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45.9237° N, 6.8694° E

Chamonix 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.


Haute Savoie, France



Chamonix Travel Guide

Chamonix


Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is situated below the largest peaks of the Alps and below its namesake Mont Blanc, 4,810m – the highest mountain in Western Europe. Chamonix butts up to the borders of Switzerland and Italy in the eastern part of France. It has a respected heritage as the premier site for mountain sports and is well known to the mountaineering and skiing communities. Home to some 9,000 permanent residents, seasonal workers and tourists take this upwards of 100,000 people a day in high season.

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 still impressive even when you have 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.




Les Drus
Les Drus | Photo: Dash Kadam
Aiguille Rouge
Aiguille Rouge | Photo: Dash Kadam

This self contained community is that rarest of alpine towns that operates all year round. Chamonix is one of the few alpine resorts where summer is as busy, if not busier than the winter. Day trippers are more common in summer as are the tourist buses. The interseasons remain busy and the Aiguille du Midi lift runs most of the year.

In summer and winter the town is served by the Brevent and Flégère lifts on the north side and the Aiguille du Midi and Grand Montets on the south. Up the valley at the commune of Le Tour is another lift and down the valley at Les Houches another two. The Montenvers train line runs from the centre of town to the Mer de Glace.

Mont Blanc is the mountain that put Chamonix on the map but it wasn’t until 1786 that anyone managed to climb it. Before climbing it was crystal hunting that was popular in Chamonix. Part climber and part geologist, the crystal hunter hopes to find an ‘oven of crystals’. This perfect cave works as a natural incubator for the geological processes of supersaturation and nucleation that allows the crystals to grow. Quartz is the usual find but malachite and fluorite are the treasures that the hunter seeks. It’s easy to see that climbing is a big part of crystal hunting - most ovens are hidden away up some mountain face so it is no surprise it was a crystal hunter who first summited Mont Blanc, not for the thrill but for the money.

Alpinists on the Vallee Blanche
Alpinists on the Vallee Blanche
Mer de Glace from the Aiguille Rouge
Mer de Glace from the Aiguille Rouge

Horace Bénédict de Saussure was one of many who had tried and failed to climb Mont Blanc and in putting up a reward for anyone who attained the summit drew the interest of crystal and chamois hunter Jacques Balmat. Teaming up with Doctor of Medicine Michel Paccard secured them their reward and part of history. Chamonix’s climbing history is also alpinism. In the 1860’s Edward Whymper pioneered a series of routes in the valley and today's climbers are still finding new ground. This history is littered with those who perished on Chamonix’s peaks. The cemeteries in the valley are a who’s who of alpinists including Whymper himself.

The Reformed Church below the Aiguilles
The Reformed Church below the Aiguilles
Snell sports in the centre of Chamonix
Snell sports in the centre of Chamonix

In Chamonix climbing and skiing often go hand in hand. Skiing was first introduced in Chamonix at the end of the 19th century, and it blossomed with the support of the Club Alpin Français (CAF). In 1924 Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympic Games and Le Tremplin Olympique du Mont ski jump can still be seen from the road when driving into Chamonix. Ski mountaineering and extreme skiing was designed on the slopes on the valley. Chamonix is the crowned king of the steep couloir and an off-piste nirvana.

These are just some of the sports practiced to extremes in the valley. Paragliding which once seemed dangerous is now something day trippers do. Strapped like baby Kangaroos to their pilot, the skies on a clear day are full of them descending to the two designated landing sites. Proximity flying is the latest rush in the valley that has been periodically banned due to accidents. There are plenty of less dangerous activities, mountain biking, hiking, yoga, rafting, golf, tennis, swimming - you name it really.

For those who are looking for something not dangerous at all Chamonix has all the facilities you would expect, shops and restaurants and even some cerebral activities. CREA Mont-Blanc is based in the historic Mont Blanc Observatory and observes scientific activities including climate change. Writers and poets like Shelley and Bryon visited the valley and books and films have used the valley for fictional adventures.

There is pretty much something for everyone in the Chamonix valley and you don’t have to be a crystal hunter to find it.

