Chamonix, Skiing In The Death Sport Capital of the World

Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924, so it was a no brainer.   We knew we had to go check it out.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know much about it. The day before skiing Chamonix, I did a bit of research to figure out where to go.

Chamonix is a valley and there are many different places to ski.  Unlike, Saas Fee, Crans Montana, or La Clusaz, there are separate ski resorts, each with their own characteristics and character.

Here’s more or less what I learned about them:

  • Grands Montets – This is one world’s most renowned ski areas with runs for all levels. It is located on the southern side of the valley (translate that into it’s not too sunny).  It is also means that its north face has good snow.  It is one of the Chamonix’s most famous resorts.  It has a snow park with a skier/boarder cross course with various tabletop jumps and rails.  It is open all season.   People go hard and fast here, really hard, really fast.  Experts enjoy the lift that heads 10,820 feet (3 297.9 meters) to some of the world’s steepest, most technically demanding runs.  We’re not that good yet, maybe next year.
  • Les Houches – The upper part is sunny, glorious in the afternoon and good for beginners.  The lower part, below the tree line, doesn’t receive direct sunlight, shielding skiers on windy days.
  • La Flégère – Its location on the northern side of the valley ensures plenty of sun, attracting people on colder days.  Its northern location also yields astounding views of the valley and Mont Blanc.  This is a haven for snowboarders (freestylers will be very happy) and has great natural terrain for it.  It has skiing for a variety lf levels and is a great starting point. The pistes are the valley’s best maintained.
  • Le Brévent – Le Brévent is on the northern side of the valley above downtown Chamonix. Its southern face lots of sunshine and spectacular views across the valley to Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.  It has something for all levels of skiers and boarders.  While it is not large, there is a cable car link to La Flégère.  We skied both.
  • L’Aiguille du Midi/La Vallee Blanche – The Aiguille du Midi is on of the most famous runs in the world, Valley Blanche. It is 10.5 miles (17 km) long with a decrease in altitude of 12601 feet (3841 meters) into Chamonix.  The real star is the incredible alpine scenery.   While this epic run isn’t appropriate for beginners, advanced, or even upper intermediate skiers who very fit can ski this piste.  While guides are not required, they are recommended in this potentially dangerous environment to avoid danger.  Snowboarders should seek advice on equipment before attempting this.   You don’t want to be one of the ones that goes over the edge.
  • Le Tour – Snowboarders (especially freestylers) go for its sunny, wide-open slopes that are well above the tree line, with varied terrain and have great powder.  There are also runs for beginners and families.  It is popular with locals.
  • It was hard to get good information about Le Levancher (although it is slang for avalanche), Les Tines and Les Praz.  Sorry.  Perhaps someone will post it comments about them.

At the bottom of the valley, there are some slopes for children and beginners that present virtually no challenge.  They include:

  • La Vormaine
  • Les Chosalets near La Tour
  • Le Savoy in Argentiere
  • Les Planards in the center of Chamonix by the cable car to Le Brévent

Chamonix is an adorable town.  In addition to skiing, it is a mecca for extreme sports like mountain climbingice climbingrock climbingextreme skiingparaglidingrafting and canyoning.  Mountain climber Mark Twight christened Chamonix  “the death-sport capital of the world” because of its base for the large number of dangerous sports practiced there.  The less adventurous can take a cable car up, sit and enjoy the view.

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Paragliding, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

French, Germans and Swiss are paragliding enthusiasts.  In this adventure vacation paradise, paragliding is huge.  Many weekends (in summer and winter) we see paragliders soaring over valleys… from the (relative) safety of a mountain.

When we were skiing in Chamonix, we saw paragliders jump off the mountain!  They soared over the valley next to Mont Blanc.  We watched them from the cable car all the way down into town.  Someone even landed down there wearing skis!  It was impressive (sorry I couldn’t get a picture).

Paragliding involves a manual launch, in other words, you run off the mountain!  Paragliders have “flown” off almost all the US and Europe’s major peaks.  A couple of paragliders have even launched off Mt. Everest!

The paraglider, also known as the pilot, sits in a harness, manipulating the fabric wing made of rip-stop nylon to soar upwards on currents of air.  They maneuver Kevlar suspension lines and to control the pressure of the air entering the vents to catch air currents to gain height and change direction. They can stay aloft for hours (the record is 11) and travel long distances (the record is 186.4 miles/300 km).

