Le Tour & Vallorcine linked ski area, cruisey blues & big backcountry
If you are just starting out in your snowsports career and have heard that Chamonix is only for the hardcore don’t believe it: you will find the Domaine de Balme area (also known by village names Le Tour & Vallorcine) is perfect for you.
Le Tour with its rolling meadows in the summer is the gentlest of Chamonix’s snowy areas in the winter. It’s a mixed terrain that’s relatively rock free and where pistes tend to be wide cruisy blues or fairly easy intermediate reds. Being right at the top of the valley means that it’s the furthest ski area from Chamonix but it’s worth making the 20 minute journey up there either by car or the local free bus. The train ride to and from Vallorcine is a pleasant one however, the train doesn’t go directly to Le Tour and instead has a stop at Montroc, about 1km from Le Tour itself which therefore requires a bus ride to reach the main lift station area. From the top of the Domaine de Balme ski area there are some spectacular views across to the Emosson dam and down to Switzerland.
For as much as it’s a great area for beginners, it also offers an expanse of off piste skiing and can be a great place to learn how to ski or board in powder as you can stay relatively close to the piste diving off when you feel confident enough to do so.
Domaine de Balme Beginner Ski Areas
Large beginner areas & gentle rolling pistes in Le Tour
Le Tour and Vallorcine provide plenty of variation for beginners of all levels. Whether it be just starting off at the beginner pistes at the bottom of the slopes or if you are feeling more confident after a few days and want to try something a little more challenging higher up the mountain.
La Vormaine (1462m) at Le Tour has perhaps the largest and best beginners’ area, which is served by three draglifts of varying length and speed for all levels of beginner. You’ll find this area located to the right of the car park just behind the Olympique hotel, which incidentally is the only restaurant here with the exception of the snack hut right at the bottom of the lifts.
The ski area is very wide and flat giving beginners plenty of space to make progress without having to worrying too much about collisions. It’s usually a warm and sunny spot with views of the Le Tour glacier looming above giving complete beginners their first taste of the high mountains whilst also being on a green run; there’s even a blue run to progress on to. As it’s the highest altitude of all the lower valley slopes the snow is normally good to the beginning of April.
Higher up the mountain Le Tour also has some better blue runs for improving beginners which are served by the Autannes chairlift. The terrain is gentle and not too steep with runs like Arve and Stade perfect for improving beginners working on their technique. At the end of the day it’s easy to take the Charamillon gondola back down to avoid the red Caisets run, which is the only one back to Le Tour and has steep parts to is, so is best avoided as a beginner.
Vallorcine also has a whole host of blue runs that can be great for beginners to practice technique and improve after the first few days of learning. Heading up the Vallorcine bubble and takeing the blue path, les esserts piste, down to the Tete de Balme. This side of the mountain tends to be a little quieter than other parts of the valley so it can be great for beginners who prefer emptier slopes to practice on. Once at the top of the Tete de Balme there are a few blue pistes that can be taken back down to the top of the Vallorcine bubble. Try the blue bechat esserts piste, just make sure you feel fully confident to tackle these slightly harder blues, and have someone with you at all times.
Domaine de Balme On Piste
Great pistes for intermediates & beginners
The area of Domaine de Balme is a great mixture of 22 easy and intermediate runs and is a popular destination for the ski schools.
The gentle terrain and beginners area at La Vormaine is perfect for getting those out of practice ski legs back into action before taking on the tougher runs elsewhere in the valley. Generally this area is the quietest of the Chamonix Valley as everyone tends to rush to Les Grands Montets when they first arrive or to an area closer to their accommodation.
The Autannes Chair at the front gives access to some good intermediate runs on the front, Ecuries being the most obvious as it runs below the lift. The Autannes chairlift is the best option to get up the mountain as it avoids having to use any draglifts. Additionally, as your confidence grows there are numerous small jumps and gullies that you can get your first air on! Because the geology of Le Tour is different to that of the other areas, the front of Le Tour is littered with gullies, which during the winter fill in with snow and form themselves into natural halfpipes. From the Autannes chairlift you’ll notice one right next to the Ecuries piste.
A five-minute walk to the Col de Balme from the top of the Autannes chair will take you to the border with Switzerland where there’s a restaurant hut that is sometimes open for a refreshing cup of chocolat chaud.
The Tete de Balme chair on the back offers fast access to some steeper runs and excellent off piste through trees. If the snow is good there’s always the possibility of skiing right down to the village of Vallorcine and riding back up on the high speed gondola which was only opened at the start of the 2004/05 winter. With some great access to powder even a few days after a dump the backside of Le Tour is one of our favourite areas in Chamonix. Unfortunately though there is a fairly long flattish Cat track to get there, but once there has some good steep sections, though nothing too difficult.
Don’t forget the Aiguilette des Possettes draglift as it gives access to some great open powder fields skiers left down towards the Esserts piste. Make sure you don’t take the skiers right though, although it may look tempting, this area is highly prone to avalanches!
