A local’s guide to Chamonix freeride

By Chamex mountain guide Sebastien 'Bastiou' Corret

I'm Sébastien Corret- I’m known as "Bastiou," and I’ve guided for Chamex for more than 10 years. I’ve been exploring he Chamonix valley on skis and snowboards for more than 20 years. I’m writing a small series of articles detailing different ski areas in Chamonix and their specialities. In the first article we’ll visit the 3 sunny areas in the valley. We’re not talking about high altitude or glacier skiing, but make no mistake- these spots are full of amazing skiing- steep couloirs, glades, ski touring for all levels, and very steep slopes. 
Put on your ski mask and follow me into the depth of Chamonix’s secret treasures!

It's here- you can smell it- the smell of fresh snow that announces the start of the winter season. And if you don't smell anything, you’ll see familiar silhouettes strolling around town with a pair of new skis in one hand and bindings ready to be mounted in the other... proof that winter is coming soon! The windows of sports stores are gradually eliminating trail running shoes, selling off climbing equipment and trekking shoes, making room for various sliding toys for all ages. 

The excitement is at it’s peak, especially this year, and especially after last winter’s lockdown. As I write this, we still don't know what's in store for us this winter. But Chamex is used to moving forward, and this winter promises to be a return to what we love to do- share great skiing in a unique environment. Welcome to Chamonix Mont Blanc!

Skiing in Chamonix is unlike any other alpine resort. Those who like gentle, mile wide pistes, impeccably prepared with easily deciphered color codes, may be disconcerted when they arrive at the start of a blue run (beginner) in the Flégère. Here, the inclination is slightly steeper than usual. Downhill skiing in Chamonix is great, and the different areas offer plenty to satisfy skiers of all levels. However, the essence of skiing in Chamonix will be found elsewhere- at the foot of giant summits and on the glaciers of Mont Blanc range. The best skiing is off-piste!

History 

Skiing in Chamonix was introduced at the end of the 19th century by Dr. Payot who, as a good pioneer, immediately understood the value of the wooden boards imported from Scandinavia for mountain travel while visiting his various patients (he was also part first ski crossing from Chamonix to Zermatt in 1903).

Alpine skiing was developing nicely at the beginning of the 20th century, but despite its growing success it was not on the program of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, organised in Chamonix. The prolific period between the wars saw a notable boom in alpine skiing, boosted by the construction of cable cars, the culmination of which was the post war construction of the Aiguille du Midi cable in 1955.

Chamonix will always be a Mecca for alpine skiing. Some will observe the different ski areas are not connected, and moving between these areas requires the use of public transport- skiing to the town center does not exist as in many other resorts. All this is true and the reason is simple- Chamonix is not a ski resort, but a small mountain town where the lifts were built around existing infrastructure.

Le Brévent

Directly above the town, to the south, and in the heart of the Aiguilles Rouges is the Brévent ski area. Le Brévent, at the beginning of snowy winters (like this year...), offers great skiing. The Brévent couloirs are certainly the favorite spot of many local skiers (mine for sure).  Long steep white stripes cut through the steep spruce forests and descend into Chamonix. In their longest form, starting from the cable car at 2500 meters, and taking the "Bellin couloir", "ENSA couloir", or the "Poste à Payot", they offer a negative vertical drop of up to 1500 meters non-stop- even the strongest skiers feel the legs burning!

The slopes of the Autel, accessible from the top of the same cable car,  require a short walk  amidst famous rock towers. The Aiguilles Rouges, or Red Needles- are home to lovely summer rock climbing . Without removing the skis, we descend, traverse, and sidestep until we arrive at the top of the famous slopes, where the first freeride competitions in Chamonix were held. These relatively steep and regular slopes offer the perfect place to discover steep skiing. As is often the case in skiing, the steepness is one thing, the quality of the snow another, and it is the latter that essentially makes the difference. Here, the eastern orientation guarantees cold snow at the very beginning of the season, and the morning sun can transform hard snow later in the winter. In short, the perfect place to hone your ski technique  and your understanding of differing snow types.

My best of Brevent:

  • Freeride skiing or snowboarding- From the mid station of Plan Praz different lines descend directly beneath the gondola-  provided that the temperatures are cold (sunny side) and the couloirs are full of snow.
  • Ski touring or splitboard- From the top of the Brévent, a magnificent descent on the North side to the "Pont d'Arlevé", followed by an ascent to the Pointe noire de Pormenaz (700m of vertical), and a descent on the North side in the Chorde couloir to the Lac Vert.
  • Steep skiing:  The East face of the aiguille de la Charlanon. Short but spicy, with passages up to 50 degrees. 

