Found in the south-east of France, and usually accessed by a one-hour drive from Geneva airport, Chamonix is a mountain mecca. Thousands flock here to attempt to scale its most popular attraction, Mont Blanc. The view from the summit of this 4810 metre alpine giant, and indeed from the top of the 3,842 metre Teleferique l'Aiguille Du Midi cablecar, is spectacular.
Another great Chamonix thing to do is to visit the Montenvers railway to see the 7-kilometre Mer de Glace glacier, the third largest in the Alps. Or you could soak up the cafes, restaurants and buzz of the pedestrianised Chamonix town centre.
But most visitors come for the great outdoors. Chamonix offers wonderful day or circuit walking: for instance, the walk to the postcard-perfect Lac Blanc or the 11-day Tour du Mont Blanc. Chamonix's skiing is popular for advanced skiers in particular. And Chamonix is a magnet for climbers and mountaineers, with seventeen 4000-metre peaks in the Mont Blanc massif.
Chamonix's other attractions and things to do include paragliding, golf, swimming, indoor climbing, cycling and attending a range of other festivals, markets and other events held throughout the year.
Last updated: Jan 2017.
Mont Blanc is, in fact, just one of seventeen 4000-metre peaks in the Mont Blanc Massif, a mountain range in the Graian Alps.
The Massif's other famous summits include Mont Maudit (4465 metres, meaning Cursed Mountain), the 4208 metre Grandes Jorasses (which boasts one of the six great north faces of the Alps), and the Aiguille Verte (4122 metres, meaning Green Needle).
First climbed in 1786 by Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, Mont Blanc is these days conquered by around 20,000 each year.
The most popular routes leave from the Gouter Hut (3835 metres, reached by a 4-6 hour walk from the Nid d'Aigle tramway terminus) and Cosmic Hut (Refuge Cosmique, 3613 metres, 30 minutes from the Aiguille du Midi cablecar station).
Ascents from both huts require a 2am start to climb the 1000/1200 vertical metres to the summit. Though not difficult, the routes (graded PD/PD+) can be dangerous on account of the altitude, rock fall and avalanche and crevasse risks. Inexperienced mountaineers must therefore hire a Chamonix mountain guide.
For those with less energy, you can get close to Mont Blanc by taking a trip on the Teleferique l'Aiguille Du Midi (meaning Needle of the Noon cablecar).
Leaving from south Chamonix, at an altitude of 1035 metres, and ascending over the course of 20 minutes to 3842 meters, the L’Aiguille Du Midi was the world’s highest cable car for 20 years after its construction in 1955. The altitude gain of 2,800 is still remarkable, and will probably leave you feeling short of breath.
There is plenty to do at the top, with stupendous views of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, a gift shop and café.
The Aiguille du Midi also marks the beginning of the 17 kilometre Vallee Blanche glacier ski run, and the start of the bubble cablecar over the Glacier du Geant to Pointe Helbronner (3462 metres), on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif and offering a great panorama of 4000 metre peaks.
Mont Blanc is Chamonix's premier attraction.
£$€¥ Adults: €60 for a return ticket to the Aguille du Midi; Children/Concessions: €5; Family ticket: €186. (Jan 2017)
It was popularized in the 18th century by British explorers William Windham and Richard Pocock, and is reached by 20-minute train ride on the Montenvers railway (the Chemin de Fer du Montenvers)—an enjoyable journey through pine forest and offering great views of the Chamonix valley and Aiguilles Rouges, Le Dru, La Verte and the more distant Grandes Jorasses.
Mer de Glace
The main attraction here is the Mer de Glace, a seven-kilometre glacier with a width of between 700 and 1950 metres and a depth of up to 420 metres. It is the third largest glacier in the Alps, after Grindelwald's Aletsch glacier and Zermatt's Gorner Glacier.
Ice Cave and other attractions
There are lots of other things to do. They include
£$€¥ Adults: €31.50 for a return ticket to Montenvers; Children: €26.80. (Jan 2017).
Towards the centre are found the main squares and statues of grandees of Chamonix history, including H B de Saussure (who in 1760 offered a prize for the first ascent of Mont Blanc, claimed by Dr Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat after their successful 1786 attempt).
As you would expect in such a central mountain town, there are scores of outdoor shops, with brands including Arcteryx, Oxbow, Salomon, Helly Hanson, Ripcurl, Patagonia, the North Face, Mammut, and Columbia.
Food and drink
For those looking for refreshment, ChaChaCha, at the west end of the street, is a high-class wine and spirits merchant, offering €15 wine tastings. La Spiga d'Oro offers Italian specialities ranging from balsamic onions to fresh pasta and Parma ham.
