descents, glorious off-piste terrain and unbeatable Mont Blanc views – skiing in Chamonix is so darn fantastic that skiers don’t even mind that accessing the slopes involves lots of land transport to and from the lifts.
Best for beginners are Le Tour & Vallorcine, Les Planards, Les Chosalets, Les Houches and La Vormaine. For speed and challenge, it has to be Brévent-Flégère (1030m to 2525m), above Chamonix, and Les Grands Montets (1235m to 3300m), accessible from the attractive village of Argentière, 9km north of the town. Boarders seeking big air zip across to the kickers and rails at Les Grands Montets snow park and the natural halfpipe in Le Tour.
Chamonix' ski season runs from mid-December to mid-April.
Chamonix Le Pass (1/2/6 days €51.50/100/258.50) Gets you up to most Chamonix ski domains, around 118km of pistes.
Mont Blanc Multipass (1/2/6 days €63/77/126) In summer, this pass affords access to all operating lifts.
Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass (1/2/6 days €63.50/125/306) A worthwhile investment for serious skiers, this pass grants access to all lifts in the Chamonix Valley, Courmayeur in Italy and Verbier in Switzerland, plus the Aiguille du Midi cable car and the Montenvers–Mer de Glace train.
Details of all passes can be viewed and purchases made online at www.montblancnaturalresort.com.
When enough snow melts (usually some time in June), hikers can take their pick of 350km of spectacular marked trails, many easy to get to by cable car (running mid-June to September). In June and July there’s enough light to walk until at least 9pm.
Balcon (literally 'balcony') trails, both grand and petit, run along both sides of the valley. The challenging Grand Balcon Nord is up around 2000m, while the three-hour Petit Balcon Sud (from Argentière to Servoz) is slightly above the valley's villages at 1250m.
Mountaineering & High-Alpine Tours
Local guide companies offer exhilarating climbs for those with the necessary skill, experience and stamina. Options include rock-climbing classes (from €44 for a two-hour lesson to €620 for an intensive granite-climbing weekend workshop) or the incomparable Mont Blanc ascent (from €840 to €1650).
For hikers, a big draw is the classic 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc, €1395 through the Compagnie des Guides, taking in majestic glaciers and peaks in France, Italy and Switzerland. Prices usually include half-board in refuges (mountain huts), picnics, lift tickets and luggage transport.
Lower-altitude trails, such as the Petit Balcon Sud (1250m) from Argentière to Servoz, are perfect for biking. Most outdoor-activity specialists arrange guided mountain-biking expeditions. Talk to well-established bike 'n' board shop Zero G about gear hire and trail advice.
On clear days in summer and winter, the sky above Chamonix is speckled with colourful paragliders wheeling down from the heights. Tandem flights from Planpraz (2000m) start at around €110 per person; from the Aiguille du Midi (experienced flyers only), count on €295. AirSports Chamonix and Summits are trusted local operators; book a couple of days ahead.
Adventure Guide Companies
It takes three years of rigorous training to become an accompagnateur en moyenne montagne (mountain leader) and a full five years to be certified as a guide de haute montagne (high-mountain guide), though many train for a decade. Only the latter are authorised to lead groups on to glaciers or on mountaineering climbs requiring specialised equipment. Recommended companies include the following:
Every year, an average of half a dozen climbers die or disappear on Mont Blanc because of avalanches, adverse weather, subzero temperatures, poor judgement or bad luck. The lack of a permit requirement is thought to encourage ill-equipped climbers to attempt the summit. Local authorities have floated the idea of giving fines to climbers who set out without the correct equipment, as a deterrent. A bigger incentive than any fine should be the risk to life and limb, so be warned: climbing Mont Blanc and other peaks in the Chamonix area poses serious hazards, even with an experienced guide.
There’s plenty to amuse les petits (the little ones) around Chamonix. In the warm season, kids will love getting close to free-roaming chamois, ibex and whistling marmots at the Parc de Merlet, 13km by road (5km on foot) southwest of central Chamonix in Coupeau (across the Arve River from Les Houches). Or treat them to a fun-packed day on the beginner ski area or 1.3km luge at the Parc de Loisirs de Chamonix, near the chairlift in Les Planards, 500m east of Gare du Montenvers.
Cham' Aventure has a wide variety of day-long and half-day outdoor programs tailored for children aged three to seven, eight to 12, and 13 to 17 – biking, canyoning, treasure hunts and more (from €40).
Back in Chamonix, the indoor ice skating rink provides amusement when the weather packs up, as do sports activities at the adjacent Centre Sportif Richard Bozon, with indoor and (in summer) outdoor swimming pools.