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Nowhere on the planet do mountains explode from the Earth as do those in the Chamonix Valley of France.
The de facto outdoor adventure capital of the French Alps, the winter months are dominated by snowboarding, skiing, and backcountry mountaineering, while the summer months provide a playground for mountain biking, rock climbing, paragliding, and long-distance hiking.
Or, visit in the springtime (April), and get to experience it all!
Having recently undergone one of the driest winters in modern history, all of the Chamonix ski resorts closed early for the season with the exception of Les Grand Montets, due to its being the highest of all of the Chamonix resorts and still packing the largest amount of snow. While Grand Montets is famous for having one of the longest vertical runs in the world with its nearly 10,000 ft descent (!), I was more than content to bang out some lessons with new friend and snowboard instructor Wiktoria on the slopes where mere mortals tend to hang out. Skiing ability aside, the views alone from the top of the Grands Montets resort are reason enough to pop for a lift ticket.
Not in the mood for traditionally groomed runs? If you’re a mega-mountain badass and certifiable nutcase then you might want to have a crack at skiing the Vallee Blanche, reputed to be one of the best ski runs in the entire world. Not belonging to any resort and only accessible by the world’s most terrifying cable car ride, the Vallee Blanche is a vast valley of off-piste skiing that straddles the basin between the French and Italian Alps and is riddled with glaciers, crevasses, avalanches, and generally all the sorts of things that will kill you.
If planning on heading out onto the Vallee Blanche it is highly recommended to hire a trained mountain guide and compulsory to pack mountaineering equipment such as an ice axe, rappelling gear, and anything needed to dig your way out of a cavernous crevasse or worse. If you’re the type of person who can handle such conditions then more power to you, but for the time being I am content to simply take in the view.
So how do you get to the Vallee Blanche if you’re a simple sightseer? By taking the Aguille du Midi cablecar that runs from the Chamonix Valley floor to virtually the top of the Alps. Gaining nearly 10,000 ft in elevation in about 10 minutes, the Aiguille du Midi is absolutely NOT for anyone who has ever even entertained the thought of having a fear of heights. Once at the top, however, the views stretching across the top of Europe are worth the harrowing ordeal. On clear days such as when I visited it is possible to see both Mt. Blanc (the highest point in Europe) and the Swiss Matterhorn. Chilly and serene in its position above the Vallee Blanche, it’s the perfect perch for watching the pros descend into the white abyss below.
So where do all of those crazy skiers end up after they tackle the Valle Blanche? Right next to the entrance of the cavernous ice tunnel that is simply known as the Mer de Glace. The attraction is heavily trafficked by tourists and accessible via an old fashioned train ride from the valley floor, but while it sounds hokey in the guidebooks, walking through the Mer de Glace tunnels is the real deal. It is literally like standing inside of a massive ice cube, and considering the fact that the glacier is rapidly retreating and melting before your very eyes the entire experience has a decidedly disconcerting thrill to it.
Once all the snows have finally melted and the trails have begun to show themselves, summertime in Chamonix gets into full swing with hiking and biking trails running the length of the valley floor and beyond. While the most popular trek in the region is the 9 day Tour de Mt. Blanc, there are other more reasonable day hikes such as Le Petit Balcon Sud that provide stunning vistas and tranquil rambles through the wilderness for those who may only have a single day to devote to the trail.
Summers in Chamonix also bring out the paragliders who can’t seem to stop riding the lifts and throwing themselves off of mountains even once all of the snow is gone. While I have never tried it myself, I can imagine that anyone lucky enough to be able to see the valley from this vantage point would agree that there are only a handful of places on this globe as magical and full of life as the Chamonix Valley spread out below them.