Saturday, May 10, 2008

Skiing In Chamonix

It has taken a long time - I have a natural talent for laziness and an eye for convenience - but it has happened: I have left the joys of massive, perfectly-linked ski areas behind.

Not forever, of course; I can't imagine a time when I will get bored with L'Espace Killy or the Three Valleys. But there is an alternative. Welcome to Chamonix...a long valley with an intriguing mix of stunning scenery, eyeballs-out skiing, old-world charm and new-world drinking, and pollution.

Don't mention the traffic: If there is one good reason not to visit Chamonix and her satellites, it is the Mt Blanc tunnel and the thousands of assorted cars, jalopies, vans and enormous diesel-belching trucks it attracts.

However, one good reason to visit Chamonix is the Mt Blanc tunnel...because you can add your own poisonous vehicle to the queue. There may be better ways to start the day than with breakfast at 8am in Les Houches, and then up the cable at Courmayeur in Italy an hour later, but they probably involve a willing partner or controlled substances or, indeed, both.

Chamonix is not a convenient resort. It is not even, to be honest, a ski resort; despite the fact that it is one of the world's greatest ski resorts. I said it was intriguing. As far as Chamonix is concerned, the winter hordes are only there to keep the place running until the real business starts: climbing season.

You will find about 80,000 skiers a week in Chamonix over the winter - but in the summer, with climbers, walkers and mere gazers at scenery, the peak is about 200,000 a week. Your ski guide as you drop into the Vallee Blanche is probably a climbing freak bored out of his skull with yet another load of tourists, who would much, much rather be hanging upside down from an impossibly vertiginous slab of rock somewhere around Mt Blanc with only a rope and an angel to keep him alive. He will spend most of the trip trying to convince you to come back in the summer and climb with him.

The Vallee Blanche, by the way, is well worth the trip...if you can stand the hordes of Japanese tourists, snow-plough specialists and other pond-life you will find in the way. The skiing is not, as a rule, challenging (though if your guide trusts you, he can change that pretty quickly) - but it's a glacier, and that means crevasses, and that means take a guide or take a fall. It's your choice, of course, and by skiing without a guide and dying in a crevasse you would probably raise the average intelligence of the world a fraction, which would be a good thing and our descendants would thank you for it.

In the meantime, take the trip for what it is: a great chance to enjoy unrivalled scenery...frozen waves of ice, sheer faces of rock, and with any luck a blue, blue sky to set of the colour of the glacier. Take your camera and enjoy yourself. One member of my group swore he saw Superman's house among all that ice.

We had had a hard night, however. I won't bother listing all the resorts along the valley. I stayed with a group of friends in a chalet in Les Houches; very pleasant, but half-way up its own hill (Les Houches has most of the valley's intermediate skiing - not a lot, by big circus standards - but its highest point is only 1850m) and a long way from the action. Les Houches itself is quiet to the point of somnolence; you need to go to Chamonix for a blast, but what a blast you can have. In future, I would stay in the town.

Try Le Choucas and Bar L'Arbate for music and loud noise; L'Arbate has live bands, of what can only be described as variable quality. But if you want a laugh, and strange looks from the locals as you are the only group dancing to appalling 70s covers, this is the place for you.

The Wild Wallaby is an authentic Aussie experience (I speak as an Aussie) - they probably hose it out in the mornings. Get there early and the first thing you smell will be the industrial strength disinfectant; get there late and you will understand why they need it. At least the place starts every evening sparkling clean. It attracts a youthful clientele, often with the manners of a rhinoceros on bad acid; something like I was about 20 years ago, I guess. One in-your-face I'm-a-hard-but-cool-board-dude type may have changed; he barged through our group and when pulled back, started snarling - at the three members of our crowd who ranged from 6ft2in to 6ft7in and an average weight of about 240lbs. He left suddenly. He didn't see me, by the way; I was behind the big guys. I'm not stupid.

The skiing: Argentiere was put on earth for people to fall in love with. Go high, go fast, go off-piste (there isn't all that much on-piste, in fact) and go often. It could be the high point of your skiing life.

Courmayeur is easily reached through the tunnel, and is an intermediate paradise; lots of fast cruising, right up until the time you find a restaurant, when there is lots of slow cruising through menus. A lot of fun.

For the rest, grab a guide. Brevent, Flegeres...all have their good points. There is a lot of skiing. But you need a car, or a willingness to use the admittedly good bus system covered by your lift pass. One instructor I can recommend is Regis Fleurie, who runs Ski Odyssey, his own company. Regis has fluent, American-tinged English (not that uncommon in France) and an identifiable sense of humour (very uncommon in France). He understands sarcasm and is not afraid to use it. I think he can be contacted on - otherwise, find him in the resort.

I loved Chamonix and will go back. The old town is fantastic; the skiing is wonderful. Enjoy.

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