An American friend emailed me recently saying she hadn’t known what “off-piste” was, and since I’d mentioned it quite a few times, she Googled it and discovered its what Americans refer to as “backcountry”.
Chamonix is well known as an off-piste (or backcountry) haven, more suited to intermediate and advanced boarders, who can find some very challenging runs – for example ‘La Vallee Blanche’, which is a glacier run only to be attempted if you have a licensed and experienced guide, and you have to wear a harness and safety kit due to the risk of falling into a covered crevice! No doubt that’s where I’d have ended up so I thought I’d steer clear of it this trip.
I was collected from Geneva airport by Gary, a very friendly guy who owns ‘Valley Fever’, the chalet company I’d be staying with. However, like many transfer companies that day, he was having a hard time escaping Geneva airport, with the airport car-park security, police, and Swiss bureaucratic red-tape causing frustrating problems for him.
I wasn’t bothered until one of the french policemen cast his eye my way with a look that said I was going to jail! It made for an interesting morning, we didn’t go to jail, and the transfer is only an hour so we weren’t going to be late.
Thankfully, like most of Europe this season, Chamonix was having some awesome snow fall. Gary drove us past Chamonix, a nice little city, overlooked by the quite stunning Mount Blanc range. We chatted about the area, and it seems quite a few people go to Chamonix and never leave!
It was different from places I’ve been in the past, as the ski-area’s aren’t interlinked, and you have to take a bus between them. It’s not a big deal as the bus system is fairly efficient and free.
With the Unlimited Pass you can also ski in Verbier, Switzerland and Courmayeur, Italy, but getting there isn’t as easy as jumping on the Chamonix buses – however it still amuses me that you can ski in three different countries in as many days. The Chamonix Le Pass would have been fine for me.
When I was booking the trip to Chamonix I decided to stay in the smaller village of Argentiere, which is a few miles along the valley from Chamonix, in one of the ‘Valley Fever’ chalets – Le Mouille Fetu.
The chalet was run by yet another young Australian couple – Dave and Sally (I had no idea the Aussies liked the snow so much!), both doing their first season, and doing it well. They were an excellent laugh, full of traveling stories, and easy to get along with. Dave was such an enthusiastic boarder, that he’d already managed to get his arm in a sling, which was a shame as it would have been good to have someone to board with… so as sad as it sounds, it was back to situation normal – having to find snowboarding friends, I can hear the boys at work now “what a loser!”.
Those first days on my own were difficult – I’ll admit that I’d had such a good time in Val d’Isere previously, that I didn’t go to Chamonix in the best mindset – already deciding it wasn’t going to be as good, and to be honest during the first couple of days, that attitude, along with the misty weather, clouded my enjoyment. The worst thing was – I knew it! And it annoyed me even more knowing that I wasn’t giving Chamonix a fair chance.
However, day three changed all that… it was one of the best days boarding I’ve ever had.
During the poor visiblity on the first and second day I tried to explore the ‘De Balme’ area over at Le Tour, and the ‘Grands Montets’ area, a short walk from the chalet, but got so frustrated by the fog. On the second day I ended up off-piste without knowing it, then trying to find the lift I came to a stop on a long flat section because I hadn’t been able to see it coming to keep my speed up. I took my board off and threw it at the nearest ghostly tree, then laughed at myself and decided it was time for a beer.
I was in a bad mood when I got to the “home run” down to Argentiere, thinking I should just get the lift, I chucked my board down and it nearly went skittering of down the slope! It was then I met a group of young English guys saying the home run was actually clear, thankfully I joined them as it saved my day.
And I met them the following day, with fresh snow and the skies getting ever clearer, we had a fantastic day over at Flegere. I was disappointed not to be able to board with them again, but the lessons were calling!!
I went into Chamonix on a high, had a few pints, got carried away and went and bought a new GoPro Hero2 helmet cam, then went and met the boys for more pints. I then got lost in Chamonix trying to find the night bus back to Argentiere. Thankfully when people in Chamonix see a guy still in full ski gear, dragging his snowboard and looking at a map upside down with one eye they stop and help. One french girl walked me to the right bus stop, and laughed as I suggested it would probably be easier if I just stayed at her place.
Two other guests from the chalet, an awesome adventuring off-piste couple called Pete and Rosie, happened to be on the bus and they said it was funny listening to me as I was so excited about how amazing the snowboarding had been, but I was also trying to fall asleep on the nose of my board at the same time!
There’s actually quite a lot going on at night in Chamonix – head to the bars and get one of the fold out events guides, its updated regularly, and pretty good.
For the last three days I had lessons with ‘Blue Mile Snowsports’ owner, Kieran. We were joined by a few chalet girls on the first day, but the last two it was one-to-one. Kieran is like Jedi Master ‘Yoda’ when it comes to teaching snowboarding, and to be honest at the start I wasn’t sure about it, but by the end of the first day it all came together. We did the video review and I realised that although I could go reasonably fast (clocked myself at 67kph with GPS!) I had absolutely no technique and basically just looked like a out-of-control moron skidding down the slope on a piece of wood.
By the last day I was physically drained, more so than normal, because Kieran had me mentally concentrating so much on what I was doing, not doing, and mastering a better technique. We still managed to fit in a half day of Kieran trying to get me to do Ollies (small jumps using the board) and 180 spins… I bottled it mostly, but it’s given me a lot to practice! And now I have a GoPro cam, you might get to see it…
It was a very rewarding course, especially with the video reviews so you could actually see your progress, I highly recommend it, the five day course sounds intensive!
So after a poor start, I have to say I really enjoyed Chamonix, and can certainly understand why people return, or simply stay.
The views from the top of Brevent over to Mount Blanc are so speculator it’s worth going to Chamonix just to see it. Absolutely beautiful. I even saw some unfortunate guy down on one knee proposing at the viewing station, champagne on ice nearby – she said Yes.
Valley Fever Chalets http://www.valleyfever.co.uk/
Blue Mile Snowsports http://www.bluemilesnowsports.com/
My Trip Advisor Reviews http://www.tripadvisor.com/members-reviews/SheltieOnTour
ChamVan Transfers http://www.cham-van.com/en