April 6, 2012

||| CHAMONIX, FRANCE ||| Feature Length ARTICLE

WHAT’S YOUR RUSH in Chamonix?


Charming yet fierce. Dramatic yet calm. Old yet modern. Extreme yet tranquil. Welcome to Chamonix, Rhone-Alpes – a dichotomy unto itself.

Chamonix’s bipolar nature  can be experienced in less than one day –  for example: by cliff dropping skiers who peak on adrenaline for four hours – then change the vibe entirely within forty minutes with a soothing hot tub for après le ski. Or by the relaxed sightseer, riding within the safe confinements of a cosy cable car enjoying the view,  who suddenly gasps while eyeing a mad, nutty skier flying by with a parachute canopy over head.

A mood swing from boring to excitement or vice versa is normal, and completely expected here, just given your physical geographical position of being in Chamonix.

It’s January, 2012 and they’ve had almost an ENTIRE seasons worth of snow fall already, completely different than last year’s shallow snow reports, which goes to show that Chamonix also has a split personality when deciding what to do with its weather. Now, with February, March and April left for the winter season, this means good vibes for everyone – as snow, and lots of it, equals a massive stoke in any ski town.

I arrive to this hyped-up-snow-happy-village via Geneva late evening. The quaint hotel room I check into doesn’t need cheap room spray, as the smell of burning pinewood subtly and most appropriately fills the air.  This coupled with the amber lighting, Norwegian Rosemaling style painted furniture,  and wood fittings make up for the coziest room of all time. Undoubtedly with this set-up, I know I’m going to sleep well. No wait, I’m in Chamonix – I’m going to sleep ‘extremely’ well. After all, it is the mountain extreme sports capital of the world.


Curtains open. Early morning. Rise to mountain peaks – the most dramatic ridge lines I’ve ever seen.  Spectacular….


Avalanche bomb.

Slowly, pink hues illuminate the horsehair clouds behind the mountains. Glorious alpine glow.  This is the floodlight on the mountain stage, cueing the skiers to get up and start acting their roles.

Quick. No time to waist.

Get “French” and skip the muesli, instead reach for the pain au chocolat and espresso breakfast,  then get to the hill.


First bin means fresh tracks and remember, no friends on a powder day.

Outside now, waiting for my ride. Hey, look, there’s infamous American skier – Glen Plake with ski’s over the shoulder – tips in front – headed for the L’Aguille du Midi –  one of the highest cable cars in the world- taking you to the extreme, like Glen himself…. hmmm, makes sense. Should I follow him? No. It’s my first day of the season, I’ll take it easy.

Time? It’s 7:30. That’s late in the world of alpine starts. Better get going…


The Grand Montet ski area will be the choice for me today (and many other skiers and boarders) as it poured 30 cm of sweet snow the afternoon before.  Out of the five choices of places to shred in the Chamonix valley, the Grand Montet offers wide open, and relatively steep slopes that remain in the shade for most of the day, keeping the snow cold and light.



Sardine cans is the best way to describe the commute up the mountain, fifty people with gear pack into the cable car. The freedom to follow though, is worth the 8 minutes of confined restriction.  Upon exit I look up to the virgin white slope to see only 30 tracks, I rush to the next lift to take me higher, then get the snowboard on, and gone! 9:50 am. Fresh turns all the way down, my excitement is summarized by my “whoo hoo’s” all the way to the bottom. I get back on lift and repeat, my coffee-filled-bladder can wait.

A day of shredding is never complete without après. A free bus shuttle winds me back through the mountain valley to Chamonix village where people are starting to rendezvous; ferreting around for pubs, coffee houses or restaurants. Charming walkways display sandwich boards enticing you with Vin Chaud (mulled wine) Chocolat Chaud and specialty coffee.Warm drinks are the selling point on a crisp winters day. Old hotels here and there, speak history and culture with their quaint looks. One reminds me of a Swiss hotel I remember as a kid, and takes me to an imaginary place where old mountaineers might stop to dry their ropes and get a warm meal.

With advice from a local I stop at the small cafe – ‘Le Lapin Agile’ for the best hot chocolate ever known.  It’s decadence so divine – it requires a spoon and supreme resistance to not order two more.

Winter comfort foods like cheese, dried meats, potatoes and bread are a common sight on menus and in shops.  These foods accompanied by wine, equal a typical Alpes picnic.  Many of the restaurants in the village of Chamonix have Raclette, a typical dish in the area which contains potatoes, bits of jambon, girkins, and strong Raclette cheese, served baked. Balance this warm meal with a chilled glass of Fendant, a local Swiss white wine from down the road and you’ve got a local experience to add to your cultured bag.


