Chamonix, an almost mythical name to climbers and ski mountaineers. This French alpine town is where the sport of climbing mountains began and is by many considered to be the center of alpine climbing and ski mountaineering on this earth. It is to alpine climbing what Yosemite Valley is to rock climbing. Seemingly endless granite spires and massive faces bristling with long rock and ice routes... Committing ski lines down some of the steepest slopes possible. And all just a cable car ride away. This is what defines Chamonix to the climber and skier
Volumes have been written about Chamonix’s climbing and skiing. I’d like to talk about the town of Chamonix. After spending some of my days guiding and climbing in Chamonix for the past eight years I’ve spent a fair amount of time in town (due in part to the Alps notoriously fickle weather!)
Chamonix sits in a large glacier-carved forested valley at about 3000 feet in elevation. If you were to arrive in foggy weather it wouldn’t look like much…some nice trees and a lot of fondue restaurants. But once the clouds parted it might blow your mind. You would see Mont Blanc at almost 16,000 feet right out your hotel window, large glaciers spilling down the sides of the valley and the rocket ship-like top station of the cable car looming 9000 vertical feet straight above. Not many places in the world have this amount of vertical relief.
The Chamonix Valley is home to a number of small alpine communities with Chamonix being the hub (and most crowded). Prior to 1740 the valley was inhabited only by modest sheep farmers. To middle ages people the spectacular scenery was only a nuisance of landslides, bad weather and encroaching glaciers as the little ice age caused the large glaciers to actually advance right into the valley itself. In 1741 two English explorers “discovered” the Chamonix Valley and regaled the world with tales of their exploits amongst the Mer de Glace or “sea of ice”. The tourist boon began.
In 1760 a local doctor put up a cash prize to the first person to summit Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. Finally, in 1786 two locals, Paccard and Balmat, succeeded in reaching the summit and thus the sport of climbing mountains was born. Since then Chamonix has hosted the first winter Olympic games in 1924 and subsequently saw infrastructure take off, notably with the Aiguille du Midi cable car and the proliferation of hotels. Today, Chamonix is one of the most important tourist destinations in the Alps overflowing with a multitude of lodging from basic bunkhouses to 5-star palaces and restaurants from simple burger joints to Michelin two-star fine dining.
Chamonix has moved quite far from the small farming village it once was. Don’t expect the peace and quiet of the mountains. Home to three major ski resorts and some of the best alpine scenery on the planet, this town is ground zero for alpine tourism whether it be of the technical kind or of the tourist kind. In the middle of ski season, and also in August, the town is quite simply very crowded. August is a month in which all of Italy and much of France take off from work and many of them head for the mountains. Be prepared to get close! English is spoken by just about everyone here making this a bad place to immerse in the French language. In fact, many of the locals aren’t even French. There’s a sizable Scandinavian and British community here.
Chamonix has a large pedestrian-only central section along the glacial-silt-tinged L’Arve River. This is the hub of the town and where you will find many of the restaurants and shops. Outdoor gear stores (check out Snell Sports if you want to drool over gear) are many and most of the major outdoor gear & clothing companies are represented with company stores. The other section of Chamonix is Chamonix Sud (South in French) where you will find the Aiguille du Midi cable car, more restaurants, bars, and lots of apartments.
Chamonix is not the only game in town. The Chamonix Valley is home to a number of other communities, all connected by a train and bus system. If you are looking for somewhere to hang that is a bit less manic then check out Les Praz de Chamonix, Argentierre (home of Grand Montet ski area), Les Bosson or Les Houches. All have a much quieter feel
By far the easiest way to get to Chamonix from abroad is to fly into Geneva, Switzerland, and then by shuttle bus. There are a number of good shuttle services that will take you right from the airport terminal directly to your hotel in Chamonix. Prices range from around 30 Euro and up. Here’s a few recommended services:
If coming from other parts of Switzerland such as Zurich, there is a local train that connects with the uber efficient Swiss rail system at Martigny in the Swiss Rhone Valley. The slow cog wheel train ride from Martigny to Chamonix is quite spectacular. The Swiss Rail website SBB is an excellent source for planning rail trips.
A car is not required to get around the Chamonix area. There is a bus and train service that is free from Les Houches all the way to Vallorcine if you are staying in a valley hotel. Schedules are posted at every train station and bus stop.
To access the mountains, you have a number of options:
The Aiguille du Midi Cable Car
This is probably the most amazing cable car ride in the world. It will whisk you from the center of town at 3000 feet to the glaciers at the top of the Aiguille du Midi at well over 12,000 feet…in 20 minutes. The exit out of the cable car is, well, technical. It requires ice axe, crampons and possibly a rope as a fall would be fatal. The Aiguille du Midi top station gives the climber and skier access to an almost endless world of climbs and ski descents.
