Skiing the Tripoint Alps: Chamonix and Beyond
How to Crush Your Three-Country Trip
From the days of emperor Augustus to the House of Savoy, the impossibly inspiring mountain terrain surrounding Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc (15,781ft), has been the destination of explorers, conquerers, and adventurers seeking the greatest challenges of the Old Continent. The complex bulk of granite, soaring 13,000 feet above the surrounding lowlands, straddles three countries (France, Italy, and Switzerland), and contains some of the finest and most challenging ski terrain in the world.
It’s a magical land where a single tram ride can take you from a verdant valley bottom to a sheer rock pinnacle where you can quaff a sunny flute of Prosecco with hors d’oeuvres before you drop into the most serious and committing ski line of your life. Still reeling from adrenaline and a slight Prosecco buzz, you make your way down an 11km glacier to take the train and do it all over again.
Inspired by the flabbergasting ski infrastructure, huge descents, and mountain hospitality, I attempt to share why I spent ten years of living in Chamonix by distilling the essence of this Tripoint region, the magical culminating point of three countries. A confluence of history and geography evoking a metaphysical je ne sais quoi that places the region on a pedestal above most other ski destinations.
2018 followed on the heels of the travesty of 2017–the worst winter in recent memory–with some of the heaviest snowfalls seen in a long time in the Western Alps. By mid-January, a massive snowpack blanketed mid elevations with a frustrating, continuously fluctuating snow-line, causing off-the-chart avalanche danger, closed lifts, evacuated villages and epic days followed by stoke-drowning rainfall.
For once, it seemed Europe was blessed while the rest of the world was cursed; North America was dry as a bone in January and most skiers had given up and fled to Canada or Japan, the typical safe havens for deep snowfall. Most good winters in Chamonix see an influx of international shredders but this year was another level; posse after posse of my American friends picked up the red phone and booked last-minute trips to the Tripoint area to feed their powder hunger. The rotating squad of riders from Jackson to Aspen, Salt Lake to Seattle, arrived just in time for one of biggest early season storm cycles I can remember.
The Vibe: Europe Isn’t Easy, But It’s Worth Doing Right
Chamonix, France may evoke the sketchy scratch of a ski edge linking jump turns down an impossibly steep fall-you-die alpine face. But that’s certainly not all Chamonix is about. There’s something for everyone and what really makes the area special is the cultural and geographical melting pot that defines the area. Thousands of years of history meet among the most incredible peaks in isolated alpine valleys that have been linked by modern infrastructure in the last fifty years, including the 11km Mont Blanc Tunnel. It’s a place where you take your passport as well as your ski pass and a day out may involve trains, tramways, skinning, buses, and routinely skiing over unmarked international borders. If anything, Chamonix serves as an ideal and centralized base camp for exploring the neighboring resorts on day missions while offering limitless options for skiing in its own right.
Davide De Masi and Colter Hinchliffe walking down the Aiguille du Midi’s infamously exposed Arête before they put their skis on, one misstep here you’re going for a hell of a ride. Photo: Cedric Bernardini
If my ten years of experience in this valley has taught me anything, it’s how much the place can be appreciated as a travel destination if done right. But be warned, Europe isn’t as user-friendly as it sounds, and the romantic thought of just hopping on a train and riding off into the alpine sunset is more a myth than reality. The European Union is still a relatively new development and regional transport systems in France, Italy, and Switzerland simply don’t show the coordination that one might expect. While a rental car from Geneva or Milan may still be the best option for moving efficiently in the region with a metric shit-ton of ski gear, there is no doubt that the well-versed euro traveler complements the car with additional forms of transport to take advantage of the unique geography.
Dyane Devey waiting (impatiently) for a train to go ski touring in the main Gare (train station) of Chamonix. Always bring comfortable shoes in the Alps. Photo: Davide De Masi
Base Camp Chamonix
Chamonix may be the most historically important center of all that is rad in the Alps, and it’s also strategically placed: 1.5 hours from Geneva, 2.5 hours from Turin, one hour to Verbier, and just 20 minutes to Courmayeur. Take note of these places because the daily decision process in the Western Alps includes finding the optimal experience by strategically playing the massive meteorological and orographic differences on the two sides of Mont Blanc (Northwest/France, South/Italy, East/Switzerland). A good season on one side may be disastrous for the other side as a northerly storm will dump on Chamonix and a southern storm will cause horrific warm Foehn wind in France while dumping just a few kilometers away in Courmayeur, Italy. Thus is the subtle magic of the region; it’s pretty much guaranteed not to suck somewhere pretty close to where you are.
