Neither guidebooks nor snapshots and not even long-ago memories prepared me for the intimidating beauty of the French Alps. As our tour bus pulled into the Chamonix Valley, there they were — a jagged row of snow-covered peaks that hovers over the legendary town like a wall of colossal teeth.
Why had I not felt this awe during my group's warmup trip to a nearby Swiss ski area the previous week? Why, after all these years as an advanced skier, had a mass of mountains in bright sunlight frightened me just a little?
About 20 of us — some friends, some not — were on a 10-day Alpine package tour that had begun at Geneva's airport. Fewer Americans seem to be heading for the Alps these days — the exchange rate, the distance, the occasionally questionable weather and the political overtones since the Iraq war are all conspiring to make us think twice before booking such a ski trip. Besides, nothing beats North American snow. So I had almost forgotten Europe, returning to the Rockies or Sierra instead.
The first order of business was to find our rooms in the big Hôtel Alpina, close to the center of Chamonix, then hustle down to its basement to rent a pair of skis. As I surveyed the Alpina's small room and single beds, I realized that this would be not so much culture shock as culture orienteering, a bit more complicated than translating euros into dollars. (The most attractive hotel I found was the deluxe Hameau Albert 1er, set in a lovely park, http://www.hameaualbert.fr .)
Dragons and witches A fierce history hangs over Chamonix, with its tales of dragons, St. Bernards and maniacal British climbers. The valley, once considered extremely cold, inhospitable and hard to reach, is hemmed in by immense, slow-moving glaciers, rivers of ice that slice through chinks in the walls of hills. Mt. Blanc, at 15,771 feet the highest mountain in Western Europe, dominates the region.
Until the 18th century, Chamonix was inhabited only by a small population of farmers. Europeans believed that witches lay in wait for outsiders and that dragons lurked in Alpine caves.
Not until the middle of the 18th century did visitors identify this shivery world as a destination worthy of the hardships endured to reach it. A pair of British tourists paved the way in 1741 and told others of the awesome landscape, precipitating the arrival of French, Swiss and English pilgrims and scientists.
The myths about dragons receded, and soon there was a steady stream of summer explorers. But few actually dared to climb the towering peaks until August 1786, when a local doctor, Michel Paccard, and his guide, Jacques Balmat, achieved the first ascent of Mt. Blanc.
Skiing was introduced in Chamonix around the turn of the last century and the town hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. As the popularity of downhill skiing grew, Chamonix was well positioned. The British led early enthusiasts to its growing number of hotels.
Fast forward to 2004; French tourists dominate in the winter. The English far outnumber Americans and Canadians. Although many locals spoke English, our little band needed the first day to adjust to the town's slower rhythms.
"This is ridiculous," I thought, stuck in my ski boots for half an hour in a line that snaked up the stairs from the basement rental shop, which was small (and, as we were to learn, often closed). The shop was so lacking in its selection of skis that my roommate trekked into the center of town to find a better-equipped shop. I worried because the cellar's staffers seemed casual about adjusting bindings.
Thankfully, the valley transportation system, we discovered the next morning, was efficient. Free local buses take people to the three principal ski areas of Chamonix: Les Grand Montets, Le Tour-Vallorcine and Brévant-LaFlégère.
That first ski day, after a 20-minute ride, the bus dropped us at the hamlet of Le Tour-Vallorcine (sometimes called Balme). Undemanding, with wide, gentle slopes, it boasted one section of tree runs, atypical for the French Alps, where most runs are above the tree line. All were marked by rows of colored "lollipops": green for easy, blue for intermediate, red for high intermediate and black for most difficult.
The weather was warm for February; the skies were cloudless. The pistes, or designated runs, that snaked down the mountains were long and pleasant, except that we encountered hordes of schoolchildren.
Generally, our fellow skiers and snowboarders were graceful and disciplined, although when approaching any lift, they behaved as if they were on the subway at rush hour, stepping all over everyone else's skis in a chaotic crush toward the lifts.
In Mt. Blanc's shadow Our tour operator had arranged for guides from one of two major companies offering instructors in the valley, the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix.
Our chief guide was Vincent, an unflappable 30-year-old Paris-born fellow who spoke English. He had come to Chamonix to be a climbing guide. "It's my passion," he said, then assured us that he was equally at home on skis.
Vincent's most important role was to prepare us for the Vallée Blanche, a daylong, 15-mile journey across a glacier in the shadow of Mt. Blanc. He spent the day assessing our skiing.
For lunch, we skied to Le Chalet de Charamillon, a large, modern log cabin with huge windows overlooking the valley. The luxurious cafeteria offered sandwiches, hot dishes such as soup and a rustic stew, and a beautiful salad bar. The biggest surprise was not the high cost but that the place charged for everything, including packages of ketchup.
Vincent suggested we try Les Grands Montets, the largest, most popular tram-served area with higher, steeper runs. The next morning, a 15-minute bus ride took us to Argentière, a village south of Le Tour, where we rode two cable cars to a viewing platform that gave us glimpses of massifs in Italy and Switzerland, as well as Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), the glacier we would ski on the Vallée Blanche trip. It looked vast and peaceful.
The skiing from Les Grands Montets was turbulent. We had to climb down a set of stairs to reach the start of the first run, aptly named "Point de Vue." It was icy, ungroomed and more than three miles, not the ideal first run of the day. But it made the others seem easier.
After a rollercoaster morning of groomed and ungroomed pistes, bumps and undulating cruises, chairlifts and a gondola, we stopped for lunch in another comfortable cafeteria.