The Mont Blanc Panoramic Gondola
Open only in summer, this spectacular fixed gondola ride takes you high across the famous Vallee Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi top station all the way over to Point Hellbronner in Italy. It is convenient for accessing climbs over by the Italian border.
Le Flegere Cable Car
Part of the Flegere ski resort in the winter, this cable car and the Index chairlift give you access to all the rock climbing the Aiguille Rouges have to offer. In winter, it is used to access off piste skiing off the backside of the Flegere ski resort such as the popular Col du Brevard.
Grand Montet Cable Car
Another two stage cable car and part of the large Grand Montet ski resort in the winter. In summer it is used to access the climbs off the Argentierre Glacier as well as the Petit Aiguille Vert. In Winter, it is the starting point of the famed Haute Route Ski Tour as well as being the access for off piste skiing and numerous ski tours off the Argentierre Glacier.
Brevent Cable Car
Leaving from near the center of town, the Brevent Gondola and cable car are part of the Brevent ski resort in the winter and give the off piste skier access to some fun side country slopes. In summer, there is fine cragging on the rock climbs of Brevent.
Restaurants & Watering Holes
Chamonix has many, many restaurants lining just about all of it’s streets. Choosing a place to eat can be a bit daunting. Here are a few of my favorite Chamonix haunts:
Le Munchie: A locals favorite for fine dining with reasonable prices. On one of Chamonix’s oldest streets and run by Swedes, they serve eclectic Asian fusion dishes. It is advisable to make reservations.
The Jekyll & Hyde Pub: Housed in a 16th century building in Chamonix Sud, this English style pub serves up excellent pub food and burgers. It’s also a great place to grab just a pint. Sunday is BBQ rib night.
Le Panier des 4 saisons: Probably the best French restaurant in Chamonix without getting into Michelin stars. Tucked away off the pedestrian walkway with a modern alpine décor.
Bighorn Bistro: Longing for a real American breakfast done right complete with endless drip coffee? This is your place. A newer addition to Chamonix Sud, this bistro is run by American expats and they are doing a fantastic job. Dinners are awesome also.
MBC (Micro Brasserie de Chamonix): Run by Canadians, this is Chamonix’s only microbrewery. North American style décor and great burgers and ribs are served up.
Le Chaudron: If you’re looking for traditional local Savoyarde cuisine this is a top choice. Also on Chamonix’s oldest street, this tiny restaurant oozes charm. Make a reservation.
Elevation 1904: A local’s favorite watering hole across from the train station. In good weather when the outside seating is set up there are few places better to sip a blond beer and people watch. They also serve up great afternoon snacks and a hearty English breakfast.
Poco Loco: A “Fast food” burger joint right in the middle of town. Some of the best “fast food” burgers I’ve eaten with local ground beef served on fresh baked local bread… a top lunch choice.
Chamonix has no shortage of accommodations (unless it’s August or Christmas!). Here are a few of my recommended establishments. Apartments are a great deal if you are staying for a week or more as they are usually cheaper than hotels and you can choose not to eat out all the time.
Gustavia: A 3-star hotel right across from the train station. Rooms are very modern and are a great deal but they are a bit small. Run by Swedes so of course they speak perfect English. Can be a bit noisy due to the popular Chambre Neuf bar downstairs (for some not a disadvantage).
Hotel L’Arve: Another great 3-star hotel in a quiet location right on the river L’Arve. It features more traditional décor with a large lobby and a nice bar.
Grand Hotel des Alpes: 4-star luxury accommodations right in the thick of things in the center of the pedestrian area. If you are looking to impress someone or just want to have that extra comfort, this is a great choice.
There are so many apartments it’s hard to make a list. But the ones in the Chamonix Sud complex are usually a great deal. Check out Pierre e Vacanes.
Hostels or “Gites”:
Le Vagabond: If you are looking to go cheap and don’t mind dorm style accommodation, check out this gite just South of the main part of town.
In Summer there are numerous campgrounds which can be a bit densely packed compared to the typical US forest service camping. One of the nicest is the Mer de Glace camping up the valley in Les Praz de Chamonix. It’s very clean and even has wireless.
So there you have it, Chamonix in a nutshell. For those planning a trip I hope this helps with some of the logistical planning. As for planning your adventures in the mountains, I can only say that Chamonix is a complicated place where things can get very real, very quick. If not hiring a guide (an excellent idea for those of any ability on their first Chamonix ski mountaineering or climbing trip) it is highly advisable to keep things very conservative and well below your limit on your first trip here. It can take years to get a real hang of the place.