Scaling Frozen Falls
It’s hard to beat the French Alps when it comes to spectacular scenery, winter sports, and European feel. So why not believe the hype and come to Chamonix, the small French resort town framed by Mont Blanc, to partake of the wintertime fun? Ice climbers claim there are more than 200 routes where you can use your crampons and ice axes in and around Chamonix. The Chamonix Valley is almost at the junction where France, Italy, and Switzerland meet, so ice climbers staying here can challenge ice routes in the neighboring countries as well. That’s a lot of icy opportunity.
In Chamonix, the routes range from frozen waterfalls and north-facing gullies to snow ridges. Access to many of the ice routes is within 15 minutes to 1 hour of town. Beginners head to La Cremerie, in Argentiere, where some easier routes can be found. Other ice-climbing spots are located on both sides of the Argentiere Glacier, the Col des Montets and Le Tour. According to Alps Adventures (see below), a guiding service that offers ice-climbing courses and takes ice-climbers on multi-pitch routes in the Chamonix Valley and the Cogne Valley in Italy, some of the ice falls have belays and most have abseil descents. The ice falls at the higher altitudes usually begin forming in December, followed by the falls at lower altitudes in January. The best climbing months are January and February.
Ice climbing is inherently dangerous and many safety factors must be taken into consideration while deciding when and where to climb. Unless you are very experienced and know this region extremely well (and even then), it’s highly advisable to climb with a certified mountain guide. The Chamonix tourist office has a list of qualified mountain guides. In town, Alps Adventures offers ice-climbing courses for beginner and intermediates. Ice-climbing equipment can be purchased or rented at Snell Sports (104 Rue Du Docteur Paccard; 33/450530217; www.cham3s.com).
Chamonix is a wonderful home base for all variety of cold-weather adrenaline adventures. It has long been considered one of the most popular European villages for alpine skiing. Around the valley there are five main resorts, with lifts and cable cars (see ) coming down to the town’s edge. Skiers throughout the world have heard of the famous Vallee Blanche, a 19km (12-mile) ski that is one of the most challenging in Europe.
Chamonix, which sprawls in a narrow strip along both banks of the Arve River, is a stopping point for travelers who have gone through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Italy. In the summertime, the town fills with hikers eager to get on the trails in the surrounding mountains, and mountain climbers who want to challenge Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak. —LF
Chamonix Valley ( 33/450/53-00-24; www.chamonix.com).
Tour: Alps Adventures ( 33/670/069 143; www.alps-adventure.com).
When to Go: Jan–Feb.
Geneva (81km/50 miles).