Vincent decided we all could handle Vallée Blanche. He limited the group to eight. I hesitated, apprehensive because I felt hemmed in by these aggressively pointy mountains and because I was not accustomed to my skis. I made the same decision I always make under such circumstances: Go for it.
In the morning, two successive cable cars carried us to the most imposing ski-access site I have seen in 35 years of skiing. There were two needle-nosed spires, the second perched at 12,604 feet; together they make up the Aiguille du Midi. From the highest one, you could climb to a panoramic terrace and stare down at the crazy people who were descending a knife-edged slope by sidestepping it in their ski boots while holding onto a rope with one hand and bracing their skis on their shoulders with the other. Inside, you could buy some postcards, have lunch, turn around and take the tram back down.
Or you could walk through an ice tunnel to join the crazy people. That's what we did.
Taking short breaths, I dumbly followed the line of marchers shuffling in front of me. I tried not to look beyond the rope into the 6,500-foot drop-off. I tried not to slip. Crampons would have steadied my legs but not my nerves.
By the time we got to the slightly inclined patch of snow where everybody stepped into their skis, I was exhausted.
"Do not be frightened. I shall help you," Vincent said quietly. "But you must all follow in my exact path because there are crevasses everywhere."
He handed each of us a harness to wear around our waists in case we needed to be hauled out of one by rope. "Some crevasses are so deep you could put the Eiffel Tower inside and not see it," he said.
How reassuring. Once on the snow, there was no turning back. No lifts serve the Vallée Blanche. Descend or die trying, I thought.
In truth, the descent was not terribly vertical, the sun provided ideal visibility and the snow was not deep. So many skiers and boarders had cut tracks that it was almost like being on a groomed slope.
Nevertheless, I was so terrified of several pinpoint turns that Vincent had to ski with his arm around my waist to guide me through them.
When I had a chance to stop and look around, I saw an impossibly gorgeous arc of mountain peaks etched against a cobalt sky. Skiers were scattered like pebbles far below. Enormous séracs (snow boulders) stood sentry here and there. Aquamarine fissures lurked around each bend.
It took three hours to descend about eight miles to the Refuge, a hut whose terrace, hacked out of rock, was covered with picnic tables. There, waiters brought us lunches of cream soup, ham and cheese sandwiches and quiche.
The shadows lengthened as we skied the rest of the afternoon over a flatter ground below the Refuge. Finally, we arrived at a long set of stairs leading uphill. At the top was the Montenvers cog railway, which brought us to the outskirts of Chamonix.
At the Brasserie des Deux Gares, we had a celebratory drink, and I thanked Vincent profusely for guiding such a fraidy-cat. That night, I slept 10 hours.
Sublime but frightening The rest of my visit was anticlimactic. We made day trips by bus to ski the neighboring resorts of Verbier in Switzerland and Courmayeur in Italy. In the evenings we dined mostly on local specialties, including cheese fondue.
By the time I left Chamonix, I had concluded that a holiday at France's most storied Alpine village could be as satisfying as a glass of vintage Château Haut-Brion — and as scary as an avalanche.
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From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Geneva, Switzerland, offered on Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, British, Continental and Swiss. Through Thursday and again Dec. 27-March 16, restrict- ed round-trip fares begin at $447. Dec. 10-26, restricted round-trip fares begin at $686.
From Geneva airport, trains travel to Chamonix. RailEurope, (888) 382-RAIL (382-7245), http://www.raileurope.com , offers France and Switzerland deals.
With an exchange rate of about $1.35 to one euro, a package tour may be the most economical way to ski in France. Two companies I found to be reliable:
Ski Europe, 1535 W. Loop South, Suite 319, Houston, TX 77027; (800) 333-5533, http://www.ski-europe.com . Packages available Jan. 14-22 or Jan. 21-29 for $1,060 per person, double occupancy, including airfare from LAX to Geneva, ground transfers in Europe, seven nights in a moderately priced hotel with breakfast daily, local taxes and service charges.
Daman-Nelson Travel, 2251 San Diego Ave., Suite B-275, San Diego, CA 92110; (800) 321-2754, http://www.daman-nelson.com . Trips in January start at $1,699 per person, double occupancy, including airfare from LAX to Geneva, ground transfers in Europe, seven nights in a moderately priced hotel with breakfast and dinner daily, local taxes and service charges.
Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix Mont Blanc, Maison de la Montagne, 190 Place del'Eglise, F-74400 Chamonix; 011-33-4-50-53-00-88, http://www.chamonix-guides.com . Offers daylong and longer trips with credentialed guides. For 2004-2005, the cost is $321 for one to four people for a one-day Vallée Blanche trip.
Ecole de Ski de Chamonix, Maison de la Montagne, 190 Place de l'Eglise, F-74400 Chamonix; 011-33-4-50-53-22-57, http://www.esf-chamonix.com/uk . Another major operation of French-certified instructors offering group and private lessons. A guided one-day Vallée Blanche trip is $208 for one to six people.
The Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, 35 Place de la Mer de Glace, Chamonix, F-74400 Chamonix; 011-33-4-50-53-22-75, http://www.compagniedumontblanc.fr/en/index.html , or travel agents sell a six-day "Cham Ski" pass good for all lifts in the Chamonix region. A six-day adult pass is about $242 and $4 for a badge.
TO LEARN MORE:
French Government Tourist Office, (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, http://www.franceguide.com .
Grace Lichtenstein, a former New York Times reporter, has written about skiing for numerous publications.