Crevasses, seracs, cliffs, avalanches, and scary steeps: these are just a few of the things that have scared me about skiing in Chamonix, France. I’ve lived in Cham for three summers—long enough to know from rock and alpine climbing that the terrain is steep, unstable, and blindingly beautiful. But I’ve never spent much time there in the winter…until my recent ski vacation. The Chamonix valley sits in the shadow of the Mont Blanc massif (the Big Mama, at right), with a nearly 13,000-foot differential between them (Chamonix is at an altitude of a little more than 3,000 ft; Mont Blanc, just less than 16,000 ft).
Coming from Vail, Colorado, I admit that I’m spoiled by the big Rocky Mountain blue skies. In Vail, it seems as if it snows only at night, and then we ski powder in the sun. Of course, this isn’t true, but I was disappointed when we skied in thick fog for four days straight:
The disconcerting thing about skiing in these conditions is that the off-piste runs from the Grand Montets-area lifts are littered with rocks, cliffs, and otherwise very variable conditions. And this is a bad thing when you can’t see beyond the tips of your skis. The French laissez-faire way of life lets anyone go anywhere, whenever, which is liberating…but a bit like stepping off the deep end at times (as Will is doing here):
When the clouds finally parted, I remembered what it is I love about this part of the Alps. The needle peaks rip their way into the skyline, and at this time of the year, they look like they’re sugar-coated. The Aiguille du Chardonnet has always been one of my favorites, seen here from a chairlift going towards the Lognan mid-station:
Then once the sun’s out, you can see the beauty all around. The Aiguilles Rouges are impressive peaks opposite the Mont Blanc massif, with the Chamonix valley running between them. Here’s Dermot at the top of the Bouchard lift with the Aiguilles Rouges in the background:
And days like these skiing above the clouds (almost) make you forget the days spent disoriented and swimming on skis in the fog.