A permanent slalom course has been installed where skiers input a special code upon entry and then can have their run filmed in HD and made available for download to share with friends.There is also a fabulous little mountain restaurant located at the base of this drag lift – the Alpages des Balmes – which serves one of the best vin chaud’s in the valley!
Domaine de Balme Off Piste
Excellent off-piste skiing & challenging terrain in Le Tour & Vallorcine
In spite of being one of the lower and less steep areas in Chamonix, the area of Le Tour in the Domaine de Balme has some of the best off piste in the valley and excellent little stashes of powder when most the obvious places are tracked out.
It’s often cold and windy at the top and on the backside of the slope as the wind from the entire valley tends to get funnelled through. As a consequence there can be severely wind-loaded slopes which can create deadly slab avalanches, but don’t be put off by that as a guide and some local knowledge will help you make the most of the area.
The geology of Le Tour is very different from that of the rest of the valley. It is far less rocky, and in the summer there are meadows filled with grazing cows here. At the start of the winter season it doesn’t need masses of snow to make the off piste good. The front side (in between the pistes that fan out from the Autannes chair) is gentle and great for getting a feel for making your first turns off piste. You are never too far from the piste and the many gullies here are fun to play in, and it’s hard to get lost too as you always end up back at the Charamillon lift station.
Route 1 : Combes de la Vormain Another easily accessible area with no hiking needed is the much steeper part of Le Tour called the Combes De La Vormaine. Staying on the front side by traversing skier’s left around the bowl from the Autannes chair you arrive at the top of the Combes de la Vormaine. (It’s just out of sight of the lifts and pistes so chances are it’ll be fairly untracked too!) From the chairlift we follow the Chatelet track on the skiers left where you reach the top of the chutes from which we can take our pick to drop into. These steep chutes have several different aspects with gradients that vary between 35 and 45 degrees. These chutes funnel into a valley that leads to the beginner’s area of La Vormaine so don’t attempt them unless you're confident in your ability to ride slopes of this steepness! The bottom of the valley is an avalanche terrain trap so for this reason we don’t hang around at the bottom once we’ve all ridden the steep pitches. If you were to trigger a slide you would be stuck at the bottom and buried under a lot of snow. These chutes are often loaded with snow in the form of cornices and wind lips all the way down, which are great for riding up and pulling powdery turns but its important to remain vigilant. We’ve caught these chutes on the right day with some fresh snow and had some of our best lines ever, mainly because the steepness of the pitch and the cornices that build up in the chutes are so much fun to play on.
Route 2a : Aiguille des Posettes Another route we like to do is from the Aiguillette des Posettes. Take the Aiguillette draglift up and then head out skier’s right away from the pistes staying high below the ridge. This leads to the slopes above the car park at Le Tour. When you reach the avalanche barriers (yes these slopes are avalanche prone) start to descend towards Le Tour. The slopes are a good pitch here without being too steep, and scattered trees and bushes keep things interesting. You can either head into the trees below to pick up the trail that zigzags down, or head skier’s left into the more open section. When you are just above the river follow the riverbank down to the car park and bus stop. It’s a good run to do at the end of the day, unless it’s hot, which can cause these sunny slopes to become very unstable.
Route 2b : Aiguillette des Posettes From the Aiguillette des Posettes you can take a 3-minute climb over the top of the Aiguillette and descend down to Vallorcine. There are plenty of routes down but plenty of cliffs too, so have a look at the mountain from below first. The most-frequented route is the Posettes couloir, which is wide, open and reasonably steep. The snow here is often good but since the Vallorcine gondola was built it’s a little harder to find completely fresh tracks. Be wary of heading too far skier’s right, as this is where the worst of the cliffs are. By heading almost straight down you should get some good lines through the trees and shrubs and the slopes are shaded and the snow often excellent. At the bottom head right to either the train station if you want to head back to Chamonix, or take the gondola to get back into the lift system.
Route 2c : Aiguillette des Posettes From the top of the Aiguilette draglift we like to take a ride down the ridge skier’s left. Just dropping over the back of the ridge toward Vallorcine, being a little careful not to drop down too far as it means a walk back up. This opens up some superb terrain with rolling drops, scattered trees and little cornices (the zone below is an animal wintering zone). The area’s not particularly steep, so you don’t have to be of a very high standard but is great fun nonetheless. There are also some good spots here for building kickers away from prying eyes if you’re that way inclined. We head back, traversing towards the top of the Vallorcine gondola and try not to drop below the Esserts Variant piste as the hike back isn’t much fun.
Route 3 : Le Tour/Vallorcine A short hike to the top of the Tete de Balme from the chairlift of the same name opens up a lot of off-piste terrain at the back of Le Tour above Vallorcine. However, this really can be a dangerous area for avalanches so do take care. The back bowls here are often wind-loaded, with large cornices looming above the slopes: they may look great but can be deadly as there are several terrain traps here where you could potentially be buried under metres of snow. Every year there are avalanches in this area but then that is the nature of off-piste skiing, so if you want to explore these areas, please take a local mountain guide and go well prepared for all risks. The bowl below the Croix de Fer can be absolutely the best – superb steep pitches and wide, rolling, shady slopes where the snow stays fresh. The lower sections from here into the trees are also some of our favourites, but remember to traverse back to the bottom of the Tete de Balme chairlift, or it’s a long walk back up.