La Flegère

On the same side of the valley, accessible from Les Praz (or linked by a cable car from Le Brevent), is La Flégère. With extraordinary views of the Aiguilles de Chamonix across the valley, this resort also offers countless forest lines (some of them secret…) in the early winter months. Later in the season, as the sun becomes warmer, spring skiing is king and La Flégère becomes the starting point for many classic ski touring itineraries- the "Crochues-Bérard", "Col de Beugeant,” "Col du Belvédère," and many others.

The Col des Dards, for me, is among the best beginner ski tours in the area. Whether on skis or splitboard, the climb is not too long, is varied, passes the picturesque Lac Blanc, and the descent has undulating terrain with different exposures- very practical for finding good descent snow in difficult conditions.

My best of Flégère:

  • Freeride: 1st tracks from the top of the combe Lachenal linked with the “golf couloir".
  • Ski Touring or Splitboard: For beginning skiers or split boarders, a mini trip from the Charlanon chairlift , an ascent to the col de la Glière, and a descent to la Flégère from the combe de la Glière or it’s variants of the "Petite Alaska”, the free ride world tour slopes.
  • Steep Skiing: North face of the Aiguille de Mesure.

These two resorts in the Aiguilles Rouges, while relatively modest in kilometers of slopes, offer the adventurous skier an incomparable playground, bathed in sunshine and light - a winter rarity in the valley below. CHAMEX guides love to ski here - whether to introduce you to ski touring, take you down long, uninterrupted, aesthetic lines, or introduce you to the world of "steep skiing.”

Domaine de Balme “Le Tour”

Further east is the Balme area, which, at it’s highest point, shares the border with our Swiss neighbors. This area offers skiers two distinct faces. It’s western side is of rather modest steepness, and the slopes do not exceed red in difficulty- a delight for carving!

For the off-piste skier, this spot represents the quintessence of "mini golf", meaning short, fast, but varied and technical runs. The north-facing couloirs of the Vormaine lead back to the foot of the resort with short but very steep lines. Opposite, the eastern slope of Les Posettes takes you to the same place on varied, hilly terrain, -perfect for building confidence off piste. The spacious forests on the backside of the resort invite us to lap a multitude of more or less steep and technical lines- each time from the Esserts chairlift.

From the top of this same lift, CHAMEX guides will show the willing boot packing freerider a new playground. A 10 minute walk takes us to the "Tête de l’Arolette.” 3 steep couloirs, or a gentler slope, mark the beginning of this "mini golf" game- ending  in the combe des Jeurs. 
From the same place an "adventurous" skier will be delighted to let himself be guided along incredible itineraries-  "Le Nant noir,” well adapted to the most modest skiers, or the "Couloir du Van" and the "Orvé" more committing itineraries reserved for excellent skiers. I must also mention the North face of the Grandes Autannes where, even long after a snowfall, you can still find very cold powder (Shhhh don't talk about it too much...). 

This area is unique, wild, and far from the crowds. It  takes on an exotic feel- these itineraries finish in Switzerland! In the small picturesque village of Trient a taxi is waiting to transport us back to  France and the ski lifts in Vallorcine. 

A day of riding in the Balme area cannot end without a final run in the steep forest couloirs on the north side of Les Posettes. This last spot, another must for the local riders, offers us half a dozen different lines and 800m descents to the hamlet of Le Buet. Classically, a day here ends with a beer at the hotel du Buet, followed by a train ride back to Chamonix.

My best of Balme:

  • The North side of the Aiguille des Posettes from left to right without restraint, if possible all the way down.
  • The "Virgule" variant of the Van couloir, guaranteed atmosphere and big release in case of big snow.

I hope I’ve got you salivating for the upcoming winter! These are our favourite ski areas and we will be delighted to show you around with one of our Private Ski Guides. We also ski there with our Off Piste Ski Courses, Snowboard Courses and Ski Touring Courses. Our guides know the terrain like the back of their hands and will always find the last secret stash of good snow. 

Soon I’ll follow up with the mythical routes in the Grands Montets and from the Aiguille du Midi. Be patient- in the meantime come and see what we have to offer for this winter.  To be continued ... 

By Chamex mountain guide Sebastien 'Bastiou' Corret
23 December 2021