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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Now We Understand Why Everyone Likes Megève

We’d heard wonderful things about Megève and heard of its reputation as the “jewel” of French alpine ski resorts.  It’s a major ski resort and there are good reasons for Megève’s popularity.  We had a great day skiing there last weekend. The wonderful weather and virtually cloudless skies didn’t hurt.

It offers fantastic skiing, stunning views, lots of restaurants and just about every convenience you can imagine. Its location is idyllic in the “Pays du Mont Blanc”.  Many runs have a nice view of Mt. Blanc’s summit.  Many of the other resorts in the area, like Les Contamines, are above the tree line.  Megève has runs cut through the trees. It was quite busy, there were so many runs that we never felt that it was never crowded.

Megève offers great skiing for all levels. Megève’s slopes are have more easier runs than Chamonix or Courcheval’s.  Don’t worry though, there are plenty of red and blacks.  While there is plenty for beginners, the upper intermediate skiing terrain predominates and there are opportunities to go off piste.  Although, if you read yesterday’s avalanche post and watched the videos, you may not want to.

There are restaurants everywhere.  The food, atmosphere and crowds vary.  We got a later start on the slopes and just had a waffle (gauffre de Liege) at about 4:00.  It was beyond tasty; the wonderful view of Mt. Blanc made it even better.

By the end of the day, the snow at low altitudes was turning to slush.  We realized that if this weather keeps up, we wouldn’t have too many more weekends to ski.  In fact, I’m posting this at six something on a Saturday morning before we take off to ski.  As always, I’ll report back.

The slushy bit (and horses) on our way down

Skiing Gawking At Glaciers And Avoiding Crevices In Saas Fee

Sorry for the poor image quality; the windows of the Telecabine were scratched.

Last Sunday, we skied in Saas Fee, Switzerland.  The views were stunning, when we could see them.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy.  Each time there was any visibility, I whipped out my camera.  Even then, my photos don’t do it justice.  Saas Fee has spectacular scenery, here’s someone else’s picture for proof.

Photo from benik0.deviantart.com

At the far east end of the canton of Valais in the back of the valley, it is not the easiest destination to get to.  When you arrive, they will treat you well.  Everyone working there was extremely cheerful, kind and helpful.

Courtesy of Investorsinproperty.com

The town of Saas Fee is at 1800 meters (5905.5 feet, 1.116 miles) in elevation.  With peaks of 3500 meters (11482.939 feet, 2.17 miles) in elevation, snow in Saas-Fee is guaranteed.  It is less expensive and less crowded than nearby Zermatt, making it a perfect destination for families.

Piste Map Courtesy of Skiinfo.com

One of the coolest things about skiing in Saas Fee was the ice and glaciers.  They mean that you cannot go off piste without a guide as there is a danger of falling into a crevice!   At first, it was a bit daunting to ski next to them.  They were surprisingly blue and just plain magnificent.

Do Not Leave The Runs Crevices

I have had issues with T bars in the past.  While we’re at it, I’ve had issues with chair lifts too.  Saas Fee has lots of them, long ones.  It was a bit scary taking them in the clouds, with little visibility, knowing that you were near glaciers and crevices.

There was a drop off somewhere in this photo, we just couldn’t see it.

We really did try to respect the rules not to go off-piste.  Unfortunately, this T bar stopped while we were on it.  It didn’t start back up (a rarity because everything in Switzerland seems to run like clockwork).  After about 15 minutes stalled on the T bar, we abandoned it and moved to a nearby slope. It wouldn’t be a day of skiing if I didn’t make a fool of myself at some point.  I only fell once, but when I did, I lost a ski.  It was so steep that I had difficulty putting it back on.  I ended up removing my other one and sliding down the slope on my butt while holding on to my skis and poles.  I looked such a mess that someone stopped and asked if I was injured.  I thanked him and told him the only thing injured was my pride.

Imagine my surprise when I found out my goofy move was actually an alpine maneuver called glissading. It looked like this except it was me, in ski clothes, wearing a helmet, holding skis and way less elegant. Photo: http://www.vuw.ac.nz

While we were in the chairlift, staring at the blue ice in the glacier, we wondered why it was blue.  The ice is blue because water is blue (or at least absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum).  When water is in other forms, like snow, it is not as compact.  Therefore, its blue color is not as visible.  When snow falls on glaciers, it compresses the snow and gives it the blue color.  Science is beautiful.  Literally.

Skiing in Sunny, Snowy Crans Montana

Last weekend, I met some friends from Belgium in Crans Montana, Switzerland.  They were lucky enough to vacation there for a week and I crashed with them for a couple of nights.

