Chamonix - Off Piste Ski Adventures
Chamonix is best known as a back country and ski touring Mecca. Attracting skiers and boarders from all over the world, find out where to start and how to advance from piste to off piste.
If you've mastered piste skiing and you're looking for the next adventure, Chamonix is the place to get off piste and find out what back country skiing is all about.
A Brief History of Back Country in Chamonix
From its Alpine climbing roots, dating back to the 1800's, Chamonix was 'discovered' as a ski destination in the '60s, when skiers like Patrick Vallencant, Amselme Baud and Sylvain Saudain started putting first tracks down couloirs that looked impossible. In the 80's and 90's the first modern day 'extreme' skiers hit town, putting wild lines down previously un-skiable terrain with a new level of style and energy. Guys like Glen Plake, with his crazy mohawk, and the legendary Shane McKonkey made the town famous in ski movies, watched all over the world by ski lovers who grew up wanting to be like them. These guys paved the way for a new generation of riders, who travel from all over the world to Chamonix, always finding ways to push the limits further, combining extreme sports like skiing and base jumping to access even more incredible lines. Look out for them around town - usually the most extreme athletes are the quietest, most humble people, who would never tell you who they are or what they do.
Getting Started with Off Piste and Ski Touring
While Chamonix is well known at the extreme end of the scale, it's also a great place to learn to ride off piste, try ski touring and learn safety and rope skills - so that you can access more remote terrain confidently on your own. Everything you see from the lifts is just the beginning of what Chamonix has to offer. It's only when you climb up and over that distant ridge under your own steam and ski over into the wild side, that you understand what back country really means.
Taking your first off piste turns: To help you progress from piste to off piste we recommend a private lesson. Our friends at Chamex and AAV can help you adapt your tecnhique for powder skiing, mixed snow, chalk and spring conditions.
Getting into the back country: Hiring an IFMGA high mountain guide is essential for your first real adventures into back country skiing. Your guide will be able to take you ski touring off the beaten track, into glacial terrain, as well as teaching you about all the safety aspects of skiing in the backcountry. Avalanche awareness, crevasse rescue, map reading, safe skinning and more.
Off Piste Kit: To get started skiing off piste, your essential kit is an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. And the knowledge of how to use it. Once you're confident and want to try ski touring or access glaciated terrain, you will also need skis and with touring bindings, ski boots with touring mode, skins, a harness, glacier rope, ice screws, crevasse rescue kit, map, compass ... and an appropriate sized rucksack to carry it all. Our partners at Concept can help advise on equipment for your level of experience and route. Your guide will also help with recommendations and skills training.
Our Top Pick Back Country Routes
The Vallee Blanche: This 20km off piste route is understandably iconic and one of the most famous 'itinerary' routes in the world. You'll take the cable car to the roof of Europe, at 3800m, and under the watchful eye of Mont Blanc, ski down the entire length of the Vallee Blanche glacier. Look up at specatcular views of the Aiguilles as you pick your line through the turquoise blue ice. In good conditions, the route is open to intermediate skiers but don't let that fool you into thinking it's an easy off piste route. If you're lucky and conditions are good, it's possible to ski all the way back to town. If not, you'll join the Montenvers train for a classic ride back to the valley. A guide is essential!
Les Houches & Grand Montets Ski Touring: Both ski areas have special ski touring routes that avoid the pistes and take you on a beautiful route, meandering through woodland. The perfect place to practice your ski touring technique and get a fitness hit. On both routes, you'll pop out onto lift served pistes where you can either ski back down or carry on your day's skiing. Remember to bring a change of base layer, drinks and food - both routes are definitely a work out!
Grands Montets Top: Since the top lift is currently not working, the top section of Grand Montets is semi-offiicially open as a ski touring area. From the top of the lifts, it's a relatively shot climb up to a notch, where you can either ski back down the front face and its famous bowls. Or pop over to the back side, were you can access the wild side of the Argentiere basin. Don't forget the altitude and adjust your pace accordingly. The terrain is glaciated so make sure you are fully equipped with glacier equipment and know how to use it.
Aiguille de Midi to Helbronner Ski Tour: From the top of the Aiguille de Midi, you'll descend the ridge before skiing down the first part of the Vallee Blanche. From the middle of the glacier, you and your team will rope up and skin together across the border to the Italian side. Enjoy real coffee or the most amazing hot chocolate before either skiing the Italian Vallee Blanche or down into the town of Courmayeur. If you opt for the latter, you'll need to pre arrange transport home.
Aiguilles Rouges: This classic ski tour takes you into the protected national park of the Aiguilles Rouges - the mountains you can see behind Brevent and Flegere. Over the back, you'll enter a whole new world of ski touring, with many route possibilities; the most classic is the Crochues-Berard. Take a guide to help you navigate as the terrain can be misleading and it's easy to lose your bearings or drop too low. After two short ascents, you'll enjoy a long ski down, popping out in the Berard Valley. A delightful descent will bring you out near the Swiss border and a short train ride home from Buet.
Chalets de Loriaz: Ski tour up above the border town of Vallorcine, following an easy track through the woods, until you pop out above the tree line and see a wonderful off piste playground open out above you. From the Chalets de Loriaz - a great little refuge for lunch - you can ski tour up in almost any direction. The terrain is relatively mellow and a great place to get your off piste skiing confidence up.
The options are literally limitless but once you've ticked off some of the routes above, you might want to try something steeper or longer. Ski touring doesn't have to mean extreme; some of the best adventures involve being in relatively mellow terrain but further off the beaten track. All across the Alps you'll find a network of mountain huts - many of which are staffed in winter and offer bunk room accommodation, simple meals and usually a bar! There is something so incredibly special about ski touring to a hut, watching the sunset and eating with your fellow skiers and climbers before bunking down in shared rooms. Ask your guide for suggestions based on your group and ability. If your dream is to ski some of the famous steep lines that the valley has to offer, then our instructor and guide partners can help you hone your steep skiing and boot packing skills. Get in touch for more information.