Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Chamonix Mont-Blanc, France 1/31 - 2/8


We arrived in Geneva, Switerland, and caught a shuttle bus to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, a world famous mountaineering town. I had been there once before in '99 and was excited to make it back to snowboard its breath-taking mountains. Just like my prior trip, we had arrived in the town in the evening, during a storm and had to wait until the morning to see just how beautiful the area is.
One hour shuttle bus ride from the airport to Chamonix.

Chamonix-Mont-Blac is a mountain town in valley surrounded by towering mountains. It is home to the first winter Olympics and France's oldest ski resort. Cham' continues to attract tourist from around the world. The town has adapted to the tourists and offers plenty of shopping, restaurants and a free local bus stopping at the many gondolas around the valley. Since English is the default international language, getting by without fluent French and using English made our stay easy. There is one caveat: even though most tourists are not French speakers, we did notice that the local French prefer visitors to adhere to French mannerisms and conduct in restaurants. We noticed a waiter get pretty annoyed at a loud Brazilian group.
Center plaza of downtown.
Very cool street art
In search for a dinner spot in Old Downtown Chamonix
Ski Areas in relationship to Chamonix Valley

We rented a studio apartment for the week through Airbnb. It was roughly a third of the price of a hotel room. The apartment was located one block from the northern edge of downtown and steps away from a local service bus stop. Our place was quiet and cozy and allowed Quarup to work remotely. It had underground parking (available to us if we had brought a car), basement storage locker for our snowboards, reliable internet, and a washer in the unit - parfait.
The mini kitchen and dinning area made a great office.
Video conference time.
Warm and cozy inside.
Making ourselves at home.

On our first day we decided to take it easy. We were jet lagged plus it was raining in the valley. We spent the afternoon exploring Chamonix's downtown area. Many shops downtown catered to seriours outdoor enthusiasts, selling high quality outerwear and plenty of backcountry ski equipment. One shop (Zero G) catered just to snowboarders and even rented high end backcountry splitboards for women! Finding a place back home that rents high end splitboards is extermly rare but a place that rents women's backcountry splitboards is unheard of.
We ran into a familiar face at Zero G - my professional snowboarder cousin, Danny Davis.
On our second day in Chamonix, we woke up early, got our ski gear on, and walked to the nearby gondola in anticipation of a full day of riding. There had been non-stop precipitation (either snow or light rain in the valley) since we arrived and we were not surprised to hear avalanche control bombs going off in the distance. We know the mountains must have received a lot of snow. To our dismay, we learned that Chamonix received too much snow and they wouldn't be opening most of the resort areas all day, despite all the avalanche control preformed during the morning.
Each red light indicates that a ski lift is not running.
Each yellow light indicates a lift is on hold.
No green lights.

We made the best of the situation and went to the Saturday Farmer's Market. It was a treat for our eyes, noses, and mouths. Flowers, salami, cheeses, olives, mulled wine - my mouth waters just thinking of the fragrant cheeses that filled the air. We didn't hesitate to pick up a few french delicatessens and flowers to brighten up our studio apartment.
Red tulips to match our studio apartment.
Local salami
Local Alpine Cheese
Mulled wine to keep us warm while shopping.

Unlike North America, Europe does not avalanche control the entire resort areas. European resorts only ensure that the trails (piste) are safe to ride on. We signed up to ride off-piste in a guided group for our third day. Chamonix, France was still undergoing avalanche control procedures so our guide drove the group to the Italian side of Mont Blanc. The ski towns of Courmayeur, Italy and Chamonix, France are connected by a tunnel below Mont Blanc. Unlike Chamonix, the weather on the Italian side of Mont Blanc was bright and beautiful.
The Italian side of Mont Blanc
We didn't care much for the large guided group but we had a wonderful time chatting with people in the group from around the globe. Everyone is passionate about skiing and snowboarding and traveling, which led to quickly connecting.
Italian lunch with the  half of our ski group.

Overall we were a bit disappointed with the off-piste guides because they didn't take our group to any interesting ski off-piste areas. The next day we decided to take things into our own hands and explore the ski slopes on our own. The French side of Mont Blanc was partially open so we spent the day on the Western side of Chamonix at Brévent-Flégère  We were cautious on the off-piste and primarily stayed on the trails. The snow was plenty, the views were gorgeous, but the higher up we went, the winds howled creating unsafe white out conditions.
View of Aiguille de Tour from Brévent-Flégère funicular.
Funicular between Brévent and Flégère
We escaped the howling winds for lunch at the highest restaurant in the vicinity. Unlike in North American resorts, lunch is definitely worth stopping for in Europe. There are real restaurants on the mountain with freshly prepared meals, not cafeterias with reheated greasy food like back in the States.
Mulled Wine and the daily hand written menu.
Local specialty Tartiflette for lunch.
We had yet to explore the South East mountains that hover over Chamonix but fate had a different plan for us. The relentless snow kept the higher elevations of the mountains under high avalanche danger. We had hoped to do a backcountry snowboarding but the snow and low visibility would have been unsafe. We tried to make the best of our situation and planned to visit a local glacier cave accessible by train. Yet again, the high avalanche danger stopped the mountain trains from leaving the town station.
Extremely glad we brought our snow boots
View from our studio balcony. The nonstop snow blocked the view of the background mountains.

Thankfully we were in France and decided to enjoy the amazing French food. Each afternoon and evening we were able to enjoy delicious local food. One of our favorite resturants was Le Panier des 4 Saisons. We were in heaven enjoying their homemade foie gras.
A local French Alps cheese dish named Tartiflette
We pushed our luck a little too far with an Asian inspired restaurant. I took down my guard and ordered the restaurant's featured sushi platter. Typically, I am very picky about where to eat raw fish but this restaurant was highly rated by lots of British we chatted with, so we decided to go for it. I wound up with the worst food poisoning I can remember. On our last full day in Chamonix, I spent my time in the apartment, steps away from the bathroom while Quarup worked remotely. It was not the note on which we had hoped to leave France, but at least I had a full day to recover before the long train ride to Murren, Switerland on Friday, February 8th.