Aura of mystique, steep terrain
Few pistes, limited options if snow is scarce
Admit it...you've dreamed about a place like Chamonix. The mystique of this remote enclave in the shadows of the Mont Blanc massif has a huge appeal for both the serious skier and the armchair alpinist. Just being part of the crowd in the "Death Sports Capital of the World" makes you feel special.
I only spent 2 1/2 days there, and only skied in the Les Grand Montets and Domaine De Balme areas, so I can't speak for the whole valley, but here's my humble take.
First, the drawbacks: like many resorts in the Alps, there are relatively few groomed pistes...the real adventure is off-piste. But if the snow is thin, it drives more people onto the pistes, and they get skiied out quickly....forcing the adventure-seeker further afield to find excitement. And the thing about Cham is that no matter how insanely steep the stuff you're skiing, you can rest assured that someone is out there skiing something steeper. If you're not one of the guys packing an ice axe and a rope in the line at Grand Montets, you're just another rube. Still, the spirit of the place is high energy.
The views are spectacular, but you have to get up into the mountains to really enjoy them. The valley is so deep and narrow (see picture) that I don't think you can even glimpse Mont Blanc from the valley floor.
During the first day of my visit, it had not snowed for 18 days. The good news was that the crowds were very light, even on a Saturday. Lines were practically non-existent, which was a surprise.
Lift ticket tips: There are 2 classes of ticket, the Chamonix pass at 38.50 euro, and 48.50 euro for the "Mont Blanc Unlimited" pass. I sprung for he Mont Blanc Unlimyed, but didn't really need it. Unless you plan to ski the Valle Blanche or cross over to Courmayeur in Italy (in which case you need to take the tram to Auguille du Midi), or if you really want to get to the upper reaches of Les Grande Montets (in which case you need to take the upper Grand Montets tram), you are just as well off with the cheaper ticket. And bear in mind that even if you spring for the Mont Blanc Unlimited pass, you are still limited to 2 rides up on the upper Grand tram, and for that you will probably need a reservation. (That's a first in my experience.) Both days that I skiied Les Grand Montets, the tram was either closed for winds or running at reduced capacity, so check the weather before you buy a ticket, especially a multi-day one. You can ski some great terrain from the Herse and Bouchard chairs, so you may not want the hassle of the tram. One more tip: you can buy a four-hour pass for only 33 euro, a pretty good deal.
Trains and buses. As other reviewers have observed, the ski areas in Chamonix aren't lift-connected. I chose to pick an area for the day and stick with it....you'll lose a lot of time traveling from one place to another. Like a lot of big areas in Europe, it's easy to find yourself stranded on the wrong side of a mountain when lifts shut down for winds, or when they close at day's end. That happened to us at Balme....fortunately, the train brought us back to within a few hundred yards of our hotel. My advice: find out early on what bus stop and train station are closest to your hotel....you may find yourself needing an alternate way home. All part of the adventure, though.
The first day I skied the mostly off the Herse and Bouchard chairs, including a traverse over onto the Combe de la Pendant. The snow wasn't great, but it was easy to see that in fresh powder, this would be truly awesome skiing. With such huge open bowls, you have a big canvas to paint on.
Balme's piste map only shows red and blue runs, but to skier's right from the top of the Tete de Balme chair (far left on the piste map), you can traverse skier's right into a big bowl leading to some interesting off-piste. In fact, from the top of the chair you can hike the ridge and ski the bowl from the top, if you feel ambitious. But once you head downhill, use caution. This was my first real off-piste experience in the Alps, and it was a good lesson in how things differ in France. This is terrain where you can get in over your head quickly, and if you don't bail out in time, you can wind up well below the lift, with a long walk uphill. Or worse, getting too close to some nasty cliffs. If you don't have a guide, pay close attention to where the tracks lead. If no one else has skiied there, there's probably a good reason...something I nearly learned the hard way when I almost skiied off a 20' drop I wasn't expecting. It's easy to forget that you're off-piste, and think, "I'm on a ski trail...what could go wrong?" Answer: a lot.
My last morning there we were rewarded with long-overdue fresh snow....4"-6" on the pistes, and much more in some chutes and gullies. I did multiple runs on the Plan Jordan chair, sking a steep gully through the trees that had been largely overlooked by others.
Chamonix is a special place...other areas have their claims to fame: Zermatt has the Matterhorn, Val Thorens has more expansive views....but it's hard to beat Chamonix as an Alpine mecca. After a day of skiing the bowls at Les Grand Montets and gazing at frosted spires and blue glaciers, you'll settle down to a fine meal and reflect on a day in the place where it all began. And somewhere between the cheese course and the crepes, as you sip your fine Bordeaux, you'll understand why you came.