We thought that this was going to be our last opportunity to see the European Alps, as we thought that we were moving to San Francisco – however, those plans weren’t to be. It was greedy, and ambitious, but we booked two weeks spread across three different areas to try and cram several winter holidays into one.
We flew into Geneva from London City Airport, and after flying from LCY once, I will wish to be able to use that airport in future London based departures. It was easy, quick and cheap to get to, as well as being fast to pass through customs.
We rented a car from Geneva for two weeks, as many of the places that we were going sadly required the use of a rental car. There are two options when renting a car from the Geneva Airport – French Sector and Swiss Sector. I chose the French Sector, as it was nearly €300 cheaper. The result was the cars from the French Sector don’t come with snow tyres by default in winter, and they were going to be an additional €25/day fee… (more than the actual rental price). The short-term forecast sadly looked like snow was an impossibility, however, it was two weeks, and we’d be going to some mountainous regions, where things can change fast. I reluctantly chose the upgrade to a vehicle with snow tyres. The fine print on car rental always has a way of catching you out.
We also decided to rent a snowboard/skis from Geneva, that way we’d get a cheaper once-off rental fee, as well as saving time at each area we went to. I hired a nice snowboard for €170, which I thought was reasonable, as it was quite a nice snowboard – if somewhat optimistic renting a ‘powder board’. However, Risa’s quote for ski gear was €380!!
Logistics out of the way, we finally made our way to Chamonix. Geneva looked like a pretty (clean) city, especially as the sun was out, and there was snow on the mountains in the distance. There were still patches of snow left in town, however, it was pushing 15˚ outside – nearly 10˚ warmer than the grey London we’d left behind. The driving was easy (I bought a European TomTom) if somewhat boring.
Like excited children, when we finally got a peak of Mont Blanc, we pulled into the dedicated rest area just outside of Chamonix. This was our first chance seeing actual mountains, and like always, what we saw today was going to be eclipsed in the next few days (hours).
We checked into our amazing little apartment (from Airbnb), and as predicted, the views got a whole lot more epic! We were right in front of Mont Blanc, as well as Aiguille du Midi, and some impressive (if a little scary) glaciers. It was all ‘just there’ in front of our top floor balcony. If it weren’t so expensive, it would be amazing to just relax in this place, but we had to maximise our short stay. The sunshine and the views on the balcony were rejuvenating in so many ways.
Risa had read great reviews of a fondue restaurant in town, so after organising her skis (which cost the grand total of €27.80 for four days), we went to Le fer a Cheval and ordered their tomato fondue. I knew we were in for a cheese fest, but I’d forgotten just how much cheese is in a pot. It was a case of diminishing returns, like many rich foods. The first few cheese coated pieces of bread or potato were heavenly, then it got harder and harder to keep an appetite. I did manage to complete all the cheese in the pot, but, I knew that my body was going to have to work overtime to break down all that fat!
It was quite interesting seeing just how large and busy central Chamonix is. The streets were filled with pedestrians, and there were bars blasting out cheesy Euro-dance music! The main pedestrian street seemed to go on for blocks and blocks, and we stopped walking well before reaching the end.
Day 1 – Le Tour Balme Ski Area
There hadn’t been any fresh snow for nearly a fortnight, so we didn’t have much in the way of expectations for the snow. However, the sun was shining, and the skies were filled with beautiful sunshine, so it was a good consolation prize.
Chamonix is really a collection of several resorts in the Chamonix area. As today was my first day back on a snowboard since we left Niseko to travel China, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey back in 2014 – the one day in Austria for the work ski trip, where I broke my collarbone in near zero visibility doesn’t count – we decided to start off fairly easily. Balme is made up of mostly blue, with a few red runs. Amazingly, we both felt comfortable right from the first run, and were shredding the groomed piste, and dodging the unpredictable children like pros – or, like moderately skilled amateurs, mostly in control.
As this was our first taste of the European Alps, we spent most of the day just staring up at the mountains that surrounded the resort, not paying too much attention to the resort itself. After a few times down the same runs, the actual snowboarding got a little familiar/repetitive.
It was also surprising just how long the chairlifts (and runs) are, especially after being used to the three-four lifts to reach the summit area in Niseko.
I could definitely see the potential if there was some fresh snow, but with the off-piste areas turned into icy mogul fields, we didn’t bother.
Day 2 – Brévent-Flégère Ski Area
The weather report predicted that today would be miserable, and it was mostly true. After two days of clear skies, I figured that it was just the norm here in Chamonix. I don’t mind grey skies if it means fresh snow, but today, it was just grey skies.
In fact, it wasn’t even worth the risk of bringing my camera with me, and instead I relied on the less than impressive camera on my OnePlus One.
However, the resort had far more potential than yesterday’s, with much steeper and more challenging runs. We did a few laps in Flegere before catching the gondola that links it to neighbouring Brevent (which is the closest to downtown Chamonix). We could see a large gondola that connected to a station that seemed perched high upon a cliff. Sadly, the only way down was via an icy black run, but since we’re chasing panoramas and scenic view points, we thought we’d risk it – we were totally fine.
