By now I’m sure you’ve seen some of the photos I’ve posted on the FB and it will come as no surprise for me to confirm…
Chamonix Changed My Life.
Chamonix invites you to participate in all of the glory that is mountaineering at what ever your personal level of comfort may be. Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco if you happen to be on the Italian side) is for anyone that loves the mountains, in the summer, in the winter, on foot, on skis, on a train, with a guide, with an instructor, with ice picks and a harness, or with a shopping bag and hearty appetite. For me this trip was particularly important because I find myself somewhere in the middle of the previous sentence. I love snowboarding; and I’m pretty good, but I’m not amazing. I like making turns as opposed to pointing it straight down a groomer. The best place to make turns is in a field of snow in the middle of nowhere, with yards of distance between you and the next guy. (if there is a next guy) Unfortunately it can also be pretty dangerous and I do not yet possess the skills and confidence to get myself (safely) to the middle of nowhere and back again. Chamonix gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet in the ocean of boundless off-piste opportunities. This ski resort offers an impressive array of skiing freedoms. With an entire week (I wouldn’t come for less time unless you absolutely have to) and the unlimited ski pass you can satisfy any (and all) of your desires; choosing from one of eight ski areas and/or getting yourself a guide.
More than any other ski destination I associate Chamonix with history. It’s an honor to have been there. You don’t go for the high-speed 6 packs with heated seats and bubbles, or enormous trams that can carry close to 200 skiers. You go for the skiing. You don’t go because the amenities are perfect and there’s plumbing and hand soap at 13,000 feet. You go to ski from 13,000 feet down to 3,000 feet. Whether you’re looking down, or looking up; the views absolutely take your breath away.
The Alps are hundreds of millions of years old, but Chamonix history begins with monks building a farm in 1091. As you could imagine, the conditions were tough and the Chamoniards sustained themselves on a rebellious spirit. Tourism (or let’s call it exploration) began with two Englishmen in 1741. The first men to climb Mont Blanc did so in the 18th century. A few women joined them in the 19th century. Skiing took off in the turn of the 20th century and that’s when (coincidentally) real tourist development began. The first Olympic games in Chamonix were 1924, and it’s also the year of the first cable car. Chamonix obviously remains a breeding ground for ski spirit.
I hate to have to choose a favorite day of this trip, but the choice is clear. Wednesday we took a guided trip down the famous Vallée Blanche. We met our guide, Serge, through Chamonix Guides. The trip was fabulous, worth every penny, not just for the times when Serge alerted us of crevasses to avoid, but also when he gave me a (much needed) pole-tow through the flat, or carried Lu’s skies up a mountain so she could focus on the climb. We met the guide early in the morning at the base of the Aguille du Midi. He dressed us in transceivers and harnesses, and gave Phil a shovel. As we stood in the queue, waiting for our turn in the tram to take us to the highest point in the Alps, I was having an all-star moment. People from around the globe, dressed in serious mountain-man gear, surrounded me. I’m with my family and a guide, and the guide is chatting it up with his buddy behind us…the world-class skier. (Someone I wasn’t familiar with, Vivian Bruchez, but of course we went home that night and youtubed a bunch of his videos.) The excitement and anticipation had my emotions turned every which way but right-side up. If I could metaphor my feelings in that moment it would be something to the tune of an Avant Garde jazz song. I was the embodiment of a complete rejection of calm. I felt hungry. I felt full. I felt like I had to pee. I felt like I had to throw up. I was excited to use a harness. I was hoping to not have to use the transceiver. I wished I had a piece of gum. I wished I were at the top already. I wished I were at the bottom already. I was glad to have a guide. I was glad to have family with me. I was glad the sun was shining. I was questioning why I wanted to challenge myself. I was visualizing the deep, soft, sparkling snow…
Within the 10 minutes that it took for us to get to the top I stepped out of normal skiing and into take-your-breath-away skiing. Even though we were on the mountain with hundreds of people, hundreds had come before, and hundreds will come after, I still feel like I won the lottery. Maybe it’s because I remember a time when I couldn’t ski, or snowboard, at all. Jump to 20 years later and I’m pumped-up to ride an infamous line in the French Alps.
