Bad Weather Ski Areas in Chamonix
The higher areas lack the contrast required for orientation during white out conditions. However there are certain runs that offer more contrast providing vast amounts of skiing/snowboarding when the flakes are falling. The trick is to head for the pistes that are tree-lined, as they help provide definition when everything else seems to be white.
Keep in mind that the valley itself can be covered in an all-encompassing fog, but the top of the mountains can be bathed in glorious sunshine (check out the webcams!). Also, if it’s lashing down with rain in the valley, it means it’s snowing up top, giving you the best and freshest powder you’re likely to ski on! And because it’s a bad weather day, chances are, you’ll have the mountain to yourself.
Domaine de Balme (Le Tour & Vallorcine) in Bad Weather
A favourite spot of ours is the tree area at the back of Le Tour above Vallorcine (Le Domaine de la Balme), which also offers some great terrain. When it’s snowing, the front of Le Tour is normally in a whiteout so instead we take the long traverse round to the back through to the trees on the Esserts piste and then to the Tete de Balme chairlift and take that up to the top. It can be bitterly cold and windy on this chair in a snowstorm so we make sure we are prepared with warm clothing.
From the top we follow the Tete de Balme chairlift down and then duck the fence and head skier’s right into the open trees but don’t go too far right as there are some very open and avalanche prone bowls beyond the trees. In the trees the visibility is normally better and the woods shelter the snow from the wind, thus keeping it in good condition.
The terrain is less steep than the Dream Forest. There are a few rocks to drop and lots of gentle rollers that often develop small cornices to jump off. It’s easy to get carried away with the powder and go down too far, so we have to remember to traverse back skier’s left to the bottom of the Tete de Balme chair - to avoid having to walk back up.
Again, this area is all off piste and unpatrolled so if you head this way you need to take care and go equipped for avalanches.
Les Grands Montets in Bad Weather
When it’s snowing heavily we head to the Dream Forest at Les Grands Montets, and with some fresh snow this place really lives up to its name! Here the trees help to give some definition and reduce the whiteout that normally accompanies heavy snowfall. This means we can ride some fantastic snow while everyone else is either indoors or struggling with visibility.
Located in a triangle between the Retour Pendant and Plan Roujon chairlifts this hidden spot can require a short hike out along the cat track that joins the bottom stations of the two lifts, but it’s without doubt worth the effort to get access to some superb powder and tree runs. Mostly this area takes a while to get tracked out and because the short walk seems to deter many people it can have fresh powder days after a snowfall.
From the top of Retour Pendant we head straight down into the open (skier’s left of the blue Coqs piste) then enter the wooded section. There are lots of rocks to drop here and with a fresh fall of snow they form the perfect pillow line, with each drop comes an explosion of powder. Lower down the trees become tighter requiring some commitment to turning accurately, although with a little searching it’s easy to find open sections where it’s possible to pull fast, sweeping turns. The gradient here is fairly steep in places, which means even in deep snow it’s difficult to get bogged down. If you're in this area yourselves, unless you really know what you’re doing, be careful not to pass over the cat track (marked by a dotted black line on the lift map). If you do you’ll be in the animal wintering zone and some very avalanche-prone, steep couloirs heading down to the bottom of the valley. We then follow the cat track, and depending on how far we've traversed left or right decide whether to start hiking either to the Retour Pendant or Plan Roujon chair. After a few runs it’s easy to work out which one’s closer to reduce the amount of hiking. As this is off-piste, if you go, make sure you at least have a transceiver and shovel and know how to use them (see our Avalanche section).
Les Houches in Bad Weather
When the weather is cloudy or the snow is falling, it’s well worth checking out Les Houches. The lifts here are far more likely to be open if high winds are causing closures elsewhere. Additionally, the avalanche risk is a lot lower in Les Houches after heavy snowfall, so whilst the rest of the valley is shut to allow blasting of avalanche-prone areas, Les Houches can pretty much open up straight away. The other advantage of Les Houches is that because nearly all of its pistes are cut through trees and forests the visibility is about as good as it can be in a white out.
Head over to the back of the ski area and try the Fontaines and Plancerts pistes (note – there is a lively draglift at the bottom of Plancerts). The runs down the front back towards Les Houches are also sheltered by trees and are awesome in fresh powder. With black, blue and red runs to choose from, you’ll find a way down whatever your ability.