We took a trip to the valley for a week in September with the help of Chamonix Tourism and Intersport to check out just what you can get up to "between the seasons". Travelling budget on EasyJet and camping at the Camping des Ecureuils flights, transfers and accommodation, together with insurance and a budget hotel for the final night, came in at around £200 flying from either Stanstead or Manchester to Geneva.
Transport in and around the valley floor comes free with a tourists' Carte d'Hote which works on buses and trains between Servoz and Vallorcine (the service continues on to Martigny in Switzerland). In winter there's more bus routes than you can shake a ski pole at but in summer you're down to 5 main routes which generally have an hourly service, the free Chamonix town centre shuttle, and an hourly train service. You'll find a bit of overlap in some of the services with Les Bossons, for example, covered by the Les Houches to Le Tour service and the Glacier des Bossons to Les Praz/La Flegere service running from stops a couple of hundred metres apart. Trains on the SNCF service have a carriage on each train that can carry up to 5 bikes, free of charge, and in early Septermber we never once had a problem getting 2 bikes on board between Les Bossons and Argentiere. Off the buses and trains cycling is a great way to get around the valley and in a total contrast to the UK there's an almost Dutch feeling to the town centre where bikes and pedestrians coexist with cars and buses seamlessly. Cyclists roam the pavements and pedestrian areas freely but do so with respect for pedestrians and cars give priority to both - even pausing for cyclists to cross from pavement to pavement at zebras. The same level of respect applies equally on the road, making the valley floor a delight to ride............and that's without the trails higher up.
Of course bringing your mountain bike out with you is expensive if you're flying in from the UK but with the sport becoming increasingly popular there are numerous hire shops around the town. We tried out the new top-end service from Euro sports giants Intersport; a service they've only just launched this summer which caters for riders at every level with options from an hour hire to a week or more. At the bottom end a "Randonnee Adulte" or Scott Aspect 740 will cost from €29 a day to €119 for 6 days while at the top end a Scott Genius will knock you back €75 for a day or €390 for 6 days. For the ermmmm, shall we say less committed, you can hire an electrically assisted E-Aspect 720 Moustache for €290 for 6 days; they're all the rage in Europe and having had a week with one you can see why. Helmets come as standard if you're planning on doing one of the multitude of full on mountain trails you have the option of full body armour kits too from €15 for a single day.
If there's a downside it's the taxis......in our 2 trips by taxi we were royally ripped off; one journey we'd done daily along the road by bike measuring 3.5km was an €18, 5.8km journey while a 600 yard trip with heavy bags became 1.4 miles for €10.
If you've not been before Chamonix town will be a revelation. It stands at the crossroads of France, Switzerland and Italy but you'll hear as much English in conversations as any of their languages. You'll find brand name boutiques like Chanel alongside traditional artisan bakers and if you're an outdoor brand obsessive then the chances are your favourite name has its own dedicated shop in town from Haglofs to Mammut and Salomon to TNF.
As a tourist honeypot you can find food from every corner of the globe, even down to a little "English shelf" in many supermarkets with Marmite and Peanut butter alongside Spitfire Ale. If you want the traditional you can sit outside at a table and eat fresh local cuisine of the highest standard while if you just want a burger or coffee you'll find a MacDonalds and a Starbucks competing with smaller independents. Beer is expensive pretty much anywhere you go except the SuperU supermarket and a can of coke sells on average for €2.40! Water is the ubiquitous drink with every second person carrying a 1/2 or full litre bottle. As for wine, well this is France and the selection available is endless, but bring a corkscrew because finding a screw top wine is like rarer than finding the gem quality crystals on which Chamonix's reputation was first founded in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Stepping off the valley floor
Of course the main "must see" honeypots are off the valley floor and up into the mountains. In winter this means lift passes and crowded gondolas with up to 60 people at a time crushed into some, but in early September the crowds are down and even with the sun beating down under clear blue skies for day after day you'll mostly find yourself sharing a telerifique with a number you can count on your fingers. The iconic Aiguille du Midi was even only half way to its capacity on a gloriously warm and cloudless afternoon.
