Summer in Chamonix can be just as exhilarating as the ski season. Follow my advice to find out you can experience its great ridges and summits without spending hundreds on a guide...
The snow in the valley has melted and temperatures are beginning to soar - but there is still plenty to do in Chamonix outside of the ski season - and it can be done on a budget if you plan well first. I'd made plenty of plans – of crags to climb, peaks to “bag” and hikes to make. I'd borrowed guidebooks, crampons, an ice axe and congratulated myself a the ease in which I was dropped off at my campsite by the Cham- Express shuttle bus, after a short hop across to Geneva via easyJet.
Where to stay
Les Chosalets campsite in Argentiere (Campsite du glacier d'Argentière) lies near the Grands Montets lift station and in the winter is a beginner's ski slope. Great, if you want to master your snow plough; not, if you don't enjoy that sliding feeling in the middle of the night - so make sure you choose your pitch wisely. It is, however, clean and has magnificent views of the Mont- Blanc and the Aiguille du Chardonnet - plus it's near the shops and bars of Argentiere - but being quieter than Chamonix its a good option if you want to retreat from the nightlight and tourists of the town itself.
There’s plenty of access to the mountains from Argentiere but the public transport system makes it easy to travel between villages and through to Chamonix itself. The bus service runs from 7a.m. until 7.30p.m everyday, up and down the valley and it’s free with your lift-pass or carte d'hote (tourist card). There is also free shuttle service that runs around Chamonix town centre and if you want to stay later in town there is a regular train service along the valley (and beyond into Switzerland if you want a scenic trip) from early morning until the evening. This is also free with your tourist card which you can pick up from the campsite.
If you plan on doing most of your own cooking remember that supermarkets don't open on Sundays or from 12:30pm to 3:30pm during the week. A good option is to order freshly delivered baguettes and croissants from the campsite or head to one of the many bakeries in Argentiere for delicious freshly baked bread.
Planning a beginner's Alpine expedition
With ambitions of doing a route on the Aiguille du Tour, four of us booked to stay overnight at the Albert Premier Hut later that week. At 2,702 metres above sea level on the Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt, it's a popular base for day hikers because of the short hike in (two to three hours) and beautiful views of the Chamonix Valley. To build up for the big day some walking was needed, so we picked the Aiguille de Posettes. For this, the easy option is to take the Col de Balme cable car half way and stop for a coffee – but needing to stretch my legs, I opted to hike all the way. It was worth it as the ridge leading to the summit at 2,200 metres had incredible views of the Argentiere glacier, Mont Blanc, and over to the mountains of Switzerland.
The next stage of our “preparation” was a day course in crevasse rescue and glacier travel. “Chamonix Experience” provided the guide who took us up onto the Mer de Glace - the longest glacier in France - via the 101-year-old cog railway to Montenvers. We were taught enough of the basics to get ourselves up to an easy summit, and to pull someone twice our size out of a crevasse!
The big day arrived and we took a 16 euro ride in the Col de Balme cable car up the mountain and walked to the Albert Premier Hut. There is an option to bivvy nearby and cook your own food - or for 39 euro you can eat a hearty meal prepared by the hut guardians and sleep “alpine style” in a bunk room with about 15 others. This option saves you carrying extra weight - but bring your earplugs – or be prepared to settle down to a chorus of snoring!
Rooms are allocated on the basis of which expedition you're doing. As we were on the “Tour” our wake up call was at 4am. Despite this, others set their alarms for 3:50am and scuttled out into the Alpine dawn as if it were a race. Being last out on the ice has its benefits though - as the thick virgin snow was nicely broken in for us.
The Aiguille du Tour stands proudly on the northern part of the Mont Blanc Massif. For all the routes it offers, you have to first go over the glacier to the foot of the Tour and then do a mixed climb to the summit at 3,600 metres. We moved slowly as a four but the snow plod and climb was exhilarating. Being up in the mountains when everyone else is curled up in their tents and seeing the sun rise over the peaks makes all the sleep deprivation worthwhile. We returned back to the hut in a leisurely seven hours and congratulated each other on our first Alpine ascents.
Once you’ve recovered from the ‘Tour’ try something slightly different with a long rock climb on the Aiguille L'Index - a popular route on the Aiguille Rouges opposite the Mont Blanc Range that can be reached by taking a ride up the Flegere Telepheriques. Or if you fancy some more cragging then take a free bus to Les Houches stopping at the roadside crag Les Gaillands. The first routes here were put up in the 1930’s with the intention of creating a place where alpinists could learn to climb. At the time the project was considered revolutionary. There are some great single and multi pitch sport climbs here –some shaded and some in the sunshine - and there’s a handy café by the Chamonix Guides company hut which serve the largest wraps you will ever have eaten.
Some other popular routes to test your alpine mountaineering skills out on are the Cosmiques Arête, one of the most beautiful classic mixed climbs you can find in Chamonix. You could also try a scramble along the ridge of the Aiguilles Crochues or for an easier day out try a simple hike up to the Argentiere Glacier to gaze at tumbling seracs.
When doing any of these expeditions it’s important to keep an eye on the weather as in the mountains it’s notoriously unpredictable. If it looks like rain then be prepared to drop all your plans and do something else - like eating. A great traditional restaurant in the heart of Argentiere is Le Carnotzet. (www.carnotzet.com/index_ru.html) After a few days of campsite food, to eat pungent fondue in this Savoyard raclette and croute gourmet eatery (that's listed in the Tables and Auberges 2008 and Gault Millau 2008 eating guides) is a real treat. For something more British head down the road to Le Rusticana or The Office. They serve old favourites like fish and chips, steak and burgers, as well as being lively bars to unwind in. For some shelter from the weather try Argentiere's cosy Slalom Bar for cold beer and hot chocolate. Located on the main drag, it’s very French in style and custom and has a welcoming heated terrace out front- here you can sit warm and dry and watch the rain pour down.
Chamonix in the summer has much to offer visitors with all levels of experience; you don't have to be the next Chris Bonnington to go there. If you have a few plans - but are willing to be flexible - then you'll have a very rewarding and inexpensive time.