Blame it on the Brits. Chamonix was a sleepy Savoyard village nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc until 1741 when William Windham and Richard Pococke arrived in search of adventure. The two young British aristocrats clambered up the local glacier, explored the nearby mountains and subsequently penned such a romantic picture of the region in their journals that they fired the imagination of their fellow countrymen. For the next century and more—Anglo-French wars permitting—Chamonix became an essential stop for English travelers making the Grand Tour of Europe. Alpine tourism had arrived and Chamonix became its capital.
Fast forward to the 21st century and, despite the rise of other winter resorts, Chamonix remains the grande dame of the Alps. Windham and Pococke’s glacier—the Mer de Glace—is still there, winding its majestic way down the Mont Blanc massif, and so too is the magnificent setting that once inspired poets like Shelley and Byron—the latter declaring Mont Blanc to be the “monarch of mountains”. Novelist Charles Dickens had great expectations when he visited in 1847 and he was not disappointed. “Mont Blanc and the Valley of Chamonix, and the Sea of Ice, and all the wonders of the most wonderful place are above and beyond one’s wildest expectation,” he enthused. “I cannot imagine anything in nature more stupendous or sublime.”
Most Victorians visited for the view, but an intrepid few came to climb Byron’s monarch of mountains, aided by the guides of the famous Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, established in 1821 and still the best in the business. Western Europe’s highest peak is a major draw for mountaineers and hikers—which explains why Chamonix is busiest in the summer, although it has garnered more renown for its winter sports since hosting the first Winter Olympics in 1924. But downhill skiing—which was not developed until the late 1890s—is now a major draw, making Chamonix as much of a de rigueur destination for skiers and snowboarders today as it was for the touring toffs of yesteryear.
Again it’s Mont Blanc that deals Chamonix the trump card because Western Europe’s highest mountain is also the site of Europe’s longest—and possibly the world’s most famous—ski run, the so-called Descente de la Vallée Blanche. Starting from the Aiguille du Midi nearly 13,000 feet up Mont Blanc, the run follows the Mer de Glace for almost 14 miles as it flows downhill, looking, in the words of Shelley, “as if frost had suddenly bound up the waves and whirlpools of a mighty torrent”. If conditions are good, skiers can descend some 9,000 feet in one seamless run, but with such spectacular views to be had from Europe’s rooftop, a slower pace and a few strategic pauses will allow you to savor the scenery.
Although the short walk from the top of the Aiguille du Midi lift down to the start of the run can be hair-raising, especially if the wind is blowing hard, the Vallée Blanche is not extreme if-you-fall-you-die skiing, and confident intermediate skiers can comfortably handle the run. But it’s best to make the descent when the weather is clear and forecast to stay that way, because four or more hours of skiing on instruments is not fun. An even better idea is to take along a guide, who can carry all those extras like spades for digging people out of avalanches and rope for pulling them out of crevasses (just kidding!) and who’ll help you get the most out of a day of skiing off-piste.
Seasoned skiers who have already done the Vallée Blanche and seek still more thrills should head for Les Grands Montets, reached via the village of Argentière about five miles up the valley from Chamonix. There you can find such famous off-piste descents as the Italian Bowl, Combe de la Pendant and the Pas de Chèvre, where a sign at the start warns you of certain death if you continue. But Chamonix is also for learners and those for whom skiing is not about a speed-demon race to the bottom. Shelley’s novelist wife Mary may have chosen Mont Blanc as the setting for the final encounter between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, but most of us are looking for something less intimidating and more appealing—preferably with a sunny disposition. For that, nothing beats Le Brévent and La Flégère ski areas located across the valley from Mont Blanc, where the views of the massif are magnifique and—thanks to the south-facing aspect—the slopes are sunniest.
Chamonix (Cham to the cognoscenti) is sometimes faulted for dispersing its 13 ski areas and 80 runs over five mountains lining the Arve River valley, only two of which (Brévent and Flégère) are linked by lifts. This makes for a certain amount of trekking back and forth by car or bus instead of skiing straight out of the town center, as happens with many purpose-built resorts. But it’s part of the charm of Chamonix and its neighboring villages that they offer such a huge variety of skiing areas and conditions that cater to all levels of skiing—above, below and through the tree line.
The same can be said of the town itself, which attracts both the chic and the shabby, the young and the not so young. Ski bums in search of extreme thrills rub shoulders with veteran visitors who have been coming back to Chamonix for years. Unlike many purpose-built resorts, Chamonix has a comforting air of permanence about it, a resilience that says “we know what we’re doing.” And they do. In 1770 Chamonix built the first-ever inn for Alpine tourists, called, appropriately enough given its initial clientele, the Hotel d’Angleterre. It was also the first resort to create its own mountain specialists—the famous Compagnie des Guides. And in 1908, it was the first to build a railway to whisk people up the mountainside where, from Montenvers, visitors can still admire the view of the Mer de Glace that so inspired Windham and Pococke way back when.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of France Today; updated in January 2014