Sound calorific? Well, not to worry!  You can “ski du fond” tomorrow. In English that would be a “cross country skiing” and unlike most other activities to do here, this one is free. (Minus the equipment rental at 13 euros for 4 hours.)The track that starts just steps from the village proper, meanders through trees, over rivers and under bridges, and flows in one direction looping the valley floor back to the start.

Three different lengths, 3, 6, and 12 kilometers allow for a short go, or give you a challenge if you want to break a serious sweat.

 Too boring for you? Ok adrenaline junkie, let’s swing the mood over to heart-pumping excitement and talk extreme. How about speed riding? This will be good if your comfort zone is the size of China, and

you’ve got some skiing and canopy skills that you want to put to the test. This new hybrid sport of speed-riding is dangerous, so learning here could be advantageous if you’re keen.  Not quite your bag? Maybe you would like to ice climb then? Or B.A.S.E. jump or snowboard down a fifty degree slope?

Cool, no prob man, you’ve come to the right place.


About to have an anxiety attack?

Well, in the same ball park of excitement, but requiring no skill set, is a helicopter ride with Pascal. All I can say is this will show you what a helicopter really can do…. kind of like a roller coaster but better. Oh… and the glacier laden scenery and unbelievable peaks are not too shabby either..


Right, none of this sound like a good plan to you? Don’t worry, because Besides the go, go, go  in Chamonix, try to remember, there’s always the swing to the other side. So what’s the relaxing part?



Spas represent part of the calm side. But, I’m going to have to throw some effort into this spa mix. After all it is Chamonix, so even the relaxed is a little more effort. The effort requires some travel over to Italy, (36 minutes away) and is well worth the drive to get there. The Pré-Saint-Didier spa awaits past the Italian ski village of Coymeyeur through the lengthy 11 km Mount Blanc tunnel.  The lighting design is top notch here (never underestimate the lighting,) and the colourful tiling in the steam room speaks labour intensive. Aromatic saunas situated outside allow you to take a hot seat and watch the stars emerge over a chilly Mount Blanc. Keep your face cold and sit in the warm thermal waters of Pré-Saint-Didier which cascade out from the mountain at a temperature of around 37° C. This god-sent relaxes those skiing muscles while the refreshing cold plunge pool improves your circulation. Explore further to find the cloud themed room enabling you to relax, or you may shuffle in your white robe down to the cafe area for a refuel of juices and healthy snacks.



Speaking of food.

Healthy snacks or hefty meals.  No matter what your food mood in Chamonix, there’s something for everyone’s palette. Play spin the bottle on a European map and let the outcome choose your cuisine. Bottle head points at Sweden? Head to the Swedish owned Munchies, for a modern mixed menu like teriyaki duck or sushi. Italy?  Casa Valerio for an award winning pizza or a tasty white truffle ravioli. Don’t miss the famed Albert 1er, for a French experience in Michelin 2 star dining accompanied by the graceful sounds of an in-house pianist. The kids will like Poco Loco on the main walkway for a quick fix – where the American style burgers are a favorite of Mount Everest guide Kenton Cool. Bon appétit.

Night life.


Every night is Saturday night here.  Stroll the town and find live music, open mic, DJs, and cocktail bars. You’ll often rub elbows with multi-lingual speaking folk from all over the world sipping on cloudy Pastis- a local french liquor, or passing around the potent and strange tasting Ferna Blanca shots.  Certainly, getting to learn about Norway’s fjords, or Russia’s best vodkas with tourists here, isn’t an odd thing. You may even spot the rare local dance of ski-boot-clogging. These dancers are the true lovers of skiing, so much so, that their ski boots never come off.

Strip the mad or mundane human activity, relic or modern buildings and plethora of food choice, and what you have left in Chamonix is pure and natural beauty. Growing up in Canada, I’ve seen a lot of mountains, stretching from the Coastal Range to the Rockies.  Some of my favourites are Mount Currie, just north of Whistler, and Castle Mountain, west of Banff.    Chamonix however, is the Kate Moss of the mountain tribe, dressed lavishly in Versace. The ridge lines cutting the sky are dramatic and spectacular, the glaciers adorn her creases like sparkling diamonds and white pearls. Chalky white, fickle snow decorates the dark massive granite mountains creating picture perfect contrasts. The bustle of our eating, dancing, skiing or spa-ing amongst – is a celebration of it’s beauty at the end of the day.

Thanks to Chamonix we may come and start living our lives at the end of our comfort zones or in turn, relax and soak in it’s beauty from our all too busy lives already.  It’s a special place where you can always find a spectrum of  highs, lows and in-betweens – physically, literally and metaphorically.


Tim’s commercial shoot for Sportlife done in and around Chamonix featuring his ice climbing: