Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spring in Chamonix

If the Charles Bozon piste is not steep enough for you, take the short cut

Chamonix is arguably one of the best ski destinations in the world. If not the best. But can you ski in there in early April, when the rest of France sports sunshine and temperatures nearing +20 degrees?

You can. I have been on a long business trip in Paris and decided to head off to Chamonix last weekend. I managed to hitch a ride in Tero's car, as he was returning from the same conference to Helsinki and Chamonix was kind of on the way. We also made new friends, as my solicitation for new ski club members in our conference resulted in Patrick and Brian joining us.

Gondola to Lognan

Le Brevent

Charles Bozon run, the best of Le Brevent

We stayed at Hotel Richemond, an antiquated but centrally located and inexpensive hotel in the heart of Chamonix village. I like staying in the village because all the people, shops, and restaurants are there. The village center is also just a couple of hundred meters from the Le Brevent ski lifts. There is some climbing involved, however, as the lifts start maybe fifty meters higher than the village.

Chamonix comprises of multiple small ski areas, and Le Brevent is my favorite. It is by no means the most famous or highest, but I guess I like the views better here than anywhere else. Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi are just across the valley, and the highest lift in Le Brevent sits on an incredible peak by itself. And the ski runs are all challenging and interesting.


Take the ski run number 1, piste Charles Bozon. This is a black run, steeper than almost anything in other ski areas, and usually full of icy bumps. Or in other words, a good warm-up run. One run down this piste will make you want more, so on the next run I chose to make a small shortcut to avoid the hairpin turn in the beginning. Hundred meters before the slope makes a turn around a large rock outcrop, there are a couple of chutes straight down from the cliffs towards the main part of the piste.

I took the last chute, just a few tens of meters high. But it was steep, very steep. Steeper than I've been on before, I think. The first picture in this blog is from the top of that chute, as is the video below. Stopping on the face after the cornice jump is the main challenge. Particularly when that bergschrund decides to reveal itself as I skied over it on my first descent.

Further down the chute gets a little less steep but also narrows to become only a ski's length wide. The chute is not extremely dangerous, given that is well visible to the slopes, does not have that much snow for a big avalanche, and is straight. However, it is narrow enough that hitting yourself to the rocks on the way down is a potential danger.

The chute

Summer feeling at the Le Brevent

Down in the village, it felt like summer. But the snow up in the mountain felt good, even on the sunny side that Le Brevent is on. In the morning the snow was hard, icy and made a lot of noise when turning on its groomed surface. In the afternoon the snow was softer, even a bit slushy. For some reason these snow conditions were not popular in our group, but I liked them. Skiing soft spring snow is fun. You need to use more power to ski in this kind of snow, but the heavy snow splashes flying around are well worth it.

Le Panoramic Mont Blanc

Le Brevent also hosts one of my favorite on-piste restaurants, Le Panoramic Mont Blanc.

Grands Montets

Very dangerous. Yeah right.

The premier ski area in Chamonix is Grands Montets. It has the best powder, and is definitely the place to be after skiing opens up after a big dump. For some reason I'm not particularly fond of the area in other conditions. The runs are on a feature-less mountain, and often quite bumpy. There is one exception, however, and that is the ski run from the top of the Grands Montets at an altitude 3300 meters. From here you can ski straight down back to the ski slopes, on a very avalanche prone and dangerous route. Or on the safer backside route through Glacier Argentiere. The views on the glacier are spectacular. The glacier is also used as a starting point for many mountaineering and ski touring routes, including the Haute Route. We saw many groups starting their tour when we took the lift up. Please note that getting to the lift requires special reservation and payment, or at least possessing the unlimited ski pass. Even so, prepare for a wait.

Glaciers and helicopters

Birds on top of the Grands Montets

Grands Montets is also the start of many interesting ski descents. We did not have time to try them on this trip, and in any case lack of snow cover might have prevented skiing some of them this late in the year. I still think Blizzard of Aahhh's is the best ski movie ever made, and one of my favorite scenes in that movie is when Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt ski a rocky couloir from the top the Grands Montets. Check out that couloir if you visit Grands Montets; it is half-way up the stairs from the top station.

An attractive route in Grands Montets, with La Vallee Blanche below

Glacier Argentiere

The end of the glacier in Argentiere

April skiing in Chamonix

La Flegere

Le Brevent is connected by a gondola to the neighboring La Flegere ski area. Both areas are on the same side of the valley have a very similar feel to them.

We skied one off-piste from the top of the Floria lift. Start from the beginning of the Crochues ski run but steer to the left, staying as high up on the mountain face as you can. As you near the end of a ridge of rocky peaks, veer further to the left and climb over the rocks and plants. From there ski a bit forward until you can make a 180 degree turn and ski the chutes back towards the ski area. Finish the run by skiing towards the Trappe ski lift. The views on this route are great, but it still is within reasonable reach of the ski area and avoids the biggest avalanche prone slopes. Still, there was an area where falling would have been a bad idea, given the cliffs below.

Our off-piste route in La Flegere

Sun, rock, and snow

Benefits of rental skis

Off-piste in La Flegere

Yet another couloir in La Flegere

Teleski Difficile. Not that bad, however.

