Argentiere is famed for its steep slopes and challenging off-piste at the Grands Montets ski area. Here are some insider tips to help you get the most out of your stay
An insider guide to skiing Argentiere
Argentiere, ten minutes up the valley from Chamonix Mont Blanc, is a cult ski area, famed for its steep slopes and challenging off-piste at the Grands Montets ski area. The village retains some genuine mountain charm, with casual and friendly local bars and restaurants and a range of accommodation to suit all budgets and expectations. The proximity to Geneva Airport (80 minutes) means that this is a great destination for long weekends.
Suit you sir?
This resort is a good choice for expert skiers and adventurous intermediates, but beginners will find it limited and challenging. The blue runs in Argentiere would be red anywhere else. A snowpark attracts boarders and perpetual adolescents, but beware the height of these jumps! For absolute beginners or young children, Les Chosalets ski area, right at the bottom of the Grands Montets, has two button tows. Families with very young children will find excellent facilities at the Panda Club (www.evolution2-chamonix.com) for child-care and ski tuition, at the foot of the mountain. There is also a 10km cross-country ski track around the village.
The skiing in Argentiere is done on a single mountain. If you want to cover miles of terrain and sit on a different lift all day, then this is not the place for you. However, if you want challenging skiing, varied off-piste and serious vertical, then read on.
The 2,039m vertical drop from the summit of the Grands Montets (3,275m) to the village is one of the highest in the world (to put this in perspective, the vertical drop at Vail, Colorado is a mere 1,052m). The majority of the skiing is on north facing slopes above 2,000m, usually ensuring good snow conditions from mid December onwards. When the season ends (9 May in 2010), it is because of lack of interest rather than lack of snow.
The lifts are situated ten minutes walk downhill from the centre of the village or ten minutes from Chamonix in the fairly frequent free ski buses. There are two adjacent lifts up to the main ski terrain, the Argentiere-Lognan cable car and the Plan Joran chairlift, which is usually the faster option when there are queues.
After exploring the pistes to warm up and get used to the layout of the mountain, it is time to pretend you are Glen Plake and head off-piste. But first, a few warnings are necessary. Rocks, cliffs, crevasses and other obstacles will be unmarked and there may be avalanche danger. Keep in control and never ski alone. If you are in unknown terrain do not assume it is safe to follow a skier’s tracks, they may be lost too, or may be one of the locals that jump 10m cliffs for fun.
Here are a few of my favourite off-piste runs:
1. Canadian Bowl (access via Herse or Bochard)– a wide bowl of steady 30° pitch situated between the Herse and the Bochard lifts. Traverse in from either lift. At bottom of bowl, cut out right onto Piste des Combes or continue over rolls and steep gullies to lifts.
2. Combe de la Pendant (access via Bochard) – follow cat track for Piste des Chamois then continue straight on into this huge bowl. Multiple routes down various valleys and gullies, avoiding the rocks. When you are level with the top of the Retour Pendant lift (below on the right), start to traverse back to catch it.
3. Italian Bowl (combe secrete) (access via Herse) – turn left off the lift and keep horizontal towards the rock-face. Descend initial bowl then continue down through rocks until a second larger bowl opens up on the right. Often the best snow on the mountain, with big moguls. Head back to Lognan on cat track.
Alternatively, continue down the variant Hotel, past the Chalet Refuge de Lognan (recommended for lunch or vin chaud at end of day). From here trend left over a ridge to avoid cliffs on right below refuge and descend the second gully (steep icy moguls and bushwhacking) to join, half way down, the Pierre a Ric piste to the village.
Many famous ski movies have been filmed on slopes accessed by the top Grand Montets cable car. The marked black runs are not pisted, but are controlled, and the Point de Vue (Viewpoint) black offers spectacular views of the Argentiere glacier. If you want to get more up close and personal with the glacier then I strongly advise hiring a guide. They will find the best snow, keep you safe, provide the necessary avalanche and glacier-skiing equipment and, not insignificantly, will give you priority on the cable car, for which hour-long queues are not uncommon. You can make a free cable car reservation in advance at the ticket desks. Valid ski passes are required (note that only the “unlimited” ski pass includes the Grands Montets lift, which otherwise costs 10 euros).
Instruction and guiding
Instructors and guides cost about 300 euros and up per day, and will take around six people, depending on activity. Many of the instructors are guides and vice-versa. Only qualified guides are equipped for glacier skiing and the gnarlier off-piste routes like the Pas de Chevre.
Ecole de Ski Francaise - www.esf-argentiere.com
Office at cable car station. Individual and group lessons for all abilities and ages.
Evolution 2 - www.evolution2-chamonix.com
Instructing and guiding services, Vallée Blanche, off-piste, adventure days. Also run the Panda Club (behind the cable car station) – excellent child-care and instruction for 3 to 12 year olds.
Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix - www.chamonix-guides.com
Office in Argentiere main street, up from Dahu. Established in 1821, offering a wide variety of guiding services - off-piste skiing, Vallée Blanche, ski touring, climbing, ice climbing.
Prestige - www.prestigeoutdoor.com. A full service provider for the affluent adventure seeker. Live the James Bond dream.
Chamonix Experience - www.chamex.com
Office behind Alp Centre ski shop in Argentiere main street. English-speaking guide services, Vallée Blanche, tailored ski adventure days, ski touring. Expeditions a speciality (eg. Everest!).
All Mountain Performance - www.allmountainperformance.com
Top-level english-speaking instruction for off-piste and free-riding. Women only groups.
