Chamonix is the place to go for alpine thrill seekers wanting to push themselves to the extreme. The resort is known the world over for its steep, challenging runs, off-piste powder, and dramatic mountain scenery. Its legendary 20-kilometre (12-mile) Valley Blanche is a high off-piste run, the longest in Europe, and a rite of passage for ballsy skiers on their way to becoming experts. Chamonix hosted the first-ever Winter Olympics in 1924 and is considered by many to be the birthplace of alpine skiing. The resort is a large, yet attractive town offering both traditional charm and a lively nightlife.
Chamonix ski resort is located a little over an hour from Geneva, one and a half hours from Chambery, two hours from Turin and a little over two hours from Lyon. All these locations are serviced by major airlines. From these hubs, you can rent a car or take an airport transfer. Trains also move in between most of these locations.
Chamonix's ski area (1,035-3,842m) is spread across five mountains: Grands Montets, L'Aiguille du Midi, Le Brévent and La Flégère (lift linked) and Le Tour, so skiers must be prepared to travel if they want to ski multiple areas. The good news is that recent lift upgrades mean shorter queuing times.
Chamonix is one of the giants for freeriding. The Aiguille du Midi and Grands Montets cable cars offer access to the off-piste powder on the glaciers. Freeriders will encounter some mind-blowing scenery along the way - deep crevasses, ice falls, clifftops, and caves.
From the Aiguille du Midi (3,812m) you can see the French, Swiss and Italian Alps (including Mont Blanc on a clear day). This is the view just before skiing down the 20-kilometre Valley Blanche - a totally unmarked and unmaintained off-piste run.
Freestylers describe Chamonix as one big playground with an abundance of natural freestyle terrain. There are also two snowparks and a half-pipe.
Beginners and intermediates aren't left out in the cold; there are plenty of long green, blue, and red runs with reliable snow cover on which to practise turns.
Chamonix makes up part of the Mont Blanc ski area. There are two ski passes to choose from: Chamonix Pass (€237/week) or the Mont Blanc Pass (€289/week).
Chamonix's popularity means its runs tend to get tracked out by lunchtime, so advanced skiers should head to the high off-piste terrain to avoid the crowds (take the Aiguille du Midi or Grands Montets cable cars). There are many dangers not least from crevasses, seracs, cliffs and avalanches so it's worth getting a handful of friends together and hiring a guide for the day; a guide will not only ensure safety but will show you some of the mountain's hidden gems. Evolution 2, Intersport shop, 306 Rue dr Paccard, Chamonix (+33(0)450 559 022) charges €80 per person to accompany an experienced guide off-piste for the day (groups of four to eight).
The one thing all powder enthusiasts seek is the run that keeps going for miles and Chamonix has plenty of those. The 20-kilometre (12-mile) Valley Blanche is the obvious place to head to. Accessed by the Aiguille du Midi cable car (3812m), The VB has a 2800-metre vertical and some very real dangers; only skiers able to parallel turn on a red run should attempt it (a guide is strongly recommended). There are several variants of the run: the Normal Valley, the Petit Envers du Plan and the Grand Envers du Plan; the latter two are more visually interesting, but are more heavily crevassed and hold a higher risk of avalanches. The VB is best skied in February/March time (don't leave it too late in the day for safety reasons).
Besides the Valley Blanche, check out the powder on the Lavencher bowl accessed by the Bochard lift. The extreme freeride race, Red Bull Snowthrill, is hosted here each February.
Heli-skiing is another option; many companies offer heli-drops on the Mont-Blanc massif just over the border in Switzerland or Italy (heli-drops are illegal on French National parkland). Evolution 2 runs heliskiing trips to the Val Veny in Italy, 20 minutes from the centre of Chamonix, costing €350 per person (see above for contact details).
First-timers/Children: Chamonix has four nursery areas: Les Planards, Les Chosalets, Le Savoy, and La Vormaine, all of which are covered by the Chamonix Pass. Ski kindergartens operate in Le Savoy (1049m) and La Vormaine (1480m). The Chamonix Ski School, 190 Place de l'Eglise (+33(0)450 532 257) take children from three years. The Paradis des Praz children's ski park (+33(0)661 732 300), located behind the golf course in Les Praz, is open Wednesdays, weekends, and school holidays and is popular for its snow rafting; €2,50 for 20 minutes.
Beginners: The only complaint about Chamonix's beginner ski areas is that they're a little fragmented from the rest, but there is a good choice. Les Chosalets (1,230m) is 500 metres from the Lognan/Grands Montets cable car in Argentiere and is ideal for beginners of all ages. Les Planards (1,062-1,242m) is a large ski area for both beginners and intermediates with four runs (one red, one blue, and two green) and a mountain restaurant; snow cover here is guaranteed with 41 canons.
Intermediates: There is a good choice of long blue and red runs to practise turns, particularly in La Flegere and Les Houches. The disadvantage of Les Houches is that it's not covered by the Chamonix Pass and it is also littered with drag lifts. The higher slopes of Les Grands Montets (2,765m) offer long, wide runs as well as steeper, more challenging terrain to test your skills as your confidence improves later in the week.
Chamonix has two snowparks: one in Les Grands Montets and the other in Les Houches. Les Grands Montets Snowpark is located at the mid-station of Lognan. Freestylers of all levels are welcome: the Fun Zone is ideal for beginners with its practice area of gentle jumps; the Snow Bowl attracts the more advanced for its table-top jumps, big kickers, and banked turns. Most years there's also a natural half-pipe.
