News from the snow
One of the few serious contenders for the title of "World's Most Famous Ski Resort", Chamonix Mont Blanc (as the resort prefers to be known) has the world's biggest lift-served skiable vertical drop of 2807 metres ( 9209 feet ), one of the world's longest runs through the Vallée Blanche at 22 km ( 13.7 miles ) and staged the World's first Winter Olympics in 1924. Beyond these spectacular statistics is Chamonix's relatively undisputed status as the world's tough mountain sports capital, the subject of endless ski magazine reports each season from editors wishing to prove they descended between the glacial crevasses and lived to tell the tale! For lesser mortals there are plenty of on-piste kilometres to soak up, all dominated by the spectacular scenery of Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak (and Europe's second highest after Mt Elbrus in Russia, although some dispute whether Elbrus is in Europe). Chamonix's history has been traced to Bronze Age times and its current status was confirmed in a report as far back as 1751 when the locals were described as "the most uncompromising men in Europe". Ten years before that Englishmen William Windham and Richard Pococke had been on the first recorded tourist trip, reaching the Mer de Glace. The first skis in the valley were spotted in 1893 and by 1907 one of the world first cable cars, 'Les Glaciers' was in operation (since removed). Six more were to follow between 1927 and 1963. The Mont Blanc Tunnel opened a few years later ensuring first rate access infrastructure in to the future. Chamonix Mont Blanc itself is a lively town with its own character, not just one created every winter season and reinvented every summer. That character reflects the attitude of its residents and of most visitors - a true love of the mountains.
An historic ski and climbing town on the picturesque side of Mont Blanc, by the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel. Chamonix offers the world's greatest lift-served vertical drop. Away from the slopes it is very lively all year round with numerous bars and restaurants.
Until 1996 Chamonix was one of the few remaining resorts to offer separate passes for different sectors of its skiing, but no whole-resort pass, unless you purchased the huge "Skipass Mont-Blanc" covering well over 230 lifts in a dozen or so neighbouring ski areas. This changed with the introduction of a range of 'Chamski' passes carefully tailored after extensive research to meet the needs of the diverse winter sports market. The basic 6 day pass includes a day over in Courmayeur, normally subject to a supplement, and two trips on the high Grands Montets lifts, again usually charged at an additional fee.
The Grand Montets is a major part of Chamonix's reputation as a serious skier's resort, and thankfully all the lift installations in the area are currently being drastically improved, with capacity on the Bochard gondola, for example, increased from 1200 to 3000 skiers per hours, dramatically reducing and often eliminating lift lines. The skiable descent possible is from 3275 metres to 1230 metres and the world's record vertical in one day was set here by Canadian Mark Jones, clocking up 51 descents - a vertical of 64,000 metres (210,000 feet).
Of the other famous sectors, L'Aiguille du Midi is perhaps the most legendary, with the famous 22km off-piste descent through La Vallée Blanche (take a guide!). Finally mention must be made of historic Le Brévent, where Chamonix's and one of the Alps' first real ski lifts was installed. The descent there is around 1500m.
Although Chamonix has a reputation for its tough skiing there are plenty of family-friendly slopes, and beginner slopes at village level when snow cover is adequate. The resort recommends the slopes of Le Tour and Col de Balme for sunny skiing and Le Brévent for the best views of Mont Blanc. Runs particularly recommended for kids are Le Savoy, Les Planards, La Vormaine, Les Pèlerins, Les Bossons and Les Chosalets.
Ski schools in Argentière and Chamonix offer crèches and then ski kindergartens for ages 4 to 12, with special ski lifts for ages two-and-a-half to 6 and up to 4 hours of skiing per day. The French ski school also offers a 'First time on Skis' package for children aged 3 upwards. Child classes and prices are available up to age 12. The popular Panda Club crèche takes children from age 10 months to 3 years and offers packages from half days to a pay-for-6-days-and-get-one-day-free offer. The Panda Club also offers 'Panda Ski' for ages 3 to 12 which includes learning to ski on a private drag lift. There is a municipal crèche for ages 18 months to 6 years which takes reservations for half day periods only.
The restaurants owned by the resort's two best hotels - the Albert 1er and the Auberge de Bois Prin - are at the top end of the gourmet/price scale. Traditional local dishes include 'les diots' - a local sausage spiked with herbs, and 'le farcement', a 'cake' of potatoes, prunes, sultanas, diced bacon, flavoured with eau de vie and served as an accompaniment to meat dishes. Another choice is 'le berthoud', a local Abondance cheese served with local smoked ham and beef with jacket potatoes.
Other night time possibilities include the only genuine 10 pin bowling alley in the Alps (8 computer checked lanes), a three screen cinema in the recently renovated Vox complex, a Bridge club at Le Majestic and a casino attracting regular Italian, Swiss and international clientelle to the roulette and black jack tables. There are also one armed bandits and video poker as well as the famous Napoleon III room.
Bruno Gouvy 'boarded the famous Alpine trilogy of Matterhorn-Eiger-Grandes Jorasses in 1988 before taking on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, the Aiguille Verte and the north face of Les Drus.
Today France continues to push the boundaries of the sport, producing world champions like Jean-Baptiste Charlet (1994) and Karine Ruby (winner of a snowboarding gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics), as well as Arno Adam ( ski extreme world champion).
Chamonix's Snow Park, sponsored by Salomon and staging numerous competitions, is situated on Les Grands Montets.