This Chamonix guide features the known (and lesser-known) attractions of this iconic French resort, plus how the people here are working to save the mountains.
For ski fans, choosing where to go for a winter holiday can be tricky. Price, accessibility, culture, the quality of the pistes and nightlife – or lack of it – are all part of the equation. So when we began booking a (relatively) affordable holiday for two families with teenage children, there was one obvious answer – Chamonix.
An iconic French ski resort with alps straddling the Italian border, it is best known for the sight of Mont Blanc, which dominates the skyline. There are five ski areas in the Chamonix Valley catering for all levels – perfect for a group like ours with skiers ranging from beginners to off-piste thrill-seekers. We first travelled to Chamonix 20 years ago and we haven’t been able to resist the lure of the iconic ski resort ever since.
But best of all from the teens’ point of view, Chamonix isn’t just a quaint little village perched on a mountaintop – it’s a proper town with hundreds of shops. We booked a Chamonix apartment that was central enough for the three youngsters to tootle off and wander around, without ever being too far from wifi. We found an excellent pizza hut just down the road , a cool bar where the kids could play pool (well, at least in the early hours) and, best of all, the newly opened La Folie Douce hotel.
If you’ve ever danced on the tables up the mountain Folie Douce’s large chain of alpine bars, you might know what to expect. Here, at the chain’s first hotel, the idea is that the large, lit-up building has been rescued from the era of the Belle Epoque. Inside, it’s a mix of concrete construction chic and glamorous tall palms, glistening chandeliers and bonkers accessories. The hotel only opened at Christmas, but already there’s a statue missing his manhood and George, the stuffed peacock, has had to be rescued from the room of a party of drunken Russians. There are regular dance shows, including an acrobat twirling down from the ceiling, restaurants ranging from a cheesy fondue pit to fine dining and firepit tables outside. In short, it’s a lot of fun, and its prices start at the budget end for dorm-style rooms (perfect for a groups).
By day, we skied – trying most areas within six days and though we didn’t try it, a hugely popular day trip is to go through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur in Italy (where the Chamonix ski pass will also work for one day). Mont Blanc is so huge that the Italian side – Monte Bianco – is said to have a different climate.
Cruising the blues was enough for most of us, but my more adventurous husband and son spent a day skiing the Vallée Blanche, the longest off-piste run in the world with a descent of 2,700m. As advised, they hired an expert from the Compagnie des Guides because of the dangerous hidden crevasses. The cheapest option is to join a group trip, costing around €95 each and including the loan of avalanche kit including transceiver. You get to share a picnic with fellow skiers from around the world.
The scariest part of the trip is walking down the arête with crampons from the Aiguille du Midi cable car station, carrying your skis on your backpack. After that, the skiing is relatively straightforward – fine for anyone comfortable on red runs. The boys’ verdict? Spectacular.
Half-way down the valley is the world-famous Mer de Glace, which tourists can reach more easily by a rack and pinion railway.
It’s the fourth-biggest glacier in the Alps and the displays there shine a light on the effect of climate change. The glacier is said to have melted at a rate of around 40m a year and lost 80m in depth over the last 20 years – figures that really make you stop and think.
No, it really doesn’t take a team of scientists to see the massive effect global warming is having – you can see it first- hand. So it’s good to see that Chamonix is trying to do something about it. It’s one of only a few Alpine ski areas to have been awarded the Green Snowflake award for focusing on the environment. I spoke to Mathieu Dechavanne, head of the area’s lift company Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, to find out what’s being done to save the mountains.
Anyone skiing at Chamonix this half-term could spot the obvious temperature change. February – traditionally a time to wrap up against ice winds – was baking hot, with temperatures of around 15C on the slopes. Beautiful weather and blue skies – what’s not to like? Except that uncomfortable feeling that such meltingly hot days are just that – melting.
As the boss of Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, it wasn’t the first time Mathieu Dechavanne has been flummoxed by the weather in recent years.
“There’s always been a culture here to protect the environment, but we really had to start putting an emphasis on it big time from 2013. We had three winters in a row – 2013, 2014 and 2015 – without much snow. Then last summer we had hot sun and no wind all the way from June to October.
“We’ve known for quite a while that the glacier was melting but we began to see other changes too. Traditionally working here in summer has been pretty safe. Now I’m more worried about summer work than winter because of what’s happening in the mountains.
“Global warming means rocks are so much more dangerous and likely to drop. There have been accidents. The ice holding the rocks is melting so there isn’t the same anchor. This is all completely new.”
With a multimillion pound ski area to take care of – including 160km of slopes spread over five ski areas and 4,810m Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe – urgent action was needed.
“One of the biggest things we have done is make public transport free,” says Mathieu. “The idea is you park your car and don’t use it for the holiday. We can’t stop people using their cars but if you do you’ll pay for it – as much as in Paris.”
The lift company pays half of that public transport cost – around €4m a year – and also provides seven vans to pick up and transport its 650 employees to work. There’s also a car-sharing app to connect the 8,000 workers working in the Vallee Blanche and help pay their transport bills. Ski lift passes are cheaper for tourists getting to Chamonix using the car-pooling app BlaBlaCar.
As well as electric cars for in town, the company has invested heavily in 25 giant snow-grooming machines. Traditionally, they chew through around 30 litres of petrol an hour.
“They really are polluting. But we’re trying to cut it down where we can,” says Mathieu.
“For a start we teach our drivers to eco drive – getting the most out of the fuel they use – and we’ve reduced the number of paths they cover on the piste. For example 25m used to be the standard width of a piste, but we realised we could cut it by 3m in width. That’s a lot when you’re pisting 300km a day.
“We’ve also bought three hybrid machines that collect energy as they go down to use on the way up. It cuts fuel use by about 7litres per hour. Hopefully in the next 5-10 years they’ll be completely electric.”
Snowmaking too, has improved, although hotter temperatures are reducing the amount of time the white stuff can be produced.
“The technology has changed a lot,” says Mathieu. “Now it’s just a mix of water and pressure – no additives to make the snow. But it used to be that we could make snow for about 25-30 days a year because you need temperatures below -5C. There are less and less days to do it now.”
More than anything, he says, the aim is to protect the environment.
“We’re in a fantastic place. Our role is to protect this place. I say to the people I work with that we ought to leave it to our kids in better shape than we got it.”
With that in mind, the company has set up an environmental laboratory, keeping a close eye on the local habitat.
“We know exactly where all the different flora and fauna are and where the animals are in various resorts,” says Mathieu. “We do studies all year round. Then we need to install a lift we can cause the least harm. We are also cutting the number of lifts – so we might take two two-seater chairlifts out and replace them with one six-seater. It’s better for everyone.”
Despite all the efforts, it is hard to be sure of the long-term outlook for the ski industry in Chamonix – or any other resort.
“We hear different scenarios from various scientists – some more optimistic than others,” says Mathieu.
“From a business point of view selfishly I could say global warming is helping us as it means less snow in lower resorts so people come to Chamonix.
“But no one wants any ski areas to die out. And it’s strange seeing all the changes.
“In the last few years there has been more wind at high altitude and it is snowing less often – but big time. It used to snow about seven times a year, now it’s more like three or four – but big dumps.
“Is that linked to global warming? I don’t know. But it means that we need to be thinking every day about how things are changing. And while we want visitors coming here to have a good time we also want them to realise what’s going on and make sure they use public transport and keep waste to a minimum.”
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