Saturday, January 15, 2011

Chamonix Day 1: Les Grand Montets

We arrived in Chamonix without incident at about 6:30pm, and after asking for directions we found our hotel which was just outside Chamonix in Les Praz. The hotel was called the Hapimag and was quite nice, appearing to have been renovated recently. After dropping our bags in our room we headed back into Chamonix to get some dinner, and ended up at a good restaurant that served lots of typical Savoie fare, which tends to be centered around cheese and cured meat. Not wanting to violate local tradition, Dylan ordered a hot bowl of bread and bacon drowned in cheese, while I ordered fried potatoes and bacon drowned in cheese. Delicious! Here is Dylan getting ready to dig in:

After finishing dinner we headed back to the Hapimag where we settled to our new lodgings. We had an apartment-style room, with one bedroom seperate from the main room, so one of us slept on the pullout couch in the main room while the other took the bedroom. We set our alarms for 8:00am the next morning, and after a refreshing sleep we rose the next morning ready for a day on the slopes. We picked up the fresh baguette and croissants that we had ordered from reception the night before, and after a delicious breakfast we headed down to the parking garage to load up the Fiat. As always, with our skis loaded up there was barely room for us:

The valley of Chamonix has 4 different ski resorts to choose from, and upon recommendation from our friend and colleague Martin (who works at another company that had been participating in the Milan meetings) we had settled on Les Grands Montets. Les Grands Montets was known for having the most rugged, least family-friendly terrain, which was enough of a recommendation for us. It also had the highest list accessed skiing, with the highest cable car topping out at 3300 meters.

We drove the few kilometers to the base of Les Grand Montets in Argentiere (a few km from the Hapimag), and after buying our passes (50 euros each, not as expensive as I had expected!) we got in the queue to board the first cable car up the mountain. The line-ups had actually been something I was interested to see, since I have been told (and observed) that Europeans don't like to line up, instead they all just crowd around the object of interest and try to rush for it when it becomes available, irrespective of who might have been waiting the longest. Fortunately this wasn't the case at the ski resort and relatively orderly lines seemed to form that operated more or less as they do in North America (the less being from the significantly higher prevalence of wacky ski outfits that serve as entertainment while waiting in line - lots of shiny material, fur trim, and one-piece suits).

The cable car whisked us up 800 meters, and we stepped out into the sunshine to behold the wide-open terrain that we would be sampling on our first ski day in the Alps:

There were fewer lifts as compared to a North American resort, but each lift had higher capacity and accessed more terrain. Due to the wide open, alpine nature of the mountain, there were no trees dividing the runs as in North America and you could ski more or less whereever you wanted. That being said, there were a few relatively narrow groomed runs that descended the mountain (about the width of a slalom course) and most skiers seemed to stick to those with the "off-piste" being far less crowded. We headed further up the mountain on another smaller gondola, and stepped out to some pretty rugged terrain:

Luckily there were fences guarding the sheer drops, but with cliffs dropping off to one side the scenery was pretty spectacular, far more impressive than any North American resort that I have skied at. Here is a shot looking back down into the valley at Chamonix:

And a shot of Mount Blanc (the highest peak in the Alps at 4810 meters, and on my short list of climbing objectives) with the fabled Petit Dru and Grand Dru on the left in the foreground:

We headed down for a warm-up run down the groomer, which was already getting a little bit icy with all the traffic. It was pretty steep in spots (the runs in Europe are graded green, blue, red, and black in order of increasing difficulty, and the easiest run at Les Grands Montets seemed to be a red) so it took a bit to get warmed up, but before long Dylan and I were finished with the groomers and headed off-piste for the rest of the days skiing. We found some really good runs accessed by a high speed 6-person chair (I had never been on a chair that wide before) which never had any line ups, here is a shot of us at the getting ready for some more off-piste:

Les Grands Montets is north facing which mean that it didn't get much sun, but it also meant that the snow stayed in really good condition, and even though it hadn't snowed in a few days we managed to find a fair bit of consolidated powder to ski in. The snow coverage was a little low still at this time of year (they don't get as much snow as the North American resorts that I normally ski at) which meant that on the way down you had to be aware of rocks both on the small scale and a large scale as seen here:

There was one cable car that accessed the highest point at the resort which we had avoided for most of the day due to the long line up (about 45 minutes), but eventually we decided to buckle down and get in line. We ate our lunch in line (some dried fruit and energy bars that Dylan had brought from home), and eventually we boarded the cable car and made the trip to the top. The cable car terminated on a rocky spire from which you could either walk down a set of steps to the glacier to ski, or up a set of steps to a viewpoint. We headed up to the viewpoint where we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views, here I am soaking it in:

After enjoying the panarama we headed back down past the the cable car station to the glacier below, where we donned our skis and got ready to head down. Here is a shot looking back up at the the cable car station:

There were a lot of options for where to go since we were on a glacier, but we decided to heed the warning signs and take the solitary marked run down (a black run called Point de Vue).

The skiing on the glacier was really fun, with great snow and an amazing backdrop. Eventually we funneled off of the glacier and back onto the standard run to the midstation. We spent the rest of the day packing in laps on the 6-person chair, making variations of our off-piste selection of the day. By the end of the day we were pretty spent, here I am at the top getting ready for one last run:

For the last run we skied all the way back down from the midstation, and with there being only one run down this part it was really crowded and icy, making for some not-so-enjoyable skiing. It seemed to be all artificial snow on this part of the mountain, and this run was only used as transport back to the base with the good skiing being found only on the upper part of the mountain. We were pretty wiped by the time we reached the base at 4:40pm, having packed in just over 8 hours of skiing (minus the 45 minute line-up for the top cable car). Tres bien!

We had decided to make use of the kitchen facilities in our Hapimag apartment, so we headed into Chamonix for the grocery store where we procured some delicious salad, pasta (made just across the border in Aosta, Italy), cheese, baguette, sausage, and wine. After a delicious dinner we organized our gear and headed to bed. The plan for the next day was to ski the Vallee Blanche, a famous glacier ski descent accessed from the the Aiguille du Midi cable car, so as we slept we had dreams of bluebird skies and off-piste turns dancing in our heads.

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