The Chamonix valley has five main ski areas, none of them particularly convenient for people staying in town. Le Brevent-La Flegere and the Aiguille du Midi are accessed by cable-cars that are rather too far from the centre for comfort, while Le Tour, Argentiere and Les Houches are within driving rather than walking distance. The gondola from Vallorcine to Aiguilette near the border with Switzerland has finally given Chamonix what it has always lacked, an area suited to all standards of skier.
Many insiders now find that driving to Vallorcine rather than Le Tour gives more efficient access to the inviting blues on the front of the Col de Balme and the rolling reds down the back, while experts can plunder the untracked powder through the trees above Les Esserts and Vallorcine. Advanced beginners get a real sense of adventure on the looping blue descent from the top of the Col de Balme at 2,186m to Vallorcine station at 1,264m, plus a just reward in the Arret Bougnette restaurant (04 50 54 63 04) at the bottom. There is extensive free parking, which is fortunate because the bus service could politely be called sporadic.
Up to 2,500 skiers a day take on the Vallee Blanche, Chamonix’s hugely popular, trademark off-piste adventure, rising to 3,821m in less than 20 minutes via the Aiguille du Midi cable-car. Vertigo sufferers are convinced they’re going to die the moment they emerge on to the infamous ridge walk from the top station to the start of the run. Not so: if there is no fixed rope, your guide and you must have one. This will link you to your fellow travellers. There will always be showboaters who skip down on crampons with their skis over their shoulder, but even those who take it centimetre by agonising centimetre get there in the end. And the descent is worth it, not so much for the run which is well within the scope of any competent and obedient intermediate, but for the chance to spend time in the most accessible ice wilderness in the Alps. In skiing terms, good brakes are key: the maze of crevasses where the glacier runs out take no prisoners, which means that those who stop beyond the guide risk more than a ticking off. Boarders be warned that the Vallee Blanche is too flat for easy riding. Experts note that there are more exciting variants, notably L’Envers du Plan and La Vraie Vallee Blanche.
The main town hill is Le Brevent-La Flegere, formerly two areas but now awkwardly linked across the intervening void by a low-level gondola that is designed to be eco- rather than skier-friendly. The slopes are south-facing, good for basking in the sun when it’s available but not for maintaining quality snow conditions when temperatures rise. The blue runs immediately above the mid-stations, Planpraz (from Chamonix) and La Flegere (from Les Praz), are suitable for beginners looking to progress beyond the tiny nursery slope at Le Savoy in the centre of town, but they?d be well advised not to stray on to the testing reds further up the mountain. Nor indeed down it because the only routes back to base are demanding blacks. The second stage of the Brevent cable-car goes up to 2,525m, but the pay-off is restricted to two black runs back to Planpraz. Regulars will be glad to learn that Flegere’s claustrophobic green L’Index chair now has a six-person replacement that provides a better connection by ending slightly further up the hill. Although advanced skiers would be fully extended on these slopes, the majority prefer to test themselves to the furthest limits on Argentiere’s legendary Grands Montets, accessed either by cable-car to Lognan or high-speed quad to Plan Joran. The Bochard people-carrier opens up much of the mountain, including the magnificent Combe de la Pendant and Lavancher bowls, but the jewel in the crown is the venerable second-stage cable-car to the top of the mountain at 3,275m, the starting point for a demanding clatter down 100 metal steps to the slopes.
The easiest way back to Lognan is on Point de Vue or Pylones, two long, often icy and usually bumpy black runs, but that is to miss the main event which is skiing off-piste on the glacier. Many self-styled mountain men risk death by exploring this incomparable terrain without a guide, which is definitely not a good idea.