Chamonix, France, is one of the most prestigious places on earth for outdoor sports. Located at the bottom of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, it offers a rare spirit to the visitor—a sense of adventure that you just can’t live without once you’ve had a taste of its grandeur.
This article was featured in the Destination section in our very first print issue of The Outdoor Journal, Summer 2013. Stay tuned for our exclusive story by Krissy Moehl, two-time champion of the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, about this life-changing race.
You know you’re hooked on a place when all you can think about is your next trip out there. Chamonix, France is one of those places. It is the cradle of many adventures in alpinism, paragliding, BASE jumping and extreme skiing. “Many thrill seekers have been coming to live in the valley in the past 40 years and have helped that place radiate over the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland,” says Dominic Simoncini, our columnist and mental coach, who lives there now. “Chamonix is at the crossroads of extreme sports and extreme passion for the mountain.”
Skiing in Chamonix is great, but it’s not among the best in the world. The mountain is so wild and steep that the slopes haven’t yet been successfully connected. As a result, serious skiers end up chasing the best spots on one specific side of the mountain in the morning, going all the way down to where the road stops, taking a short bus ride and going up again to another side of the mountain for more cliffs and untouched powder. Other than the steepness of some mountainsides, it’s not the best for avid skiers. However, for beginners and even families who are on holiday, it’s perfect. The only hassle is that you can’t go anywhere with a chairlift.
“Chamonix remains the alpine capital of the world because of the Mont Blanc mountain and all its glorious history, but it is also very alive thanks to a lot of small startups acting in the outdoor segment,” says Sébastien de Sainte Marie, The Outdoor Journal Brand Ambassador and an avid steep skier with many stories in the mountains. “This has mostly been supported by the English tourist colony coming here every year and making possible the existence of a true ‘made in Chamonix.’”
In the summer, it’s another story. Chamonix is the place to be for trekking, trail running, paragliding, base jumping, climbing and hard alpinism. “Chamonix is a very special little town stuck in between mountains, offering perfect spots for all kinds of sports, but also for more family-oriented time with a lot of great infrastructure,” says Sébastien Nain, ultra runner from the Vibram Europe team.
There are some major sporting events in Chamonix that you shouldn’t miss as a spectator or a participant, from international climbing competitions to 24-hour mountain biking. And don’t forget the gruelling Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), one of the best 100-mile (170-km) ultra running races on earth.
“I have loved my time in Chamonix around the race every year,” says American ultra runner and Patagonia athlete Krissy Moehl, who is also a two-time winner of the UTMB race. “Each time, I have spent a minimum of nine days playing in and around the town. The daily adventures up in the hills are an incredible playground for any outdoor enthusiast. My favourite time was in 2010, when I took a four-day turn around the Mont Blanc massif. The access from Chamonix is what makes it any adventurer’s dream, any time of year.”
Thinking about going there? The best place in Chamonix (believe me, as I’ve stayed in each of the top boutique hotels and fancy chalets) is The Résidence Quartz Mont Blanc. Yan, the owner, inherited the building from his grandparents and decided to quit his job to turn it into luxury apartments with his wife, Mimi (aka “Mimi the witch” if you’re a close friend). It’s located just by the edge of this very small town, and you can easily walk to nearby shops and restaurants. The farmers’ market right below your window on Saturday morning will make you feel like a true Frenchman.
“On race days, our large group of runners from Patagonia is easily accommodated in the comfortable rooms, providing everyone ample space and a great common area to connect and share home-cooked meals—all with the flair of Chamonix and the Mont Blanc massif standing guard out the window,” says Moehl.
During my childhood and teenage years, I used to go skiing twice a year in Courchevel, in the Alps, in the greatest resort of all: Les 3 Vallées. But since I grew up and became a real outdoorsman, I just can’t live without my Chamonix fix.
Chamonix makes me happy; it’s as simple as that.
When I can afford it, I stay at Yan’s and just forget about the rest. And when I look at the Mont Blanc summit from my window, I feel pushed beyond my limits. If you’re a surfer, Chamonix is like Tavarua in Fiji, or Grajagan in Java, Indonesia. If you scuba dive, it compares to the Great Barrier Reef or Tahiti. For skydivers, it ranks up there with Eloy.
This isn’t hyperbole: if you love the mountains, Chamonix is the top of the world.
Feature image by Henry Iddon.