Funny enough, our (next level-advanced) 20 km decent of the glacier Mer de Glace began (for me) on my ass. To begin we (our group of four) all tied our harnesses to a line. With Phil in the front, Serge in the back, and Lucia and I (the two ladies) in the middle, we hiked down to the takeoff point. It was so steep that Lu and I couldn’t stay on our feet. I fell almost immediately. Luckily, not only were we tied together, but there was also a guiding rope to take hold of. With the men able to stay standing, we ladies (unable to remain standing) laughed and hung-on for dear life as we rode the steep slide. After that it was smooth sailing. We cruised down the glacier indulging in the most fabulous moment of our skiing history.
In addition to the Vallée Blanche we also explored Brévent Flégère, Grand-Montets and Courmayeur. Each ski area continued to offer captivating terrain as they battled to win the title of Most Breathtaking Resort I Have Ridden to Date. One might assume that after we spent a day in the pseudo-wilds of Mont Blanc that a resort would leave us feeling unfulfilled. Instead, we had a blast. The sun was shining, the trails were groomed up nice and crunchy, and there continued to be plenty of opportunities to peal off the trail and blaze your own path. There was still a bit of chill in the air, and we were still surrounded by enormous mountains and glaciers. I’m truly not a competent enough writer to describe how beautiful and unique each day was.
All of the places we skied this week were in France except Courmayeur. It’s in Italy; accessed with a 20-minute drive through a 7-mile long tunnel. You don’t ski very far in Courmayeur without passing a pizza hut…and I don’t mean a Pizza Hut. I mean a ski hut at just under 3,000 meters, on a mountain, in Italy that serves pizza…and wine…and killer coffee…and the most delicious looking torts you’ve ever seen. It’s hard to ski in Italy and not eat a fat lunch. The only thing that keeps you epicure-iously uncurious is needing the energy for skiing and not digesting.
Courmayeur also allowed me to develop some generalizations of the Italian female skier. I love the Austrian ski bunnies because you can catch them at the bar by 10:00 am with cigarettes, jaegermeister, big beers, and bratwurst. Any woman that can start a day of skiing in a fashion that I would prefer to end a day of skiing is a hero. Italian women exist in a completely different realm, but no less admirable. It isn’t at 10:00, it’s more like 13:00, and they take their helmet off and they’ve got a serious coiffure (acconciatura in Italian) underneath. Likewise, they remove their goggles and they’ve got a full face on…tanned skin highlighted with eyeshadow, eyeliner, and perfect lipstick…unsmeared by sweat or melted snow. They sit in the sun on lounge chairs (potentially with beers or prosseco and cigarettes) their jackets are off, and their sport-shirts are zipped open in an attempt to absorb as much Vitamin-D as their chests can stand. They sit and chat in clusters while their kids run around having snowball fights or climbing on the roofs of the ski huts and see who can get closest to the edge of the roof with out falling off. The kids throw snowballs at strangers (because their moms aren’t paying attention) until the big guy running the hut comes out and (in Italian) promises to kick their ass if they don’t get down. The kids are amped up because they just got out of ski school…actually the schools are more like ski gangs. They all wear the same outfit and ski down the hill backward while their instructor shouts, “Se riesco a vedere il tuo volto si scia nel modo sbagliato!”
That’s Italian for, “If I can se your face you are skiing the wrong way!”
In my descriptions I have only tipped the iceberg of my monuments trip. Any way you slice it…Monte Bianco or Mont Blanc. It’s been a fantastic adventure.
OK…enough with the puns.
If I’ve peaked your interest, then I’d like to give you a couple of tips.
If you’re thinking about going, do it. You won’t regret it. If you go, do your research. There’s a lot of details to making the most of a trip to Chamonix. To help you, the Chamoniards have made downloadable welcome packet pdf’s as well as an app.
Pack sunscreen, but pray for snow.
Drink the local beer….then you can steam off the labels and make your own postcards.
Chat it up! Mont Blanc has the most interesting lift lines in the world, containing very friendly people. More so on this trip than any other, thanks to my incredibly social father-in-law, we exchanged small conversation with gents from every expression of life. Not only did it kill time while we were waiting in lines, riding buses, and waiting for our dinner; it also enlightened us to lifestyles in the far reaches of the globe and gave us fuel for planning some of our next adventures.