The street is also home to numerous restaurants and cafes, including Atmosphere (on the river, offering excellent set menus from €25), Cap Horn (a trendy joint with great traditional cooking as well as Japanese fare) and Munchie (serving French and European food with Asian twist, such as Duck teriyaki and Japanese style beef tartar).
For clothing, why not visit 'Oh ... My dressing', which offers vintage fashion, Eric Bompard (cashmere), Blue-Ink (high end ladies fashion) and Lacoste and Chanel (which need no introduction).
Traditionally starting in Chamonix, the TMB is 168 kilometres long, with about 10 kilometres of vertical ascent and typically takes 7-11 days to complete (with about 55 hours of walking time).
It passes through three countries and seven valleys in its circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc Massif.
Thus, the French Les Contamines and Les Chapieux are reached after 31 and 49 kilometres respectively; the walk then enters Italy, and reaches Courmayeur after 77 kilometres; Switzerland is next, with Champex-Lac being reached after 122 kilometres; trekkers then return to Chamonix, by which stage they will have completed a distance equivalent to running four marathons.
... and lots of mountains
The route circumvents not only Mont Blanc but also the Grandes Jorasses (4208 metres), Dent du Geant (4013 metres) and the Aiguille Verte (4122 metres).
The highest point is Grand Col Forret (2537 metres) and the lowest valley is Saint Gervais (810 metres), with the route including nine significant mountain climbs. Most people stay at the alpine huts or hotels found en route, whilst some prefer to wild camp.
Chamonix is best known as a resort for advanced and off-piste skiers and snowboarders, with great quality snow in the early and late season, stunning scenery, and some of the best après-ski.
On the downside, the ski areas are spread along the 20 kilometres of valley floor, requiring visitors to make extensive use of the sometimes inefficient and outdated lift infrastructure, and much of the terrain is unsuitable for beginners.
Brevent/Flegere, with an altitude of between 1030-2525 metres, is the only area directly accessible from Chamonix town centre, with the gondola to Brevant being one of the valley's few modern lifts.
From the top, there is a lift linking to Flegere (the lift directly to Flegere from the village of Les Praz does not get a good press). The combined Brevent/Flegere area offers 56 kilometres of pistes, with 32 runs including 7 very tricky black and 13 blue runs.
The Grands Montets is the highest and most challenging area, found between 1235-3300 metres and covering the Argentiere glacier and the slopes of Lognan and the Pendant.
The area is accessed by cablecar or chairlift from Argentiere, though many complain of the queues. There are 28 kilometres of pistes in all, including 6 black runs—such as the famous and very steep Point de Vue and Pylones routes—and 4 red runs.
Les Houches is situated between 950 and 1900 metres, making it the lowest area, with 55 kilometres of pistes including 12 red and 2 black runs. There are superb views of the Mont Blanc massif from the top of the lift, with 120 snow cannons keeping the pistes open until late season.
Le Domaine de Balme
Le Domaine de Balme, at between 1453-2270 metres, is the second lowest area. And there are sometimes queues on the cablecar, with the train to Vallorcine being a viable alternative.
But the 29 kilometres of predominantly gentle slopes offer 20 runs, including 11 blue runs, in an area which is usually free from crowds and which offers some beautiful shaded forest routes.
Now in its 13th year, the Ultra Trail is limited to 2,300 entrants (who must qualify by gaining points on other ultra-marathon events). The race begins and ends in Chamonix, following the walking path used by the Tour de Mont Blanc (which usually takes 7-11 days).
This year the race will start at 6pm on 1st September 2017.
The event was won in 2008, 2009 and 2011 by Kilian Journet, the Spanish mountain runner who holds the world record times for the fastest ascent of both Mont Blanc (4 hours 57 minutes) and the Matterhorn (2 hours 52 minutes).
The winners usually arrive back in Chamonix after about 21 hours, with average times being between 30 and 40 hours and a maximum course time of 46 hours. In 2013, Xavier Thevenard was the first home in a time of 20 hours 34 minutes, and an average speed of 8.2 kilometres per hour.
Four other events are held. They are, in ascending order of difficulty:
This wonderful vantage point is usually reached by a 1.5 hour walk from the Flegere cable car station (aka Plan l'Aiguille, the intermediate station on the way to the Aguille du Midi), at 1877 metres, involving just under 500 metres of ascent.
Views from the route
Whilst the route is steep in places, the views of Mont Blanc, Les Drus, the Grandes Jorasses, the Aiguille Verte and the Argentiere Glacier are remarkable. The route can be turned into a circular walk by going on to Lac des Cheserys (2169 metres), before returning to La Flegere (or even Chamonix).