After Ski

We sampled after-ski in several places in the valley. In Argentiere, Brasserie Les Marmottes sits next to the Lognan gondola station. It seemed like a happy and relaxed place, with plenty of comfortable chairs outside in the sun. It took a long time to order a drink here, however, so we moved on after we had drank our Diet Cokes.

Brasserie Les Marmottes

In Chamonix, right next to our hotel, The Pub seems like an ideal after-ski bar. A small pub, nice atmosphere, your typical city pub.

The Pub, across the street from Hotel Richemond

Inside The Pub

The most popular after-ski bar in Chamonix village is probably Le Kiosk, however. I did not have time to test it this time, but their terrace seems always packed. Le Kiosk is located near the post office, and is right in front of the Brasserie L'M, a decent dinner place.

Le Kiosk and Brasserie LM

The local ski bums recommended two bars, however. Elevation 1904 and La Brasserie Chambre Neuf are right across the street from the train station and each other. Elevation is named oddly, as their altitude is off by about a kilometer. However, it seemed like the place to be in the bar scene within the village. Very popular. Chambre Neuf seemed OK and popular as well.

Elevation 1904

Inside the Elevation

Chambre Neuf

Important Parameters

A night in a the Richemond costs 114 €, but at that price up to three people can stay in the room. We had two people in our room, bringing the price down to 57 € per person, which is very reasonable for the center of Chamonix. The only downside of this hotel was that the wireless does not extend to the rooms, only the lobby area. And there are no power plugs in the lobby. If you open the door to one of the adjoining function rooms you can find power, however.

Hotel Richemond

We drove to Chamonix from Paris, an easy but long drive that took over six hours. I returned by train, taking a direct TGV train from the Saint Gervais train station to Gare de Lyon in Paris. You can take a train also from Chamonix directly, but you have to change in Saint Gervais anyway. The TGV took a bit over four hours. My one-way ticket cost 150 €, traveling in first class so that I would have a power plug to run my computer and be able work.

Saint Gervais

Chamonix has countless restaurants, so measuring the Goulash index is not easy. But just to give one data point, Le Panoramic Mont Blanc, a very nice restaurant at the top of the Le Brevent ski area offers soup for 16 €. Granted, the soup comes with some cheese which by itself costs 10 €, but it certainly is the most expensive soup that I've seen on my travels.

Most expensive soup, ever
However, the Le Panoramic certainly has good food. Recommended. The views are also best you can find in Chamonix, as you are directly across the valley and can see the Mont Blanc and Aiquille du Midi.

Possibly the best on-piste food in Chamonix. And certainly the best view.

Superlative Conspiracy? WTF


Definitely worth going. There is plenty of snow in April.

My fellow travelers disliked the need to connect from one part of the ski area to another by car, which is understandable. But I think the slopes and challenges in Chamonix outweigh this penalty.

La Vallee Blanche from La Flegere

Point your skis... to the sun!

Photo credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko, Tero Kivinen, and Patrick Linskey


  1. Hi Jari,

    first of all thanks for such a great blog! Somewhy i find myself returing to read yet another story of yours, you've been to some amazing places.

    I was visiting Chamonix at the end of March aswell (my first time at the Alps!) and it was a great experience, got to ride my first real off piste powder, I didnt know skiing even could be that much fun. Altough i was a bit bummed i was unable to ski the Vallee de Blanche, mostly cause of the fact that my friends didnt want to get a guide and i felt unsafe coming down a glacier without proper mountaineering equipment (I didnt want to find myself in a crevasse without a harness, nor for that matter in a crevasse at all). Have you skied down it?

    As you seem to have an enormious amount of ski-related info, what do you think would be the best destination in the Alps for a group of young skiers looking for a cheap accomidation, great slopes and a vivid nightlife?

    Best regards,
    Tomi S.

  2. Thank you!

    Vallee Blanche is a great experience, you should do it on some future trip. I've done it a long time ago on a student trip with Skipoli. A friend of mine did it in early April this year, and they usually open mid or late January. You absolutely do need a guide and the guide will have all the necessary equipment. Depending on the conditions and your choice of route, you'll probably need a rope to keep you safe in the beginning walk on the knife edge ridge leading away from Aiquille du Midi, but after that you can ski in the usual way. Get a guide and have fun! And be prepared for the views and the experience; the actual skiing may be variable. You could get luck and ski powder all the way down, but not necessarily. I'd recommend focusing more on the what the knife edge and the glacier feel like.

    I go to Chamonix for great off-piste, radical ski descents, town life, and quick access -- perfect for weekends, for instance. For cheap accommodation, vivid nightlife, and still excellent slopes I go to Austria. Prices are quite reasonable, particularly outside the most well known places like St. Anton. Zillertal, Kaprun, Zell Am See, Sölden, Ischgl, etc. are all great places, and a short drive away from Munchen that has many cheap flights.

    Also, if you are a slightly biggger group then you can basically go anywhere with very low costs. We were in Les 3 Vallees, France, earlier this year with 10+ people and once you split the cost of the cabin, the costs were down to 140€ per person! Obviously you'll also need lift tickets, flights, and transport, but once you start to have six people or more you can get a really good deal by organizing the trip yourself.

    Good luck & happy skiing winters!

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