A mecca for advanced skiers. A laughingly understated skimap given the phenomenal amount of skiable terrain. Powder that gets tracked out faster than yesterday. Of all the seven resorts in the fabled Chamonix Valley in France, the Grand Montets is the biggest and baddest of them all. It has phenomenal vertical. Six thousand feet in total. The ski season is as enormous as the skiable terrain, from the beginning of December through May. Hardly anything is groomed. Brace yourself, there are only eight marked runs.
Bring your best powder skills.
I had moved to Chamonix from London and was living in Argentiere. It’s a small, alpine village, six miles up the road from Cham. And has only one main road. One road up the valley. Towered by 12,000 ft high mountains on both sides, culminating in the tallest of them all, Mont Blanc at 15,700 feet. You might be fooled into thinking the valley floor would be flat, but no, the road ascended steeply from Chamonix to Argentiere.
So everyone was fit.
And phenomenal skiers.
Two ways up to the mid station at Lognan, the Plan Joran gondola or the enormous Lognan cable car. It’s always a guess which one would get you there quicker. Should you stand in a longer queue with a quicker, higher capacity lift, or a shorter queue with the slower gondola? Hair and the tortoise. Although the gondola is a far cry from the old chairlift that used to run in its place.
From the mid station, you have three choices – continue to the top on the Grands Montets cable car at 10,700ft, take the Herse chairlift, also straight up the mountain, but not as high up at 8,500ft, or diagonally up the Bochard to 9,000ft. Since it is groomed, the Bochard run is a good option for warming up before tackling something steeper and off-piste. The French have no limit for speed, and there is a great schuss at the end of the run. But it can get crowded. There are times when I have had five or six phenomenally fast skiers right beside me as we all head straight down, quite unnerving. Better hope that no one decides to put in a little turn and run smack right into you.
Chamonix is all about the sport. Pure skiing. Pure vertical. Pure joy. Having legendary hard core status, people flock here from all over the world. A mecca for advanced skiers. The crowds are enormous, but the rewards are too.
Given the technical challenges of the place, skiers carry avalanche transceivers and probes. And shovels. I wrote this before the days of helmets, hence no helmets in the pictures, but we all wear helmets now. Some of the skiable terrain is glacial – there are an insane four glaciers on this mountain – the Glacier de la Pendant and Glacier de Lognan down the front face, Glacier des Grands Montets off to skiers’ left and Glacier des Rognons off to skiers’ right at the top. And Rognons heads directly down to the Glacier de l’Argentiere. Watch for bergshrunds or crevasses, although they are usually well marked.
Skiing thigh deep powder is an incredible feeling. It is like bouncing from side to side in seemingly slow motion from the resistance of the snow. Everyone in Cham gets it. And everyone wants it. Watch and see the front face of the almost 1.5 mile wide Grand Montets get tracked out in a couple of hours. By contrast, we once arrived in St Moritz four days after a snowstorm, and the off-piste had remained untouched. We grabbed first tracks on Corviglia, St Moritz all day. The skiers there were more interested in their fancy lunch and fur covered ice bar and looking stylish on groomed intermediate runs than the joy and exhaustion of powder.
There’s a saying “no friends on a powder day”, meaning the desire for fresh tracks overrides your allegiance to your friends in either waiting for them or allowing them to decide your route. Everyone is on their own.
Not us, we prefer to share the joy.
Fat skis certainly give you an advantage in a deep powder day. The width of the ski enables you to float easier over the top of the powder. Otherwise you need to use your powder technique, bring your skis closer together to form one platform instead of two, and bounce to initiate a turn.
As we began another descent, chasing fresh tracks and thoroughly exhausting ourselves in the deep snow, slow motion of the moment, we realized how it was that everyone was so fit here, so committed to this place. The intoxicating, free falling vertical. The huge ungroomed terrain. The energy sapping pleasure of powder. Joy and exhaustion.
Call me St Moritz, but we had to stop for lunch.