Slopes are busy but skiing is good in Chamonix
Half term is here. There's no denying that the slopes are busier than normal but that doesn't mean you can't go and get some great skiing! A little bit of forward planning means there's still lots of good turns to be made with limited queuing.
The weather has been a bit mixed for the last week. There's been some cracking fresh snow and blue sky days (Tuesday and Wednesday are going to feature in a lot of treasured holiday snaps) and then there's been a few grey, rainy days (Friday and Saturday, I'm looking at you. It might be the holidays but Must Try Harder).
On Friday, the rain-snow limit was a bit high for most folks liking at about 1800m, and the clouds were sitting low in the valley making it pretty tricky to see where you were going. Hoping to get some definition in the trees we headed to Le Tour with the aim of skiing the forests near the Tete de Balme chairlift. The Charamillon gondola is a notorious bottleneck during holiday periods but, if you jump on the train to Vallorcine, you'll have but a couple of hundred meters wander to the Vallorcine gondola with its complete lack of a queue, followed by a short ski down to the Tete de Balme chair and usually the best skiing on the hill. The train through the Chamonix valley is free to use for holders of the "Carte d'Hote" (which should be given to you for free by your accommodation provider or can be purchased from the Tourist Information Office), and makes for a far more civilized way to get to the slopes as you cruise serenely past the traffic, surveying the mountain from your comfortable seat.
Anyway, enough of trainspotting, back to the skiing. Whilst the snow at the very top of Le Tour was pleasant to ski, the high rain-snow limit meant that the majority of the off-piste was very, very sticky and, when combined with the near-zero visibility, made for a fairly challenging time skiing. The pistes were running much better as the rain hadn't had as much effect as feared, however, the visibility was just as poor between the piste markers as outside. Still, as you couldn't see much beyond the tip of your skis it at least seemed like there was nobody else on the slopes!
Following another day's precipitation on Saturday, fortunately, with a lower rain-snow line, Sunday dawned with clearer skies and colder temperatures. There were lots of folk out enjoying the good conditions at Grands Montets, so many that the car park was overflowing and skiers were parking all over Argentiere. Again, letting the train take the strain makes for a stress-free journey up to Argentiere followed by a short walk through the Grand Roc apartment complex and onto the slopes.
A relaxed start to the day meant that there were no queues at the Plan Joran gondola. Once up the hill, the slopes certainly weren't quiet but Grands Montets is a huge area and, off the pistes, there was plenty of space to get some great fast skiing through the skier chopped fresh snow. Even at the lifts, the only wait was for the Grands Montets top bin, so it was easy to get lots of quick laps of the big vertical you can do here.
With a few hidden or hard to access exceptions, everything off-piste was well tracked but, if you enjoy blasting through chopped powder, then you'd be in your element. On the piste the fresh snow was getting pushed around by the skier traffic and resulting in a mix of mogulled snow interspaced by firm, skier scraped sections where the slopes got steeper. Not the easiest conditions for beginners if truth be told. The cloud was also coming and going through the day, mostly sticking to the lower slopes which are also the best beginner terrain, making conditions even more challenging, but also occasionally rising up to nearly the height of the Bochard lift.
The queue for the top bin was at about the one hour mark for most of the day. It's a long wait for one lift but the size of the area it accesses and the amount of vertical available meant that, even by the end of the day, it was easy to find lines with large sections of untracked snow. Groups of skiers with appropriate equipment for skiing on glaciated terrain could be seen getting great looking turns in on more serious terrain.
Looking forward, it seems like there'll be a little bit of fresh snow on Tuesday followed by several days of mostly sunny weather with colder temperatures than we've had for the last week. The weather experts are starting to get quite excited about the prospect of some very very cold weather towards the end of February. It doesn't currently look like it'll be accompanied by much snowfall but it's worth keeping an eye on.
Ski safely off-piste
Exploring beyond the ski resort boundaries is an amazing experience for anyone who's physically fit and has mastered the pistes well enough. There are, however, risks associated with venturing outside the safety of the marked/patrolled ski area, including awareness of your actions on those below you on the slopes. Mountain guides are professionally qualified and have extensive knowledge of the local terrain to provide you with the safest and most enjoyable possible experience in the mountains; as a visitor here we highly recommend you hire one. Many ski schools, and also mountain guides, provide instruction in off-piste skiing, avalanche safety and mountaineering techniques. Make your time in the mountains unforgettable for the right reasons, ski safe!
Location: Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley