Roger Alton: Chamonix – still the best ski experience in the world

No matter how you try to slice it this year, skiing is not going to be many people's idea of a bargain holiday – which is why it pays to look where you can get most bang for your buck. So, purely for research, I took a quick three-day pre-Christmas trip to the daddy of them all, Chamonix.

The snow was (and, I'm told, still is) fantastic, the weather pin-clear, cold and perfect. This is shaping up to be one of the best seasons ever. And the prices? Well, really not too bad, considering what you are getting.

It's easy to forget that in Chamonix, just an hour from Geneva, is the greatest accessible mountain range in the world. Having been there countless times – winter and summer – in the past four decades, I still experience a goose-bump thrill of seeing the Mont Blanc range as it swings into view on the Autoroute Blanche. Chamonix is without question the most complete skiing experience in the world, and this is why.

Up the valley from the town you have the rugged terrain and massive steeps and deeps of the Grands Montets in Argentière, the great ski- and climbing-bum capital of the world, and one of the most laid-back places to hang out. The skiing possibilities are almost infinite off the 3,275m Grands Montets, accessing the bowls of Levancher, the great open runs at the front – and the centrepiece, of course: the vast unpisted fields off the back of the top cable car where you have perfect views of the Argentière glacier and the Col du Chardonnay. Here, come the spring, the haute routers zigzag their way up at the start of their epic trek to Zermatt.

At the other end of the valley is the family-oriented resort of Les Houches. Like Argentière, it is just five minutes' drive from Chamonix, and well worth a visit if the weather (or the queues) are too bad up the road. It's the home of the valley's only World Cup run and the extensive tree skiing makes it a must for poor-visibility days. It also has a fabulous mountain restaurant, the Vieille Luge, where we dined one night. This requires planning, as you need snow shoes to access it, though the brisk 20-minute hike works up plenty of appetite for the lovingly prepared traditional savoyarde three-courser that awaits you.

Slap bang in the middle of town are the Brévent/ Flégère areas, now brilliantly linked and with a quite superb lift system that makes skiing almost obscenely pleasurable. The recent link makes this a stand-out ski area on its own, irrespective of all the other wonders of Chamonix. It's perfect for intermediates and has superb powder skiing off the back of Brévent.

Right in the town centre is the cable car to the 3,842m Aiguille du Midi, worth a trip whether or not you're planning to ski the 17km Vallée Blanche. Actually, no: if you're going up there and the weather's OK, do the Vallée Blanche. It's one of the finest ski trips of the world and in range for any intermediate skier with just a bit of bottle (the traverse along the wildly exposed ridge from the Midi to the start of the route is, er, fairly bracing). But do take a guide: they'll not only stop you from skiing into a crevasse, they will show you the hypnotic beauties of this extraordinary run through some of the wildest landscapes in Europe.

And besides all the magnificent stuff right there on your doorstep, you are a brisk drive away from a whole range of skiing bliss. Not far is Les Contamines (easy meadow skiing), or Les Carroz (full of trees and good bowls and again a good relief if the weather stinks in Chamonix). But closer to hand is one of my favourite areas in Europe: the Aosta Valley in Italy, just a half-hour drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel.

If you can make the time, get up early and go all the way through to the Monte Rosa region of Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna. I once drove from Chamonix to Gressoney – an hour and a quarter or so – and traversed over to a thrilling couloir in Alagna.

Last month we just went to Courmayeur, first stop after the tunnel. It's worth remembering that you will often get completely different weather systems from those on the French side of the Mont Blanc massif.

Courmayeur is now far easier to access than the old days of the jumbo queues for the one cable car up the hill. But the skiing here is almost always in great nick: pretty steep, good reds and blacks and fabulous powder on a good day. If you're feeling intrepid, take the Helbronner lift, which accesses not only the Vallée Blanche but also some steep, challenging glacier skiing on the Italian side.

Courmayeur also has probably the best mountain restaurant in the world. The endlessly charming Maison Vieille is run by Giacomo and his beautiful Brazilian wife Luciana, plus a stream of good-looking helpers. This isn't Michelin-posh, thank goodness. It just has the best pasta and focaccia and the friendliest atmosphere anywhere in the Alps. It's worth taking up skiing just to go there; please don't miss it.

But how to get the most out of all this? Well, declaring an interest here, I have been skiing for years around Chamonix with an old friend called Gavin Foster. He runs one of the first – and I think the best – customised ski businesses: Ski Weekend. He puts all the emphasis on personal service and fantastic guides, some of the best in the Alps.

You will be shown around everything, whether it's the best beer, the best snow, or the best couloir. Last month, I was skiing the Grands Montets with Mark Trustkett, former chef des pistes at Deer Valley, Utah; and piste skiing in Courmayeur with Yves Detry, a Mont Blanc marathoner, Himalayan first ascensionist and noted extreme skier, who was the first person to ski the north face of the Midi. (It's there, right under the cable car when you go up. You can have a look and wonder how anyone could possibly do it.)

Anyway, guys like Yves are all part of Gavin Foster's service. I realise you put your neck on the line if you commend a friend, but in some 20 years or so I know that a few days with Ski Weekend means you will always get the best out of the best skiing in Europe.

Ski Weekend (01392 878 353; skiweekend.com) offers three nights half-board/B&B in Chamonix starting at £399 in the four-star Chalet Jumelles, including private transfers, insurance and ski guiding, based on two people sharing. Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) flies to Geneva from London City, Heathrow and Manchester

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?