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.
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.
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.
In Mark Twight's 2001 book, 'Kiss or Kill' he wrote of Chamonix;
“In Chamonix men achieve great things, and the Nietzschean ethic of surpassing one's previous best efforts plays out every day. As with all geographic sites of power, young people make the pilgrimage to measure themselves against the place and its people. Some commune with the mountain god and find their true selves among the ice and the stone. Others get slapped down and end up in the ground. The cemeteries in Chamonix and Argentiere are beautiful. Rough-hewn monuments thrust through the earth like the mountains looming hungrily above them. They aren't homogeneous or polished like American tombstones or, for that matter, American lives. The carved stone speaks of great history.”
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.