Surviving the Circus
You’ve seen it in the old ski flicks, the classic French hard-core vibe and attitude. Well, it’s most certainly here albeit in an evolved form; particularly in the at best questionable, at worst deadly backcountry skiing ethics commonly encountered in this part of Europe. But with some common sense and an experienced guide, you can enjoy this area with a reasonable amount of safety. It’s important to be aware of people around you as typical North American ski etiquette has been thrown out the window here. Get a guide. Did I say this already? I mean it. Plus, you can cut the lift lines with one and are guaranteed to find better snow.
The Epic 2018 Winter Begins
Davide, Griffin, and Colter Hinchliffe enjoy their private tram. No one skis in Europe in January. Well, we do. Photo Cedric Bernardini.
Dyane enjoying her 34th fine espresso of the day, served in luxury at the top of Punta Helbronner (11,358ft), with stunning views of the Mont Blanc Massif beyond. Photo: Davide De Masi
As January begins, in contrast to most North American resorts, Chamonix is still in low season. It’s a time of year when you can walk on empty trams and have the lifts just to yourself–if only they open. Always skeptical, we constantly check the websites each morning to see if lifts are open before we show up, because with meters of snow falling overnight, many of the local ski lifts have been closed for days on end for avalanche control and preparation. Espresso is consumed in dangerous quantities, and we execute the fail-safe measure: head to Italy.
The Mont Blanc tunnel is a critical nexus that brings us through 11km of solid granite and spits us out on the sunny side of Monte Bianco where the smiles are bigger, the lift lines are shorter, and the coffee and pizza are better (and much cheaper). The Skyway Monte Bianco replaced the archaic Funivia Monte Bianco a few years back with the most ridiculously state-of-the-art rotating pod tramway, bringing riders nearly 2000 vertical meters up to Punta Helbronner. Don’t be fooled by the luxuriously stocked tapas and wine bar, this lift accesses some of the most extreme and dangerous freeride lines in a matter of minutes. A guide here is mandatory due to the sheer size of the lines, and the right conditions are crucial (stable snow and cold temperatures).
Man’s not hot. Colter launches a big 360 off a tasty pillow line in some Italian trees. Photo: Cedric Bernardini.
We arrived in the midst of a chaotic storm cycle, forcing us to the neighboring ski area sharing the same name as the quaint ski village of Courmayeur. Italians stick to the piste and we were treated to lap after lap of deep powder in the trees interspersed with antipasti plates, espresso, and Prosecco. The ambience of Italy is truly special, with the team feeling a collective sigh of relief after leaving the tense atmosphere of Chamonix.
Griffin catches a rare glimmer of light on one of the endlessly deep pow runs of the day. Photo: Cedric Bernardini.
It’s here when Dyane actually wished for it to stop snowing. We just wanted to see the mountains. Actually, nevermind. Photo: Cedric Bernardini.
When the skies finally went blue and the snow stabilized, we headed up the Skyway to see what we had been missing: huge alpine lines. After a quick stop at fabled Torino refuge, perched at 3200m, for some coffee, we popped our skis on the side of the balcony and dropped into two steep couloirs leading down to the beautiful Toula Glacier, the standard guided route featuring a decades old ladder system that skiers use to access the slowly retreating upper snowfield.
Dyane descends the steel ladder system granting access to the Toula Glacier, above Courmayeur, Italy. Photo: Davide De Masi
As we made our final laps through the forested ridges at the bottom of the imposing South Face of the massif, reports of lifts finally opening in Chamonix were filtering through social media. With rising temps, we knew it was time to head back to the shady side and get involved in the rat race in the world’s most extreme valley. From the top of Punta Helbronner which straddles the Franco-Italian frontier, skiers can opt to drop into the French side and make their way down the massive Geant Glacier, deposing them in Chamonix many miles later.