It was stunning, and we could clearly see the large glacier, Mer de Glace, as well as countless rugged peaks.
It was actual so beautiful, that we decided to come back again on a sunny day to be able to capture it better!
Day 3 – Les Grande Montets Ski Area
Another morning greeted with clear skies and sunshine. Even so, we took our time and lazily made our way to our third ski resort in Chamonix.
This was by far the steepest of the three that we’d visited, and the runs also seemed far wider. Sadly, it was also much icier, being on the North face, making it a little harder on the snowboard!
However, the views from the top of the gondola were the best we’d seen yet! We were looking down on the Mer de Glace glacier, as well as looking straight across as Aiguille du Midi, and Mont Blanc. It’s time to play vocabulary bingo, because I’m out of ways to describe just how rugged, jagged, menacing and just plain amazing the mountains were in this area. It honestly felt like something out of a hyperactive videogame design, rather than actual reality.
As with the other resorts, the off-piste areas were just enormous mogul fields, inspiring fear into both of us. We did however brave an enormous mogul field as we attempted to visit a building we could see in the distance, far from any runs – or at least it appeared that way at the time. It was a nice challenge, avoiding rocks and picking a path through waist-deep moguls. Brilliantly, I failed to take a single photo of Chalet Refuge de Lognan, other than its pirate flag, and the view we took in with our picnic.
What came as a surprise though was the views at the rear of the refuge – there was an rather large glacier, as well as some very impressive frozen waterfalls. As we sat there, just lapping up the views, we became aware of their sounds. We could hear, and partially feel, the sound of the glacier doing its thing, with an impossibly powerful ‘creak’ and ‘crack’ that were on the verge of sub-audible frequencies. It was hard to believe that we could hear (and feel) something from so far away, but it does help understand just how these dramatic valleys were formed. It was incredibly powerful for me to be able to hear the Earth.
We had a couple more quick runs from the top, but the slopes were starting to harden up, making for a more treacherous surface. I’m not in the mood for any further injuries, so I took each turn with great caution.
Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any more beautiful, and we were making our way back to the apartment for another night in, cooking duck confit and tartiflette, the peaks began an incredible rose hued glow from the setting sun. It was always a pleasure in Niseko, seeing a ‘pink Yotei’, and it was double-y so here with the combination of snow and dark granite with all its shadows and facets.
Day 4 – Aiguille du Midi
The big one! Today was another clear and calm day, without a hint of a cloud on the horizon. After spending the last four days looking up at Aiguille du Midi, we were finally going to catch the gondola up to experience the views from the top. The trip up was broken into two sections, with it being required to change gondolas halfway up.
We’re generally not squeamish with heights in gondolas, but there was something about the gradient and height that made going up (especially the second half) feel extremely precipitous, especially the final section where it docks into the side of the mountain!
It was still early in the morning (ha, 10AM), so the sun was still quite low in the sky, casting deep shadows into the valleys. Our first views were of the skiers/snowboarders that were going to tackle the descent. I’ve heard it’s not actually too difficult, but we gave it a miss, satisfying ourselves with being pedestrian tourists today.
We continued to gasp at the jagged peaks that surrounded our periphery. Every direction we looked, there were spiky columns of granite poking from equally angry looking mountains. The clear skies, the bright snow, and the dark angular granite was intoxicating to the two of us.
We walked between all of the available view points, as each offered a new sneak peak. From the rear of the summit, we had fantastic views of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, and the enormous glaciers all around the area, which was expected.
What was less expected were the rock climbers making their final ascent! Slowly, as we moved around the viewpoints on the summit, we spotted them making progress towards the top. It was sunny, but it was still bitterly cold without gloves on. I’m sure this was a well-earned photo opportunity for the two of them!
Our final viewpoint was the protruding glass cage ‘step into the void’. Strangely, stepping out onto the glass floor, looking down hundreds of meters of empty space wasn’t terrifying. It was hard to grasp the reality, as it felt more like an amusement than anything dangerous. There is a line up for this experience, and impressively, there are staff there full time to take your photos for you (sadly, I didn’t manually set the exposure the first attempt). I can see the benefit, as it speeds up the whole process, and reduces the risk of dropping anything onto the fragile floor. It’s also a requirement to wear soft slippers over your shoes, to avoid scratching/marking the floor.
A few vanity snaps, and it was back down to the valley.
We purchased a Chamonix Unlimited pass for the day, which allowed us access up Aiguille du Midi. Since the sun was still shining, we decided to get Brevent-Flegere another visit. It was quite a mission, but it was worth the effort for one more view!
Well, we thought it was worth the effort until it came time to leave the mountain, which due to the lack of snow at lower altitudes, meant catching a gondola back down – and waiting close to an hour in line for this return ride!
And with that, our mountain time in Chamonix had come to an end. We got to experience the fun of finding a supermarket in France after lunchtime on Sunday – a lesson we’ve taken note of for future. Hint: they close mostly close at noon!
Tomorrow we move on towards Val d’Isere and Tignes!