Europe 2018 Trip Report – Chamonix

| May 1, 2018

After only spending 36 hours there, I feel a little sheepish about writing a trip report about Chamonix, especially as we only skied the default beginner run, the Mer du Glace.  But as much as anything, Chamonix is the birthplace of modern alpinism and ski alpinism, so just being there and catching a glimpse of what it’s all about makes it a mandatory pilgrimage.  In the 2007 ski mountaineering documentary “Steep,” Tim Petrick says “You can’t call yourself a ski mountaineer until you’ve been to Chamonix.” – a sentiment I’d agree with.

My intro the Chamonix came as a surprise flightseeing tour leaving from the Swiss town of Bex with my friend Ruedi Homberger.  I thought we might be able to just catch a glimpse of Chamonix, but Ruedi had other ideas and gave me the sunrise grand tour of the area, complete with names and notable ascents/descents.  After reading about these landmarks for years, it was surreal to finally see them all – Mt. Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi, Walker Spur, Grandes Jorasses, Heilbronner and the Gervasutti all lit up in morning alpineglow.  I took over 200 photos, but most of the images below are by Foto Homberger.

Part of Cham’s perverse allure is that it is known as “The Death Sport Capital of the World.”  You don’t have to look very hard or far to find extreme skiing, base jumping, speed flying, rock climbing, ice climbing or paragliding, all of which are considered suitable fun for the whole family.  When I first saw the footpath leading off of the Aiguille du Midi, I thought it was an avalanche fracture line or something – there was just no way a slippery, icy public footpath would traverse above a 3,000′ drop.  But mais oui, it does, and nobody seems too concerned about it. It wasn’t even that bad the day we did it, and I was wishing I’d worn crampons.  I later mentioned to a French friend how lethal it would be if you slipped and fell under the hand line, to which he replied “Why would you do that?”  Good point.  Don’t let go.

Still, the Chamonix area has claimed quite a few lives, including three of my friends.  I had first made plans to go there in 1994, but was sidetracked by La Grave for the next six years, which I think was a good thing as I’m sure I would have made some bad choices in Chamonix.  It is an area with instant and easy access to radical terrain and no shortage of testosterone to temper it.  In this regard, it reminds me of renting a piece of heavy earth moving equipment with zero training on how to use it – you can quickly get yourself into trouble.   I’d heard stories of people falling into crevasses on the Mer du Glace, but was thrilled to eat lunch while watching hoards of people follow other ski tracks right into the gut of an icefall packed with cracks on a clear sunny day.  It’s a miracle even more people don’t get hurt and I can see why there is such a huge Mountain Guide community there.

The town of Chamonix is much larger than I expected and is more of a connected series of villages in a long valley with skiing on both sides.  The gear shops there are amazing and plentiful, as are the restaurants.  We found a last second room at the historic Hotel Gustavia, which turned out to be a screaming deal in part because it was located right on top of three very popular bars.

On our one and only ski day in Chamonix, we were worried about getting on the Augile du Midi tram the next day and considered reserving tickets the night before as it can apparently be a mad house on powder days.  Instead, we took our chances and were thrilled to walk straight onto the tram in the morning, only to find what most locals probably already knew – the warm daytime temps and slight refreeze at night had created an almost unskiable chopped up mountain of frozen coral reef chunder.  Ha!  Oh well, it gave us a good excuse to make a day of a little touring and skiing down the Mer du Glace, doing a short hike out where the glacier has retreated (scary how much…) and then ski a long traverse back to town.  Super fun.
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Category: Trip Reports

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber and Mountain Unicycle rider. He and Polly Samuels McLean are the parents of two very loud little girls.

Comments (4)

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  1. F. Felix says:

    What an awesome way to see Cham for the first time–good for you! I always feel like an imposter and a punter there, because I am unwilling to ski those lines when it seems like *everyone* else is…veeery dangerous place ;)

  2. I think the key to some of those lines is patience. You may totally luck out and get them on your first one-week visit, but more likely it might take a full season or two. Same thing with big lines in the Tetons, and many other places for that matter.

  3. lotusalpine says:

    Nice to run into you at the start of the ‘James Bond Track’ Andrew….

  4. Likewise! That was a perversely fun exit, especially with all of the people, mud and rocks. It kept things exciting, and then of course ended at a bar.

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