The Local's Guide To Chamonix
Chamonix has been my home base for the past several years. And over time, I’ve gotten fairly good at avoiding lift lines, finding fresh snow a couple days after a storm, getting on climbs in good condition and route finding. But that has all come from making plenty of mistakes. Chamonix may be one of the climbing capitals of the world, but it can be a logistical nightmare on your first trip, especially if you don’t speak the language. Here’s some helpful beta for anyone interested in the adventure trip of a lifetime to Chamonix.
Getting there and around
Chamonix is in France, but ironically, the best place to fly into is Switzerland. Geneva is located a quick one-hour drive away, and it’s easy to arrange a shuttle through the many services that operate locally. Milan, Italy, located about two hours away is also an option, but it’s best to rent a car to travel to Chamonix. Paris, while in France, will take around six hours by train. Consult www.chamonix.com for information on buses, taxis and shuttle services.
Once in Chamonix, a car is generally unnecessary. The public transportation within the valley is very good, so it’s super easy to get around via train or bus. However, if weather goes south, a car will provide you with options. You can rent cars right in Chamonix, so a good bet is to try the trip without a car and rent one if necessary, depending on conditions.
Where to stay
There’s a wide range of accommodations in town ranging from campgrounds to five-star hotels. Again, www.chamonix.com is a good source for finding hotels. Hostels, or “gites,” are a good bet if you want to save money and not deal with camping in town. Also, increasingly popular are sites like airbnb.com and VRBO, especially if you’re looking to rent apartments or finding a place during the shoulder seasons.
When to come
This is the million-dollar question. The answer largely depends on what your goals are: skiing, ski touring, alpine climbing, ice or rock climbing, hiking, etc. Here is one way to break the year down:
January – February: for powder skiing, ski touring, ice climbing and perhaps some alpine climbing.
March – April: For ski touring, alpine climbing, ice gullies. This is a busy time of year.
May: A transitional month and you may find everything from powder skiing, steep skiing, ice gullies, alpine granite or just bad weather. You will likely not find too many other people.
June – August: This is the main climbing season, especially from mid-July onward. This is the time for alpine granite, classic alpine routes, Mont Blanc and crowds! If you come during these months, you have a good chance for stable weather, but you’d better make your travel and lodging arrangements well in advance.
September – October: Another transitional period, but often blessed with stable weather and good mountain conditions. Crowds have gone, but many lifts are closed as well.
November – December: unless you like shade in the valley, climbing without using lifts, or know that a specific climb is in condition, this is a better time of year to spend in the south of France rather than the Alps.
Finding out local conditions is not always easy. If you’re here for a short trip, going to “see for yourself,” may not be the most productive use of time. The “Maison de la Montagne,” located next to the church in town is a great resource for finding route conditions. The staff is helpful and friendly and you can find nearly any topo or guidebook for anything in the valley. Information on conditions can also be found online at: www.ohm-chamonix.com.
Huts and Lifts
The access is what makes Chamonix and the Alps so famous. The hut and lift infrastructure is nothing short of outstanding, especially when compared to North America. Don’t come expecting a wilderness experience, but rather embrace it for what it is, a way to get a lot of climbing mileage without a lot of hiking mileage. Lifts may save your legs, but your wallet will feel the burn. Tickets will run from 20 to 50 Euros, but make sure to inquire about multiple-day discounts or a season pass if you’ll be staying long.
Huts provide an amazing opportunity to do a few days of climbing up high without dealing with camping gear. Expect to pay 60 euros per night with meals at huts. Reservations must be made in advance. Blankets and even slippers are provided at huts. Expect a memorable experience for any stay, especially if you’re so lucky to get stuck next to someone suffering from altitude-induced Cheyne-stokes breathing—priceless! Don’t forget earplugs! Reservations can be difficult to get, depending on the hut, so plan ahead. Also, be polite and cancel reservations at least a day in advance if there is a change in plans.]
The rescue infrastructure and personnel in the Alps is top notch. Rescue is almost always done by helicopter, but is not always free, contrary to popular belief. Before your trip, make sure you have adequate coverage if the unforeseen happens. The American Alpine Club offers global insurance, which is a good way to support a great organization and protect yourself.
Guiding in Chamonix and Europe is big business, and a profession that is deeply engrained in the culture. Unlike the common perception in North America, guiding is not looked down upon in Europe, and hiring a guide is a normal way for people to enjoy the mountains. The Alps are complex, intimidating and can be very dangerous, so hiring a guide may be worth considering, depending on your experience and goals. Guides can usually find suitable alternatives when the weather sours, even if that means leaving the valley. It can also be a good way to get the lay of the land, see conditions and not waste valuable time on your trip by getting your bearings.
Keep in mind that guiding in Europe is a highly regulated profession and a guide is required by law to have, at minimum, an IFMGA guiding license. Make sure your guide is in possession of this, and if there is any doubt make sure to ask. American guides in possession of this certification can be found on the AMGA website: www.amga.com. The Compagine des Guides www.compaginedesguides.com is the local guide bureau and a great place to hire a guide last minute, join a group climb or even sign up for a fun family adventure like rafting, via feratta, ropes courses, etc. Or, you can simply contact me, at www.intothemoutains.com.