The Valley Blanche is an enormous glacier that sits on the Franco-Italian boarder. You can ski off both the Aiguille du Midi and Skyway to access this beautiful run that deposits you in Chamonix. Photo: Davide De Masi
The second you return through the tunnel (or ski back over), the vibe takes a decidedly more serious tone as your drive past the teetering seracs of the Bossons Glacier, one of the most impressive icefalls in the Alps. Made famous by Greg Stump’s 1988 Blizzard of AAHHH’s film featuring ski legend and Chamonix resident Glen Plake, the bustling ski town of Chamonix has evolved since those days. Frequented by an international thrill-seeking scene, lift lines are a constant problem and even locals have difficulty avoiding the zoo-like panic in the morning. The center of the busy hive is the legendary Aiguille du Midi cable car, an impossibly gnarly rock pinnacle that is reached by a two stage tramway. The second stage is not supported by any pylons and a single suspended span of cable brings riders up nearly 4000 vertical feet to a series of granite pinnacles where a mad-max style lift installation houses restaurants, walkways, and viewing platforms. Originally built for it’s incredible vantage of the Alps, skiers soon began to descend the famous Vallée Blanche.
The Aiguille du Midi is the most legendary lift in the world, for good reason. Just look at it. Photos: Davide De Masi
We opted for variation of the main decent over the steep and extreme routes of the West face such as the Cosmiques Couloir or the Glacier Rond. With such a huge snowpack this year, the ice features of the tumbling glacier have become playful freeride lines full of jumps, airs, and party shredding.
Tim Durtschi takes a playful approach to glacier travel. Photo: Cedric Bernardini.
After nearly 11km of skiing on a glacier, we arrive at the toe of which has sadly experienced remarkable thinning and retreat even during the decade I have lived here. Each year we have to find a new line to access the short boot pack up the Montenvers train, constructed in the early 20th century, to take us back to town (you can also ski back, conditions permitting, on the famous “James Bond” cat track).
Colter jumps off an impressive Serac feature in the middle of the vast Vallée Blanche. Don’t try this at home. Photo: Davide De Masi
Arriving in town after a successful day shredding, which in Chamonix means coming back in once piece, we hit the local grub spot Moo Bar where everyone from Seth Morrison to local French legends can be seen chowing down and guzzling beer after a long day in the mountains. It’s that apres ski culture that adds a sense of belonging to a community in Europe where everyone is constantly pushing themselves.
It’s different from the American feeling in the sense that everyone gathers at the end of the day seemingly to celebrate they’re still here after their daring feats. The local bar is in the center of town, next to the main train station and serves as a community meeting spot, always accessible by a village stroll. Which can be a blessing and a curse.
Dyaneand Johanna Stalnacke are happy to be alive. That’s the most important goal in Chamonix. Photo: Davide De Masi
Time for Some International Ski Touring
While no train line passes through the Massif itself, Chamonix and Switzerland are connected by the Mont Blanc Express, an alpine train that passes through the Col des Montets and down into the Valais region in the heart of Switzerland. An important link connecting the two countries, the train also serves as the perfect form of transport for a ride home after backcountry skiing off the back of the Flegere ski area. We opted to ski the Glacier du Mort, literally the Glacier of Death, a fairly moderate tour that doesn’t really properly represent its name. After a short hike, we are treated to several hundred meters of shady powder and a ski out to the town of Le Buet on the Franco-Swiss border. Another option is to hop on a train to access the Balme ski area, where a short skin and hike up allow you to drop into the quaint Swiss town of Trient, crossing a quietly marked international border.
As the snowpack stabilizes and high pressure replaces the tumultuous January storm cycle, we must go further to get fresh snow, but that’s the beauty of Europe. Even in the bustling ski Mecca of Chamonix, you can still find fresh tracks with a short hike days and weeks after a storm, a testament to vastness of the terrain.
L: Colter climbs up a steep couloir to get skunked by a thick cloud layer. R: The squad kicks it while waiting for some visibility before dropping into a tasty couloir. Photos: Cedric Bernardini.
Johanna drops in first to the line, using the rock wall for visibility. Photo: Cedric Bernardini.
Practicalities, and Why Europe is Cheaper than the US
Europe isn’t cheap, but it’s not as expensive as the good ol’ USA and you certainly get more for your money. Expect to pay a reasonable 60-80 USD for a daily lift ticket, with the option of buying single rides around 10-30 USD for ski touring days. Accommodations are generally cheaper than US resorts, with good discounts at weekly rates. Renting a car is necessary and expect to pay for toll roads and over fifty euros to travel through the Mont Blanc Tunnel (unless you are with a guide, who has a discount). That brings my to my next point: a guide is necessary for obvious safety reasons (glacier travel, crevasses, avalanches, etc) but also has perks such as cutting lift lines and finding the good pow stashes days after a storm. Make sure you have international data on your phone (it’s definitely worth it and most providers have it for 10 USD/day) or navigating while driving will prove extra challenging.