Their apartment had an insane view. I can’t imagine waking up to a sunrise over mountains like this every morning.

Although I’ve been to Swiss ski towns (Grindelwald, Zermatt) and skied in France (Contaimines, Clusaz) and Italy (Courmayeur), it was my first time skiing (and renting skis) in Switzerland.  Typically, it runs about 18 Euros ($24).  When I rented skis at Crans Montana, I gasped at the price.  It was 64 CHF ($69) for one day!   You would think that I would be used to Swiss prices by now.  They haven’t lost their ability to shock me.

English: Lac de la Moubra in Crans-Montana.

English: Lac de la Moubra in Crans-Montana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess I should have expected it, Crans Montana is a tony town where wealthy Russians, private bankers and the occasional celebrity (Roger Moore, the Sarkozys, Celine Dion, Princess Caroline) congregate.   In addition to skiing, it is known for its golf course (redesigned in 1999 by Seve Ballesteros), meeting facilities and hotel school.

Crans Montana is on the north side of the valley in the Valais region of Switzerland, the sunniest part in all of Switzerland.  It was a glorious sunny day, with plenty of snow and stunning views of the Swiss Alps on the other side of the valley.  It’s snowed in Geneva, but the mountains have received even more of it.  The snow report: lots of it.

These guys were brave enough to go off piste and look good doing it.  Seriously,  they were hopping around like little bunnies.  I was just happy to just not fall (on piste) and embarrass myself even more than I did.

Once again, I was (by far) the worst skier in the group.  Thankfully, everyone was very patient and encouraging.  I gathered my courage and tried a black run for the first time over here.

At the top of the run, notice the pole with the black in the background

The good news is that it was tons of fun and I made it down in one piece.  The bad news is that I was incredibly slow and slid about 40 feet down on my back, head first).

I slid down like the panda in this photo from Arkive.org

On second thought, that panda doesn’t look sufficiently panicked.  He looks like he is enjoying himself and isn’t worried about the possibility of death or serious injury.  Good thing I wear a helmet.

Mt. Blanc, The Tallest Mountain In The Alps

Him and Mt. Blanc/Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco

Mt. Blanc, Mont Blanc and Monte Bianco all refer to the same mountain.  It has so many names because of its strategic location.  It in France, viewable from Switzerland and forms part of the border with Italy.  The French and Italian names mean “white mountain.”  Other names for it include La Dame Blance and Il Bianco.

Aosta Valley – From behind the protective tape and snow fence on the slopes

It lies in the Alps between Italy’s Aosta Valley and the Haute-Savoie region of France .  The 11.6 km (7.1 mile) Mt. Blanc Tunnel has connected the two since it was built in 1965.

courtesy of EnlightenedTraveler.co.uk

The trip around the alps is long and so the tunnel was an instant success, becoming one of the major trans-alp transport routes.  It costs about $60 roundtrip for a car to use the tunnel.  That does not include the fine you will pay if you speed over 70 km/hr or do not leave sufficient distance between you and the car in front of you.  They are militant about this safe driving because in 1999 there was a fire in the tunnel that killed 39 people.  We felt a bit more at ease traveling through the tunnel knowing that when the tunnel reopened in 2002, it contained additional safety features.

courtesy of railsystem.net

Mt. Blanc’s height is 4,810 m (15, 782 feet) tall.  It has year-round snow.  Its Bossons glacier comprises the largest ice fall in Europe.  It made the news in 2007, when it grew 6 meters!

It is a center for alpine outdoor activities including: skiing, snowboarding, heliskiing, paragliding, snowshoeing, mountain climbing, trekking, hiking, mountain biking and everyone’s favorite pastime of warming themselves in cute cafes.  All of this activity is not without danger and Mt. Blanc averages 100 fatalities a year and many more severe injuries.  Recently, a Russian couple froze to death while attempting to climb Mt. Blanc, a body was found on a black run (he must have snuck in some night skiing), and an avalanche killed a man.  Looking at a video of a Mt. Blanc avalanche on YouTube, helped me to understand their power and danger.

Courmayeur Piste Map courtesy of winter-sports.com

The Aosta Valley, where we spent the weekend, is a paradise for off piste skiing.  Some of our group went off piste.  Having skied a whopping three times in the last fifteen years, I was happy to stick to the reds.

Please note that these pictures are from the Italian side.  Mt. Blanc’s peak is not visible as it is obscured by a lower part of the mountain when viewed from this angle.