Chamonix is a world-famous ski location, but unlike some resorts, to get the most out of it you really need to stray from the marked pistes.
Ski touring and Chamonix go together like facemasks and the last couple of years. With the lifts closed last season, it was the only way for Cham-locals to get their ski fix.
Ski touring is a way to get up the mountain under your own steam. Artificial seal skins, generally just called 'skins', are fitted to the bottom of skis to prevent them from sliding backwards and special touring bindings can free the heel (at a flick of a switch). This allows the tourer to effectively “walk” up the mountain.
When you reach your summit simply take the skins off the skis, roll them up and put them in your backpack. Then you flick that switch on the bindings -to reattach the heel and revert them to traditional alpine bindings- and then you just ski down as normal, hopefully, on virgin powder.
Where to go touring in Chamonix
Without extensive local knowledge, a guide is essential for ski touring. There are many excellent guides in the Chamonix valley and one of the very best is Isabelle Santoire.
Born in Quebec, she’s called Chamonix home for the past 25 years. She was the 12th woman to qualify as an international mountain guide through Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne (SNGM) and is an ambassador for the brand Arc’teryx and the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy, in Chamonix. As a guide, she is an expert in ski-touring as well as telemarking, ice-climbing, rock climbing and mixed climbing.
Some of you may think ski touring is only for experts, but Isabelle says there is something for everyone as ski tours are graded, meaning you can adapt to what works for you. ‘AD’ grading, for example, means ‘assez difficult’ (quite difficult) whereas ‘PD’ or ‘pas difficile’ would be an easier route option.
For one of the easier, PD routes, you should head to one of the gentlest ski areas in the valley - “Les Caisets”. Starting at the top of the Parking in Le Tour, this 2km route with 358m of elevation, never strays too far from the piste and ends at the ’Charamillon’ lift station.
For more experienced tourers, “La Trapette” is a fun route starting at the bottom of the Plan Joran telecabine. This 4.5km route with 730m of elevation, finishes 1972m high at Lognan.
These two routes are relatively well-used and always within sight of the pistes, but always bring a guide when you’re going off-piste. They are out almost on a daily basis and have current knowledge of the terrain, avalanche risk and where to find the best snow conditions.
“Chamonix has a huge playground which extends to the other valleys, Italy and Switzerland. COVID has accelerated the need for marked uphill tracks within the resort, which are great options for training, if you are skiing alone, bad weather days or if you are new to ski touring.”
Isabelle’s five top tips for first-time tourers:
1. Undo the top buckles + velcro strap at the top of your boots. You want to have as much leverage as possible to glide along with long steps.
2. Stop as soon as your body is getting too warm. You do not want to SWEAT unnecessarily otherwise you will be cold all day.
3. Have a scraper with you (a plastic credit card will do!) as there is always someone in the group who hasn’t waxed their skis and will stick to the snow.
4. Put your gloves in your jacket instead of leaving them on the snow, when you take them off to remove skins or adjust bindings. This prevents snow from getting inside and getting them wet. The bonus is that they also get heated up near your body
5. If you feel your boots rubbing, you need to STOP straight away and cover the sensitive spot with tape or Compeed. If you don’t you will have a nasty blister for the whole holiday!
Get geared up!
Looking to rent equipment to try out touring?
Concept Pro Shop in Chamonix is fabulous. They are super friendly with lots of equipment. You can park at the Grepon Car Park. It is free for up to 1 hour.
Ravanel also has a great super light kit. You can park at Parking Place du Mont-Blanc, also free for one hour.
Further up the valley, Namaste Sports in Argentiere rents everything you need. You can park for free in the parking at Argentière train station, which is almost directly opposite.
Namaste has a small bar, so you can have a drink to celebrate a day's touring when you return your kit.
Looking to buy your own gear? Snell Sports is a good shop to go to in Chamonix.
Where to park when you go touring in Chamonix?
The free car parks in the valley are at the Montenvers train station, Flégère, Le Tour and Grands-Montets. Brevent is a paying car park with the first hour free.