Super Alpine

Chamonix Mont-Blanc
Travel Guide

Discover Chamonix in the French Alps - home to Europe's highest mountains including Mont Blanc and find out about the Aiguille du Midi, Montenvers, Mer de Glace and more in the ultimate travel guide.

Introduction

Mention that you’re visiting Chamonix-Mont-Blanc to someone and you will often receive a question in return: ‘Going skiing/hiking/climbing?’ (delete as applicable). Chamonix, the mountain playground of France, has been on the tourist trail for centuries. Today it is seen as an adventure destination, whereas the truth is that the town has been a place to go for poets, musicians, writers and painters for longer than for adrenaline junkies.

The first English tourists came through in the 17th century to view the mountains and glaciers, followed by painters, poets and writers, many of whom became climbers if only to visit these wonders. These renaissance men and women make up a great part of the populace today. Chamonix has developed a vibrant culture, different from the other valleys in the Haute-Savoie. Agriculture played only a small role in the town’s development, unlike in the surrounding valleys, due to the steepness and hostility of the environment. Tourism drives the town today as it did in the 18th century, but whether you come here to relax, or quite the opposite, Chamonix has you covered.

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is a French town situated below the largest mountains of the European Alps and below its namesake peak, Mont Blanc – the highest mountain in Western Europe. Chamonix sits in a corner of eastern France bordering both Switzerland and Italy. Part of the Haute-Savoie department in France’s Rhône-Alpes region, it has a respected heritage as the premier site for mountain sports.

The town of Chamonix sits in a valley dominated on both sides by extraordinary mountain ranges. On the south-east side, the permanently snow-covered Mont Blanc range blocks out the sun until lunchtime in winter. The north-west side is impressive despite having the highest peaks opposite it. At the north of the valley, the Col des Montets blocks you in with its climb to the Swiss border, and to the south a narrow gorge drops to the valley floor via a series of tunnels and the impressive Égratz viaduct. The only other way out is through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy.

History

Chamonix was first noted in 1091 when monks settled on the banks of the river Arve, becoming known as the Priory of Chamonix. In the following years, more settlers arrived in the valley which came under the rule of the town of Sallanches in the valley below. Chamonix’s rural population of mountain farmers raised animals and grew a limited number of crops in the summertime. This continued for hundreds of years until travellers started to arrive in the valley to explore its mountains and glaciers.

It was in 1741 that two English travellers, William Windham and Richard Pococke, arrived in the ‘Chamouny’ valley and became the first to document it in a series of literary journals that brought Chamonix to the world's attention. Windham, an aristocrat and notable philanderer, was the first to name the glacier at Montenvers the ‘Sea of Ice’.

It was those mountains and glaciers that brought ever more people to the valley. After Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard made the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, Chamonix came to prominence in the climbing world. In 1916 Chamonix changed its name to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc to reflect the popularity of the mountain. Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924 and started building ski lifts to take advantage of the new-found interest in downhill skiing. From the 1940s on, tourism grew exponentially in the valley with the winter season going from strength to strength and investment in ski lifts and tourist accommodation unrelenting.

As the 21st century has progressed, and climate change has become a reality, the winter season has become less predictable and investment has moved to snowmaking and expanding the summer season. Chamonix’s summer season is now as busy as its winter, with day-trippers making it busier than winter. The challenges for the valley now relate to how popular the town has become. Pollution, traffic and house pricing are issues that are proving difficult to overcome. The proliferation of heavy goods vehicles using the Mont Blanc Tunnel has caused some of the worst pollution in the Alps. Most property buyers still demand large chalets that are built with concrete and contain wood burners for heating, which contribute to the valley's pollution – there is little to no use of sustainable materials or fuels.

Aiguille du Midi

The Aiguille du Midi is Chamonix’s most iconic peak and the start of the famous Vallée Blanche ski run. The only way to access the top is by the spectacular Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi which opened in 1955 and runs from Chamonix Sud to Plan d’Aiguille, with a second téléphérique to the summit. It holds the record as the highest vertical ascent ski lift in the world.

The name Aiguille du Midi doesn’t translate well into English. In some versions it is ‘the needle of the noon’ or ‘midday’, as the sun is seen over the needle at that time from the town centre. In others it is ‘the needle of the south’ – southern France is known colloquially as ‘le Midi’ and it is on the south side of the valley. Neither explanation is technically correct though.

The lift station can be found in Chamonix Sud, an easy walk from the centre. If you want to get an early start or visit at a specific time it’s best to buy your tickets in advance and arrive early. In summer, if you have the time, you can travel to Italy via the Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc and then on to the Skyway Monte Bianco down to Entrèves in Italy’s Aosta valley. The Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc closes in the winter and anytime there is bad weather. You can return by the same method or take a bus via the Mont Blanc tunnel. It is essential to check all methods of transport are running, the weather and timings before embarking on this journey. The temperature at the top of the Aiguille du Midi drops below zero even in the height of summer and there is usually snow or ice underfoot, so take appropriate clothing. Be aware that ski lifts can break down or stop due to bad weather.

Once you arrive at the Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi station you will find a mix of alpinists, paragliders, skiers, snowboarders, hikers and, of course, tourists. These are all crammed into the téléphérique together and it’s an exciting trip as the lift picks up a bit of speed over the pylons. After swapping to the second lift it’s a slower, steeper ascent to the summit.

On a good day, the viewing platforms offer some of if not the very best views in the Alps. You can see into Switzerland and Italy as well as back into France. You can witness the brave souls exiting onto l’arrête de l’Aiguille du Midi, heading for a day’s climbing or in winter taking the Vallée Blanche ski run. Even exiting the ice tunnel onto the arrête is not to be taken lightly. People are killed every year falling from the descent before their day has even started.

If you want to achieve the highest altitude, take the elevator to the top of the needle at an altitude of 3,842 metres. Alternatively, if you have a head for heights, you could try the ‘Step into the Void’, a glass box suspended above a sheer drop to the valley floor. There is a selection of snacks and drinks and various tourist knick-knacks to tempt you indoors, but the outside is where the Aiguille du Midi experience rises above all others.

Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi

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Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Travel Guide Book

Print Book

In the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc travel guide, we share our 20 years of experience of the valley to help travellers make the most informed use of their time.

This 180 page A3 softcover book has 8 maps and illustrations and over 75 Photographs. Easily packed in a bag it makes the perfect travel companion in any season.

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