We saw an introductory, tandem launch.  Beginners must learn to launching, turning and landing to fly by themselves.  Paragliders risk their lives by running off a precipice.   As such, pre-flight is of paramount importance.  They research the site, the weather forecast, and carry out pre-flight checks to their gear is in perfect condition and ready to deploy.   The maxim “it is better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the air rather than in the air, wishing you were on the ground” reminds paragliders to abort takeoff if their flight is compromised.

Other popular paragliding spots include:

Courmayeur

Courmayeur is an adorable town nestled in the mountains.  We have visited Swiss ski towns (Zermatt, Grindelwald), French ski towns (La Clusaz and Contamines) and now an Italian ski town.  Each country’s towns seem to have their own flavor despite being geographically close.

Even non skiers could happily spend a day enjoying Courmayeur‘s charming, car free streets.  Shops, bars and restaurants fill its stone buildings.  Whether you want to buy upscale apparel, outdoor gear, art, antiques, modern design items, wine or any special Italian food, you can find it in Courmayeur.  In the evenings, people stroll the narrow, but chic streets.  People were shopping, window shopping, people watching and on their way to the bars for a drink (a football game was about to start).  The activity gave the town a cheery, festive but relaxed ambiance.

No Italian town would be complete without a church and religious statues.  They look even more beautiful when surrounded by stunning mountains and the shadows they create.

As the evening progressed, people settled into its cozy cafes and restaurants.  The vivacity continues on into the evening as Courmayeur has a lively nightlife.  On our stroll home we saw bars were still packed.  We also saw a man walking his miniscule pooch; they were wearing matching shiny puffy jackets.  Sorry it was too cold to get out my camera (I would have had to take off my gloves).

Courtesy of Courmayeur.com

Courtesy of wheretoskiandsnowboard.com

Skiing

We’d planned to go skiing over new year’s, but stayed home since we were sick.  The following weekend, we went skiing.  Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, but it was a heck of a lot of fun.
Four couples piled into two cars and headed off to France.  Since we were surrounded by mountains, we had many choices.  We chose La Clusaz.  La Clusaz is a pretty town with a traditional village feel, skiing for a variety of levels and a lot of runs.  As you can see from the maps, it is not far from Geneva.*
It only took about an hour to get there.  Unfortunately, it took a bit longer when we got into town because everyone had the same idea.
Ski rental is quite reasonable.  Since we went in France, we got to pay in Euros too.   We rendezvoused with the other couples on the mountain and got a quick pic before someone broke something.  Thanks to the Hughes‘ for the picture.  Please note how it was easier for me to twist my body to face the camera than turn around and go the right way.

We have skied before, it’s just been awhile.  A long while.  The last time we were on skis was about 15 years ago.  Full disclosure: he’s skied once in the intervening years…in North Carolina (so it doesn’t really count as skiing).
The mountains are a little larger than they are in Michigan and I had to screw up my courage.  I told myself that I’m not going to spend the winters inside and alone because I live in Switzerland and don’t ski.  If I’m going to ski, there has to be a first time and there is no time like the present.
This is how I looked on my first run down the mountain. Thank goodness Wildcat was there encouraging me. She was very kind not to point like Nelson from The Simpsons and do the “ha ha”.
I was so excited to go skiing that I didn’t really notice the length of my skis at the rental place.  I’m not sure if you can tell from the above photo, but my skis were just about as tall as I was.  Oops.  I was going a little too fast for my skill set.  Once I got to the bottom, I exchanged my skis for some smaller (kid sized ones). After that, things went a bit more smoothly and I didn’t fall quite as much (although Wildcat did put up some good wipeout video on the Hughes’).
The great thing about going skiing with a bunch of foodies is that stopping for a wonderful lunch is mandatory. Just in case our 5 million burgers while we were home during the holidays weren’t enough, both of us ordered “le burger.”  Quels américaines!
My legs got a bit tired part of the way through the afternoon.  I’d “wisely” switched my long training run for the week from Saturday to Friday.  Us ladies were embarrassed because our ski apparel wasn’t as fly as the ladies from Hot Tub Time Machine.
The guys did a few more runs and our brave friend did the blacks on snowboard!  We slinked off the slopes to where we could really shine, the ice rink.
If you want to see video, check out the Swiss Watch Blog.  Cinematic genius.  We look better than the Ice Capades!
* Tour de France fans might recognize the names of some of the towns around there.  The tour has hit more than a few of them.