Roger Alton: Chamonix – still the best ski experience in the world
Saturday 10 January 2009
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
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