If you don’t want to do the hike to the top of the Tete de Balme, you can access some of the same terrain by heading down the Esserts black run and then traversing skier’s right. You miss out on the great stuff at the top but still get some superb riding through the trees. The woods here are worth exploring, as there are plenty of unexpected clearings and fun drops. The terrain undulates here and there’s always something fun around the corner. There’s even a little shepherd’s hut in the woods that you can ride over and then drop off its roof. As we mentioned above, don’t forget to traverse back to the bottom of the chairlift.
The routes mentioned here are just the tip of the Le Tour iceberg, there are many, many more possibilities to explore in this area. The mixture of trees, interesting terrain and wide, open areas make it such a fun place to ride off piste, and unsurprisingly another favourite!
Domaine de Balme Backcountry Routes
Transfrontier backcountry routes from Le Tour & Vallorcine
Limitless blue skies pierced by bright sunlight makes backcountry riding in Le Tour something spectacular and magical! While the off piste is excellent at Le Tour, the backcountry touring available is a little more limited than some of the other areas in the valley although having said that, there are still a few interesting touring possibilities if you are prepared to go further a field.
In one moment you can be skiing in France, the next in Switzerland, there are very few other ski resorts that can offer the same in backcountry riding! There are several excellent guidebooks with descriptions of the many possible routes both within and beyond the lift areas. There are two published by Vamos called Mont-Blanc Ski tours (ISBN 2910672085) and Chamonix Hors pistes-Off piste (ISBN 2910672107); these books are bilingual, in English and French. A more extensive guidebook with more difficult routes is Mont-Blanc et Aiguilles Rouges à ski (ISBN 2960025520), written by Anselme Baud and published by Nevicata; it’s only available in French but is worth struggling through even if your French isn’t so good as it gives very accurate descriptions and has good explanatory photos. But remember, in the backcountry there are many dangers not least from crevasses, séracs, cliffs and avalanches so you should always hire a Chamonix guide. If hiking isn’t your thing but you love powder then heli-skiing/boarding could be for you. Whilst helicopter drop-offs of this nature are illegal in France (as you land on National park), Chamonix is well located with plenty of companies offering heli-drops on the Mont-Blanc massif just over the border in either Switzerland or Italy.
A favourite tour of ours is the Grands Autannes. We have detailed our route below: Route 1 : Grands Autannes One of our favourites is over the Grands Autannes to Trient in Switzerland. It used to be that to do this trip you would need to organise leaving cars at Trient before you start, so you could get home at the end of the day; however, as there is now a bus service that runs three times a day (approximate times, please check before you go 9:00am, 12:00pm and 4:00pm). It goes back to Vallorcine from where you can get back into the Le Tour lift system, or simply take the train back to Chamonix town. The round trip to Trient from Le Tour takes approximately half a day. It’s best to set off as early as possible because the slopes of the Grands Autannes are steep and catch the sun in the afternoon. Take the gondola up from Le Tour then the Autannes chairlift. Next comes the hard part; either on snowshoes or skins start the ascent up the slopes in front of you. Sometimes it’s best to go up onto the ridge and follow it along to the couloirs, at other times if it looks safe it’s easiest just to head straight up the couloirs. It’s a deceptive climb as it doesn’t look very steep from below, but the upper section by the CATEX tubes can be intimidating and in difficult conditions, we used crampons for the last section. One of the disturbing things about this climb is that there can be areas with no snow where you soon discover that the rocks you are climbing on are loose! At the first saddle, head to the right up the last short rock scramble to the small peak. Once at the top you’ll realise it’s worth the climb, as you have a great view over the back to the Trient glacier.
For the descent to Trient we always stay high and traverse skier’s right, avoiding the rock bands below until we reach the open bowl. From there it’s open powder all the way, and every time we’ve done this run we’ve had great snow. Keep your head down though until you reach the tree line. If you look left you can see the Col de Balme and the restaurant there. Below that is the long gully that leads to Trient. There are several small and steep chutes that lead into the main gully or you can pick your way through the bushes. We’ve tried both, and have to say that the chutes are better, but beware of wind-loading, as we have often set off small slab slides when we’ve been into these chutes. Don’t hang around in the main gully, because it is a serious avalanche channel. After a big snowfall this place is extremely high risk: we’ve seen chunks of snow the size of cars at the bottom of the chute so be warned if you choose to go down this route!! Follow the big gully down, and head left at the bottom into the meadows. Follow the ski de fond trail to Trient and have a beer at the café while you wait for the bus. Job done, powder run completed.
However, there are a few variations on this route. You can avoid the long climb up over the Grands Autannes and instead head over the Col de Balme and pick up the main gully lower down. You'll possibly miss out on the best of the powder but then you do save on the effort of the climb! It’s still an interesting little tour with some decent snow at the top. It always makes the customers at the restaurant wonder where you are going, which is fun too!!
PS. Don’t forget to take your passport on this trip as you may be asked for it when you head back over the border into France!!