Another classic Chamonix walk goes from Plan l'Aiguille (2317 metres) to Montenvers (1913 metres). The route takes about 3 hours, and involves 150 metres ascent and 550 metres descent.
From Plan l'Aiguille, take the Grand Balcon Nord through rocky terrain plastered with colourful flowers in the summer months. The views across the valley to the Aiguilles Rouges (the Red Peaks) will keep you entertained until you reach a junction, at which point you should turn right and head to Signal Forbes; the top of the col offers a panorama of the Aiguille Verte, and the descent to Montenvers reveals the Mer de Glace.
We suggest taking the train back to Chamonix.
First undertaken by members of the British Alpine Club in the 19th century, the 180-kilometre route takes about 12 days on foot or seven days by ski.
The hiking route follows well-marked paths and offers overnight stays in beautiful mountain huts or hotels in villages below 3000 metres. No special experience is required if the route is undertaken in good conditions in spring, summer or autumn. In total, the trek demands almost 13,000 metres of ascent, with a maximum altitude of just under 3000 metres. Each leg involves 6-8 hours walking.
Haute ski route
The Haute ski route, which follows a different path to the hiking route, is the most famous ski tour in the world. The classic route involves the following legs:
|Day 1||The classic route leaves from Argentiere village, crossing the Col du Chardonnet, to the Trient Hut.|
|Day 2||The second day takes skiers to Champex-Lac, via the Val D'Arpett.|
|Day 3||Involves a substantial climb to the shoulder of the Grand Combin and the Valsorey Hut.|
|Day 4||Descends the Glacier du Mont Durand to the Chanrion Hut.|
|Day 5||Requires ascent of the Otemma Glacier to the Vignettes Hut.|
|Day 6||A long day over three cols, finishing with descent into Zermatt under the Matterhorn|
|Day 7||An optional day 7 can be added, taking you to Saas-Fee via the Adler Pass.|
The Haute Route's Verbier Variation offers the purest skiing line, whilst the Grande Lui variation is more technical. The route can also be completed 'backwards', from Zermatt to Chamonix.
|Gouter||The Gouter Route, the most popular way to the top, leaves from the 3835 metre Gouter Cabane (reached by cablecar from Les Houches to Bellevue, tramway to Nid d'Aigle, and 4-6 hut climb). The summit climb (graded PD) involves 1050 metres of ascent mainly on snow, with some rock, and takes 4-5 hours.|
|Grands Mulets||The Grands Mulets Route starts at the 3057 Refuge Grands Mulets (3 hours from the Plan de l'Aiguille cablecar); the summit route (followed by Paccard and Balmat on the mountain's first ascent), is graded F and involves a lengthy glacier plod.|
|Gonella||The Gonella Route, from the Italian side, starts at the Gonella Hut (3071 metres, a 4 hour walk-in); the summit climb is again largely on snow, with some mixed climbing, and takes 7-8 hours. The route is graded PD+.|
|3 Monts||The 3 Monts Route (aka the Aiguille du Midi or Cosmic Route, now the second favourite route) leaves from the Cosmic Hut, itself a 45 minute walk from the top of the Aiguille du Midi cablecar. More technically demanding than the Gouter and Grand Mulets routes, graded PD+, this route takes in Mont-Blanc du Tacul (4248m) and Mont Maudit (4465m) on the way to the summit.|
Chamonix offers a number of other superb and less crowded 4000ers. The Dent de Geant (4013 metres, 5 hours, meaning 'Giant's Tooth') and Aiguille de Rochefort (4001 metres, 6-7 hours) are reached from the Torino Hut and graded AD. They both start with an hour long glacier trek followed by about one hour's scrambling to the summit ridge.
The Dent de Geant then requires a number of pitches of climbing up the famous 500 foot rock spire, from which climbers are usually lowered back down to the ridge.
The Aiguille de Rochefort continues past the Dent de Geant and over what many consider to be the finest (narrow and exposed) snow ridge in the Alps, ending with a short section of climbing to reach the summit.
Other 4000 metre peaks in Chamonix
Other 4000ers routinely climbed include Aiguille Verte (4122 metres, a long, steep, snow and ice route graded AD), Les Droites (4000 metres, a 6-7 hour mixed ascent from the Couvercle Hut, also graded AD), the Grand Jorasses: Pointe Walker (4208 metres, a 1400 metre, 6-7 hour, climb from the hut, predominantly on ice, graded AD-), Mont Maudit (4465 metres, a long, high glacier climb with snow to 50 degrees, graded PD) and Mont Blanc de Tacul (4248 metres, an easy 3-4 hour glacier ascent with 40 degree snow or ice, also graded PD).
