5 Less Extreme—But Super Rad—Things To Do In Chamonix
Shortly after I signed myself up for a month of skiing in Chamonix, France, the anxiety dreams began. Usually they were about falling and sliding, but sometimes they involved bizarre and complex scenarios in which I'd inadvertently skied to the edge of a 200-meter overhanging serac and then realized I hadn't brought crampons or skins with me so had no way to climb back out. And I was alone. And it was getting dark.
In the months leading up to this trip, I questioned my decision to spend any time at all in a destination so well known not just for extreme skiing but extreme sports in general. I even bought trip insurance—something I never do—because I was convinced I'd hurt myself trying to be extreme. Self-doubt consumed me and I obsessed about not being good enough, strong enough, or bold enough. But this same fear also drove me to show up prepared; I spent months studying maps and guidebooks, pestering knowledgeable friends for beta, and throwing myself down steep ski descents whenever possible. So when this trip finally came to fruition, I was surprised to discover that, while there are plenty of ways to scare yourself, not all of Chamonix is extreme! In fact, there are lots of moderate, not-too-terrifying objectives, many right off the accessible Aiguille du Midi, which sits in the shadow of the prominent and popular, Mont Blanc.
Ranked as Trip Advisor's #1 Thing to do in Chamonix, the Aiguille du Midi is a launching ground for some of the best skiing and climbing in the Alps. The cable car by the same name will whisk you from the shops and bakeries of downtown Chamonix right into the high alpine a mere 20 minutes and 9,000 feet later, no slogging required. So if you're headed to Chamonix and don't want to spend months stressing about proper objectives or how extreme you may or may not be, here are a few simple suggestions on some not-to-be-missed classics.
Of course, the suggestions below do require various different mountain skills, including but not limited to: glacier travel, skiing variable snow conditions, rappelling, navigation and efficient movement in the high mountains. Unless you're super dialed (or hoping to have an epic), it is highly recommended you hire a mountain guide. You can find ample beta, maps and information on the suggested routes in guidebooks and online, just start surfing around.
Ski the Vallee Blanche. For a good intermediate skier, the Vallee Blanche is a great introduction to both the Mont Blanc area and glaciated, off-piste skiing. Depending on conditions and time of year, you may be able to ski all 2,800 meters back to town, so make sure your legs are prepared. This tour—really more of a descent—will take about half a day, though numerous options exist to make it longer or more difficult. For the most recreational descent, stop at the Requin Hut (2,516 meters) for lunch, espresso and beer. If you still have extra time as you near the bottom of the Mer de Glace, take a tour through the Ice Cave at the bottom of the long staircase of the Montenvers Train station. This natural tunnel feature carved into the Mer De Glace Glacier is complete with colored lights and interesting displays; it's sort of bizarre, completely fascinating and also free.
Climb the Arete des Cosmiques. This classic alpine ridge involves a little of everything; snow climbing, crack climbing, chimneys, rappels/lowers, and stunning exposure. It takes about half a day and can be climbed nearly any time of the year. My favorite part was exiting the ridge onto a wobbly ladder which led to a viewing platform on the Aiguille du Midi station. From there we raced to catch the last cable car down and were having beer and french fries in town by 5 p.m.
Ski the Cosmiques Couloir. This couloir, like the arete, is classic, accessible and will only take about half a day. Though no longer considered 'extreme' by Chamonix standards, this is truly a ski mountaineering objective and involves rappelling into the couloir, steep skiing—sustained 45 degrees—and some objective hazards like avalanches, cliff bands and crevasses. This 800-meter couloir is not to be taken lightly, though it wasn't as unnerving as I once thought. Timing on this west-facing couloir can be everything. If conditions are firm, you'll want to ski it in the sun in the late afternoon. If there's new snow, which also means lots of people, and it's sunny or warm, you'll want to be there earlier in the day.
Climb the Rebuffat (200m, III, 5.10/6a). First climbed in 1956, this south-facing route just minutes from the top of the Midi is on some of the cleanest granite imaginable. Though rated 5.10, most pitches are 5.8-5.9, and if you want to French free the crux, this is common practice, and there will probably be teams behind you, so hang-dogging the difficulties may not be great etiquette. We carried our lightweight approach shoes and aluminum crampons up the route with us and topped out on the cable car platforms, to the pleasure of many photo-taking tourists, just hoping something like this would happen while they were there.
Explore the Aiguille du Midi Top Station. Though I've listed it last, the Midi top station was one of the most non-scary activities I did in my entire month in France. Exploring the viewing platforms, tunnels, cafeteria (like most of France, I found good food, espresso, and wine there), and Espace Vertical (museographical center for advanced mountaineering—the highest mountain climbing museum ever built!), of the Midi station is a completely enjoyable way to kill a few hours. My favorite part of this exploratory mission was the award-winning 'Step Into the Void' glass box at the highest point of the Midi. This intriguing glass case is cantilevered out over 3,000 feet of airy exposure with surrounding views of Mont Blanc and the intimidating North Face of the Midi. A sign near the entrance of the Void declares, “100% safe, thrills guaranteed.” Such bold statements are often cause for hesitation, but in this case, I'd completely agree.