Aiguille du Midi


The Aiguille du Midi is Chamonix's most iconic peak and the start of the famous Vallée Blanche ski run as well as many climbs, including Mont Blanc from the nearby Cosmiques Refuge. The easiest way up is by the spectacular Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi cable car, which opened in 1955 and runs from Chamonix centre to Plan d’Aiguille, with a second cable car to the summit. It holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world.

The cable car is 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. The French are not big on queuing. It's worth noting the temperature at the top drops below zero even in the height of summer and it's mostly snow or ice underfoot. More problematic is the cable car will stop in bad weather and it's not unknown for cable cars to break down.

The cable car arrives at Plan d’Aiguille
The cable car arrives at Plan d’Aiguille

At the cable car station, it's 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 cable car picks up a bit of speed over the pylons. After swapping to the second cable car it’s a slower, steeper ascent to our destination.

Climbers on the steep slopes
Arrival from the cable car
Bridges and tunnels
Bridges and tunnels

On a good day, the viewing platforms offer some of, if not the very best views in the high 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. The Vallée Blanche is a 20km, 2,700m double black descent, passing through the wild side of the valley and its glaciers, seracs and crevasses. It ends at Montenvers unless the snow is exceptional and a route back to Chamonix can be traversed. A guide is required. 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.

Climbers exit to the arrête
Climbers exit to the arête
The cable car ascends to the summit
The cable car ascends to the summit

If you want to achieve the highest altitude, take the lift to the top of the needle at 3,842m 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. In summer, if you have the time and the lift is running, you can travel to Italy via Pointe Helbronner and then on the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car down to Entrèves in the Aosta valley. The Helbronner lift runs from Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner and is not without its share of problems. As well as closing in the winter and often also at other times due to bad weather, it has been the scene of several accidents. You can return via a bus and the Mont Blanc tunnel if or come back via the lift. Planning is essential for this journey.

Montenvers & Mer de Glace


Departing from Chamonix centre, the rack-and-pinion railway takes around 20 minutes to deliver you to Montenvers at 1913m. An imposing panorama of the Mer de Glace, the Drus and the Grandes Jorasses greets you as you alight the train. Mer de Glace drains the north side of Mont Blanc and at 12km long it’s the largest glacier in this part of the Alps. The ‘sea of ice’ label refers not only to its size but also to the coloured bands formed at its base.

Montenvers represents all that is both good and bad about the Chamonix experience. An easy way for everyone to enjoy the magnificent views of nature’s best work and a climate-changing mass of humanity. Like the Aiguille du Midi it takes no more than a few euros to get you to this point and sitting on the new and improved terrasse with a cappuccino. The weather up here changes quickly and the only way back is the train you came on. That or a 2-hour hike. In 2010, landslides left 120 people stranded at the Montenvers and they all had to be rescued by the PGHM and Sécurité Civile helicopters. As with most of the ‘attractions’ in Chamonix, it’s so easy to get to you don’t expect any problem getting back.

Stairway from hell
Stairway from hell
Mer de Glace
Mer de Glace

A short walk away from the train station you will find a hotel, previously a refuge, and some smaller buildings — the Temple of Nature and a small museum. You can find a peaceful spot and admire the views towards the Dru and the Verte or across the valley to the Aiguille Rouge.

From the train station, a cable car and 470 steps (100 more than in 2015, and 467 more than in 1998) take you down to the glacier and the man-made tunnel within it. Each year it becomes more inaccessible and each year more steps are added and the tunnel goes deeper into the ice. More people have been underneath this glacier than any other. During the ice age, the glacier started at the valley floor; now it is predicted to lose a minimum of 1,200m by 2040. In the last 20 years, it has thinned by 70m.

Train arriving at Mer de Glace

Tourism is today's monster and the journey to the glacier consists of metal steps, blue carpets and diggers. The glacier is unrecognisable as ice and lost under a thick layer of dust and rubble. It isn’t a pretty sight but an educational one. How much longer this journey remains sustainable is a good question to ponder on the way back up.

Montenvers is a good spot for hikes and makes a popular loop along the Grand Balcon Nord to Plan d’Aiguille and back down the lift. You can also hike back down to Chamonix but it is mostly tree-covered and not that scenic. The train is a better option.

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Chamonix Travel Guide Book