Les Houches' Area 43 is a mobile park unit - basically a container dropped into place by a helicopter (like the one in Kitzbuehel) featuring boxes, rails, and tables. Although smaller than Les Grands Montets Snowpark, more modules are expected to be added to the park over time.
Freestylers don't have to limit themselves to the snowparks: Chamonix has an abundance of natural freestyle terrain, such as jumps, quarter-pipes, and gullies, particularly in Le Tour and La Flegere. The latter is also home to the popular Big Tit Jump, which is the largest natural kicker in Europe.
In terms of ski pass prices, advanced/expert skiers should opt for the Mont Blanc Pass rather than the Chamonix Pass as you get nearly four times the terrain for just a bit more.
If you're planning to ski the Vallee Blanche, avoid the 20-minute wait to board to the Aiguille du Midi cable car, by pre-booking your place in advance for an additional fee.
Plan your trip to coincide with the Freeride World Tour in January. This event is a six-stop international tour where the world's best freeride skiers and snowboarders battle it out for a cash prize.
Before leaving, be sure to catch the funicular railway up to the Montenvers station, which is poised on a rocky ridge at 1,913 metres. At the top you'll find a restaurant with sun terrace from which to enjoy the impressive views of the Mer de Glace and the peaks of Les Grands Jorasses and Les Drus. In summer there's an ice grotto with scupltures and caves. The Montevers Railway has been running since 1908 and is a popular attraction throughout the year.
Those on a budget should avoiding drinking on the mountain and instead hit happy hour in resort bars (usually 4-7 p.m.). Self-catering guests can stock up on out-of-town supermarkets on the way into Chamonix rather than using more expensive in-resort shops.
Little Boxes is located right by the bus station. Grab coffee and breakfast, and sit outside. 269 Avenue de Courmayeur, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France
La Bergerie is a mountain restaurant set at the mid-station of Brevent. It has awesome views of the Mont Blanc massif. Télécabine de Planpraz 74400 45.935921, 6.853704, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France
Hameau Albert 1er is a two-star Michelin restaurant that specializes in cuisine influenced by the French and Italian Alps. 38 Route du Bouchet, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France
MBC is a Canadian-run micro-brewery with specialty craft brews. During the winter months, MCB hosts live music. 350 Route du Bouchet, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France
There are four airports within two hours drive of Chamonix:
Geneva International Airport (88km/1hr), Route de l‘Aéroport 21, 1215 Genève 15, Switzerland. British Airways, easyJet, and Swiss Airlines fly from London airports; bmibaby.com and easyJet also fly from regional UK airports.
Chambery Airport (139km/1.5hrs), Rue Antoine Montagnole, 73420 Viviers-du-Lac, France. SnowJet flies direct between London and Chambery.
Grenoble Airport (190km/2hrs) 38590 Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, France. easyJet flies direct from London to Grenoble.
Lyon International Airport (220km/2hrs) Aeroport Saint Exupery, 69720 Saint-Laurent-de-Mure, France. British Airways and easyJet fly direct to Lyon.
By bus: From Geneva Airport, Altibus (+33(0)4 79 68 32 96) serves Chamonix Monday-Friday 9 a.m - 12 p.m and 2p.m - 6 p.m; SAT Mont-Blanc (+33(0)4 50 78 05 33) run three buses daily.
Shared/Private transfers: Available from all airports and are often the quickest and easiest option, especially from Chambery, Lyon or Grenoble. Expect to pay around €60 per person, return from Geneva. AlpLine (+33(0)450 743 842); Mountain drop-offs (+44(0)207 043 4874; resorthoppa (+44(0)134 230 5677).
By train: From Geneva Airport, regular trains run to Chamonix (a three-hour journey). From Chambery and Lyon airports, trains run to Annecy (two-hour journey) and from here you can take a train to Chamonix (two-hour journey). See SNCF or SBB.
By car: Hire cars are available from all airports; take the A40 motorway (toll road). Chamonix has 4,000 parking spaces and three indoor car parks: Chamonix Sud, Saint Michel, and Place Mont-Blanc; the latter is often the easiest to find spaces in. Weekly parking is available for €30-€40. More information: Chamonix Parc Auto (+33(0)450 53 65 71). Alternatively, park just outside Chamonix in the Relais du Grépon car park and take the bus; transport to the town center is free on the Le Mulet minibus.
Regular buses serve the valley and ski areas; ski pass holders ride for free. Chamonix Bus, 591 promenade Marie-Paradis, Chamonix (+33(0)450 53 05 55); email@example.com
Mont Blanc Express Trains run from Chamonix (place de la Gare/+33(0)450 53 12 98) to the neighboring villages of Servoz, Les Houches, Argentière and Vallorcine. There's one train every hour. The SNCF line from Servoz to Vallorcine is free of charge for holders of the Carte d'Hôte pass (free with accommodation).
Car hire companies in Chamonix: Chamonix Autoloc-Hertz, 11 av du Savoy (+33 (0)4 50 53 73 68); Europcar, 36 places de la Gare (+33(0)4 50 53 63 40). Road conditions are hardly ever a problem as Chamonix sits between the Mont Blanc Tunnel and Italy, so roads are quickly cleared after a storm.