The Tour Ronde, on the same border, is 3800 metres high. Both peaks offer challenging traverses and some of the best views of the rugged south face of the highest peak in Europe.
Access is gained by either the Funivie Monte Bianco, leaving from La Palud (1370 metres), whisking you up to Rifugio Torino Vecchio (3335 metres), or by taking the Aiguille Du Midi to the Col du Midi and either walking or taking a further cablecar across the Glacier du Geant to Pointe Helbronner (3462 metres).
The glacier walk to the foot of the climbs, which takes about an hour, will take you close to the Aigiulles des Glaciers (3817 metres), Monte Bianco de Courmayeur (4765 metres), Mont Blanc itself (4807 metres), Mont Maudit (4468 metres), Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248 metres) and Dent du Geant (Dente del Gigante in Italian, 4014 metres).
The climbs are fairly straightforward. Both are graded PD (though the Tour Ronde can be upgraded to an AD by following the ridge). The Aiguille has two or three more demanding moves close to the summit (where the rock has been bolted), and some exposure.
The Tour Ronde is a sustained scramble, with a short stretch on snow near the summit; if you follow the AD route up the ridge, there are three more difficult sections and some extreme exposure! Both routes take about 3 hours from the base of the climb.
The Cosmic Arete
The Arête des Cosmiques (Cosmic Arete) is another great sub-4000 metre ridge. Starting with a 30 minute walk from the Aiguille du Midi cablecar, this route offers mixed snow and rock climbing over or around a gendarme and two rock towers.
The crux move is graded 4c, with the route having an overall difficulty of around PD+/AD- and taking about half a day to complete. Great views, easy access and reasonable exposure make this a popular route in good weather.
(1) Cycling. The Chamonix valley is home to many of the Tour de France Cols of the French Alps and provides easy access to climbs used in the Tour de Suisse and Giro D'Italia. It is therefore a great destination for cyclists. Breathe Bike, run by keen cyclists, offers scheduled and bespoke tours, including a Tour de France week (a mixture of riding and watching the professionals), and great accommodation and food at Chalet Annabelle in Les Houches.
(2) Paragliding. A number of Chamonix's mountains lend themselves to paragliding (parapente in French), which is another popular thing to do. Fly Chamonix offers a range of tandem flights, from Brevant/Pranplaz (20 minutes, €100), Les Grands Montets (30-45 mins, €180) and Aiguille de Midi (where the 2700 metres of vertical descent takes about 30-40 minutes, €280). Prices correct as of January 2017.
(3) Golf. The Golf Club de Chamonix, 3 kilometres from the town centre, offers an immaculate 18 hole, 72-par, 6188 metre course. Designed by American architect Robert Trent Jones Sr, the holes are flanked by mature pines and offer plenty of water and bunker hazards. A round costs between €32-91, depending on the time of year. Club rental starts from €17 (Jan 2017).
(4) Swimming and Sunbathing: Lac de Passy. The Lac de Passy is a large man-made lake complete with sandy shores. It is found a 20-30 minute drive from Chamonix (in the direction of Geneva), between Passy and Sallanches. Known locally as Mont Blanc Plage, this is a great spot for swimming, sunbathing, windsurfing, mini-golf and Via Ferrata. There are also good changing facilities, barbeque areas and a weekend farmer's market. Bring change to pay for parking.
(5) Guides Festival. The Fetes des Guides (or Guides Festival) has been held in August each year since 1821. Held to raise money for the Chamonix Guide Company’s emergency fund, which provides financial support for guides involved in accidents, the Festival involves a procession of guides through Chamonix to the cemetery (where wreaths are laid and a priest blesses axes and ropes); awards and speeches for the honorary guide and client of the year; stalls selling local fare; and a sound and light display and evening concert.
(6) World Climbing Festival. The Place du Mont Blanc is the venue for the annual World Climbing Festival. Organised by the French Federation for Climbing and Mountaineering, and held on a specially erected outdoor wall, the event has two principal disciplines: speed and technical difficulty. The speed climbers ascend a 15-metre vertical wall in as little as 7 seconds, with the technical climbers scaling a massively overhanging wall using tiny holds, strength and willpower. Held on 13th July each year.
(7) World Cup Skiing. It is rumoured that World Cup Skiing is returning to Chamonix in 2017. It is being mooted that men's downhill and slalom races will take place on the Verte des Houches in early March 2017. The course at Kandahar is reckoned by many experts to be one of the three best in the world, alongside Wengen and Kitzbuhel. The route involves 870 metres of descent over 3.3 kilometres, taking the top skiers around 2 minutes. In addition to a number of technical sections, don't miss the big jumps known as Cassure and the Goulet.