Peakpowder - www.peakpowder.com
Office in Chamonix opposite Montenvers Station. Specialist in extreme skiing (ie. 50+ slopes).
There are two main types of pass:
1. Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass (49.5 euros per day, 240 euros for 6 days) - covers the entire valley of Chamonix (Vallorcine/Balme/le Tour, Argentiere/Grands Montets, Flegere, Brevent, les Houches) plus Aiguille de Midi cable car, Train de Montenvers and Courmayeur. Also includes Verbier on passes 6+ days in length.
2. Chamonix Le Pass (40 euros per day, 200 euros for 6 days) - excludes les Houches, Grands Montets top cable car (10 euros per run), Aiguille de Midi (41 euros), Train du Montenvers (24 euros).
If you ski one Grands Montets top cable car per day or plan to do the Vallée Blanche it is worth getting the unlimited pass.
Large families will find the passes good value, with the first child (under 16) paying half the adult price and all subsequent children free.
Up the hill, the best food is to be found at the Plan Joran restaurant, which has a waitress service area, a self-service grill, salad bar and pizzas in a quite attractive huge modern wooden chalet with large sundeck. The most authentic mountain ambience can be found at the Chalet Refuge de Lognan, which offers local specialities and good tarts. Reservations recommended (+33 6 88 56 03 54).
At the bottom of the hill, the Cremerie du Glacier, offers traditional Savoyarde fair (fondu, croutes, gratins) in a cosy wooden shack. It can be accessed on ski from the Pierre a Ric piste, turning right at the signpost (down a bobsleigh-like track) just after the short steep pitch before the flat run out to the cable car station. Reservations recommended (33 4 50 54 07 52).
At the bottom of the Pierre a Ric piste, the spacious Argentero restaurant has a huge sundeck and serves up tasty Italian fare. A good lunch place for families with children in the Panda Club.
Linger up the hill at the end of the day to avoid the crowds descending the Pierre a Ric piste to the village. Relax with a drink at Lognan snack (le Spot) or the Chalet Refuge de Lognan. Vin chaud or hot chocolate with rum recommended for these cold days.
At the bottom of the Pierre a Ric piste, Les Marmottons has live music apres-ski most weekends.
In the centre of Argentiere, the top pick for apres-ski is the Savoy Bar. The oldest bar in town retains a rustic charm and has good beer from the Micro-Brewery de Chamonix (MBC) - try the Savoy Golden Ale. Frequent live music.
The classier Rusticana offers an excellent value apres-ski snack plus booze deal. Occasional live music, happy hours, good cocktails, large screen for sporting events, best bar food in town – top pick for later in the evening.
If you want to mix with the local French youth, try Le Slalom, a tiny, but buzzing, bar with good cocktails and internet access. Next door, The Office is a popular bar with frequent live music, bar food (eg. burgers), happy hour and is my top pick for sporting events on TV (large screens in main bar and also in the cool vaulted stone basement).
The bars tend to be busy apres-ski and then again after 10pm. You can usually find one of the bars open until about 2am.
Le Dahu – a local institution, hearty brasserie-style food with local specialities (fondu, raclette, pierrade, brasserade). The Menu Brasserie for 16 euros represents excellent value. The wine in pichet is cheap and eminently drinkable. Reservations recommended (+33 (0)4 50 54 01 55).
Le Grenier – tiny cramped restaurant offering the most imaginative cuisine in Argentiere. Menu 22 euros, changes weekly. Reservation necessary (+33 (0) 450540600).
La Flambée – comfortable, rustic chalet atmosphere, international cuisine and local specialities. Similar style food to Dahu, but slightly more refined and a bit pricier. Reservations recommended (+33 (0) 450541296).
In addition to the tasty bar food at the Rusticana, I would also recommend the Stone Bar for pizzas (try the Hot Scott).
Recently renovated and good value-for-money, I recommend the Hotel de la Couronne in the centre of the village. Doubles from 60 euros, family rooms available.
The best hotel in town is the Hotel les Grands Montets, right next to the lifts. Pool, sauna and outside hot tub. Generous breakfast. Doubles from 125 euros. Highly recommended.
There is a wide range of self-catering accommodation available in Argentiere. Friends have been very pleased with the comfort of the modern apartment hotel, Le Cristal, right in the centre of town.
At the luxury end of the spectrum, Le Marti is a boutique hotel run like a catered chalet. Recommended for corporate or special events.
The closest airport is Geneva, about 80 minutes' drive away. From Geneva the cheapest way to get to the Chamonix valley is by shared minibus. Fierce competition means that transfers are available for around 25 euros per head each way.
I have found the following companies reliable: Cham Express - www.chamexpress.com; Alpybus - www.Alpybus.com; Mountain Dropoffs - www.mountaindropoffs.com; Cham Van – www.chamvan.com.
1. Hire a guide for a day to make the most of the off-piste
2. Buy an off-piste ski guide book – www.editionsvamos.com
3. Buy avalanche gear (transceiver, shovel, probe) and practise how to use them
4. Reserve a top Grands Montets cable car when you buy your ski pass
5. Make sure you are insured for off-piste skiing (insurance can be purchased for under 3 euros per day with your ski pass)
6. Try and ski down “Everest” in a day (8,800m) = eleven Bochards
7. Get up early, especially on a powder day
8. Climb up to the deck at the top of the Grands Montets to look at the view
9. Come at the end of April, ski in the morning, play golf in the afternoon - www.golfdechamonix.com
10. Watch cult movies Steep and The Blizzard of Aahhh’s to put you in the mood.