Aspen Times Weekly: Oui! Oui! Chamonix | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Oui! Oui! Chamonix

by Catherine Lutz

The three of us stood at the top of the run, trying not to breathe too hard lest our goggles fog up and further diminish the already poor visibility. Below us, just past a sign that read "Danger! Crevasses," was a vast, untouched field of endless white — nearly two feet of new snow overnight blending into a thick fog that showed no signs of lifting. We debated our route — closer to the rock wall meant better visibility but possibly higher danger, as that's where the crevasses are; venturing skier's left into the pea soup, we could probably find the piste, which might be tracked up, but safer. My friend Dina, who had grown up on these slopes and knew the dangers of skiing on a glacier, was the cautious one. My husband Mike, who had been skiing this mountain — Grands Montets — every day so far this winter, said he'd be fine with whatever we wanted to do, but he looked as tempted as I was.

"F— it," I said, and pushed off past the sign into the white room. It was everything a powder skier could dream of and more. About 75 rhythmic, fall-line, face-shot-filled turns later, I stopped, my thighs shaking from the burn. When we all pulled up, we looked at each other in silent disbelief, our ear-to-ear grins saying all that needed to be said.

This was a classic Chamonix experience that skiers can (and should) expect to have — an impossibly long run in untracked powder after a huge snowfall, all above treeline, and with no one even in whooping distance. The only thing missing that day were the jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and the village-dotted valley, a fantasy kingdom of natural chateaux protecting the enchanted lands far below.

But it's not an everyday thing. In our four months living in Chamonix, we had those kind of mind-blowing experiences a handful of times — each instance involved being familiar with the terrain, being willing to go out in adverse conditions such as low visibility or extreme cold, and some amount of dumb luck. In Chamonix, the Mecca of backcountry skiing and the birthplace of mountaineering, my top three tips to anyone planning a ski vacation are: Get a guide. Get a guide. Get a guide.

Trail maps don't do you much good here, as much of the good terrain is off-piste. Piste, for the record, simply means a marked, groomed, and controlled run on a huge skiable domain — imagine if ski patrol were to stake out a groomed corridor down Highland Bowl or the Big Burn. Off-piste, you're on your own — don't expect signs pointing to the piste or warnings for natural hazards such as cliffs, rock bands, or inexplicable holes in the ground. Following ski tracks may or may not lead back to more well-traveled terrain.

Temperamental maritime weather patterns can wreak havoc on ski plans as much as they can enhance conditions. Storms often come in with winds that force all but the lower beginner lifts to shut down. And the stubborn, vertigo-inducing fog that accompanies new snowfall — combined with lack of signage — can reduce even the most confident skier to snail-slow snowplow turns and deep relief as each bamboo pole marking the piste materializes from the dense white.

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But the rewards are well worth the risks, and the risks don't necessarily have to be high every time you click into your skis. A guide — there are 240 alone affiliated with the Chamonix Guides Company, the oldest and largest guides' association in the world — can definitely minimize the risks while translating his or her in-depth knowledge of the terrain, weather, and traffic patterns into an experience you'll never forget.

Notwithstanding the videos of extreme skiers shredding sphincter-puckering couloirs and crevasse-riddled bowls, Chamonix offers plenty of family-friendly terrain, across all five of its mountains but especially at the two that bookend either end of the valley, Les Houches and Le Tour. Even beginner and intermediate riders, though, should treat themselves to a tram ride to the top of the Aiguille de Midi or Grands Montets (on a clear day, that is) for the views — the massive hulk of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe at nearly 16,000 feet; the jagged peaks, called aiguilles (needles), jutting into the sky; and the charming centuries-old towns in the glacier-carved valley more than 6,000 feet below.

Speaking of towns, Chamonix will feel both familiar and charmingly different to Aspenites. A sister city of Aspen's for nearly 30 years, Chamonix has a sophisticated historic downtown, centered around a bustling pedestrian mall lined with all kinds of gastronomic temptations and a variety of shops. It has an awesome international vibe, with locals and tourists alike coming from every corner of the globe. And while Aspen draws celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Mariah Carey in high season, you're more likely to see Glen Plake or Seth Morrison (or any number of Powder magazine-worthy pro skiers) strolling the streets of Chamonix with skis over shoulders and harness and biners clanking. To be sure, Chamonix has its share of wealth and extravagance, but it all somehow blends into the more dominant historic alpine culture.

In a nutshell, yes, it's worth dropping in.

IF YOU GO …

GETTING THERE: Geneva is the closest international airport to Chamonix, about an hour away and with plenty of options for shuttle service. Some visitors fly into Lyon, about two hours away.

LODGING: A city of 10,000 residents, Chamonix naturally has the most choices for lodging, from $25/night hostels to stately Victorian hotels to five-star chalets. For a more low-key experience, consider staying in one of the authentic upper-valley villages. Argentière, a village of 2,000 people six miles from Chamonix, sits at the base of Grands Montets ski domain and has a respectable number of restaurants and shops along its main street. Vallorcine, on the border of Switzerland, is even smaller and has a very local scene, although it has its share of tourist accommodations and some dining gems. A fairly new gondola rises straight out of Vallorcine to the Le Tour ski area. Le Tour, the village, is on the other side of the mountain and is little more than a collection of chalets alongside the road to the ski area.

GETTING AROUND: No need for a rental car if staying in Chamonix; a free bus system gets you most places around the valley and accesses the ski areas. The other villages in the valley are more isolated and the valley bus system stops running around 7 p.m. Vallorcine is not on the bus route, and it’s over a pass that sometimes shuts down due to avalanche danger.

THE MOUNTAINS: Like Aspen, the local ski company in Chamonix (Compagnie du Mont Blanc) operates multiple ski domains, each with their own distinct personality. The legendary Vallée Blanche, accessed by the Aiguille du Midi tram, is not so much a ski area as a massive, 12-mile-long run on a glacier, descending almost 9,000 feet into town. There’s no groomed or controlled piste, so a guide is highly recommended, although the skiing itself is mostly intermediate. The combined Brevent and Flegere domains rise out of Chamonix itself, with mostly south-facing slopes for all levels of skiers and a killer view of Mont Blanc. Grands Montets, facing north, is known for its advanced, high-altitude glacier skiing. Les Houches is the only ski domain that’s mostly below treeline, so its mostly intermediate slopes are ideal on low-visibility days. Le Tour has plenty to offer beginners, intermediate skiing higher up, and some great out-of-bounds terrain. Still want more? CMB has a relationship with Courmayeur in Italy and Verbier in Switzerland (both about an hour away); you can buy a ski pass that includes access to those ski areas as well as reduced-fare transportation to get there.