The Mont Blanc Multi Pass is the key to exploring the Chamonix valley's mountains, covering almost all of the telephiques along with the rack railways to Montenevers and the Mer de Glace and the famous Tramway du Mont-Blanc. Available in either consecutive or non-consecutive days from 1 to 15 it's not cheap, and may well be your largest single expense, but the savings over individual tickets and the side benefits of less queuing and need for reservations make it almost essential. We'd recommend the non-consecutive days pass, which although a little more expensive means you're not losing money if the weather means the lifts are closed. Equipped with a 3, non-consecutive, day pass each for the week it allowed us rest days in between trips up high to check out the museums and culture of a town celebrating 150 years since the Golden Age of Alpinism and it was only on the last day we used the last day of the passes.
Aiguille du Midi
Almost the unofficial symbol of Chamonix the Aiguille du Midi is a wonder of human engineering, perched 3777m high and overlooking the town. Even in early September it's the main draw with tourists, climbers and paragliders queing for its departure every half hour. Split into two separate lifts the giant cable cars that can carry up to 61 people first take you to the Plan du Aiguille, where paragliders launch themselves over the valley, then on to the mind blowing summit complex. Here an intricate collection of stairways take you higher and higher to viewpoints from every angle, with panoramas of the Mont Blanc Massif at close range and climbers on the iconic Arete des Cosmiques, 9000ft above the valley floor before they step off the rock and into the jumble of ironmongery and concrete that provide the foundations for the cafes, museums and gift shops that adorn the twin spires of the Aiguille du Midi.
Crossing between the two spires, (aiguille means pinnacle) a footbridge takes you to both the climbers exit through an atmospheric "ice cave" and one of the more recent and extreme Chamonix experiences, Le Pas dans le Vide or Step into the Void. Here you can step out into a 2.5m glass box perched on the side of the rock pinnacle with 1000m of space below your feet.
Montenvers and Mer de Glace
The Mer de Glace and its rack and pinion railway to Montenvers, together with the "Grotte de Glace" which takes you into the heart of the glacier, is another of the long time honeyspots, but with time limitations and upsetting stories about the state of the glacier it skipped our itinery this time. The “Grotte de glace” is re-sculpted every year, and it describes the life of mountain people in the early 19th century. Accessed either by a walk of around 20 minutes on a footpath, or by gondola, there's more than 400 steps from the lift station to the entrance to the cave to negotiate.....both down and then back up again! The complete tour (including the cave and travelling time) takes an average of 2 to 3 hours and from Montenvers, with its late 19th century hotel, you can walk across to Plan de l'Aiguille if you'd rather stretch your legs than return by train.
Planpraz and Le Brevent
From Chamoix a gondola climbs the north side of the valley to Plan Pratz at 1999m from where a cable car crosses to Le Brevent at 2525m. Dominating the view north from the centre of town the gondola climbs in an almost straight line from the town itself to the plateau of Planpraz. Here trails head out in every direction with well worn paths to Lake Cornu and Grand Balcon Sud along with a trail along the valley side to La Flegere, but it's probably for its take-off area for paragliders that Plan Praz is best known. For climbers a short stroll from the cable car station at Le Brevent brings you to the Plaques du Brévent where you can climb in peace and a warm September sun while facing Mont Blanc.
Less well known than the Aiguille du Midi but no less impressive the views from the 3300m high Grand Montets were a highlight of the week. Departing late morning from Argentiere (accessible by train with your Carte d'hote) we shared the cable car with just 4 people and the operator as we climbed first to Lognan and then the summit station of Grand Montets itself. Here another series of iron stairways take you ever upwards until you breakout onto the top platform with incredible views of the Argentiere Glacier from its headwall to almost its terminal moraine.
Surrounded by the Dru and a line of pinnacled peaks in early September it's alpine beauty at its highest. Without the crowds of the Aiguille du Midi you can while away the hours watching the adventurous play below, learning the essentials of crossing a glacier, crevasse rescue and ice climbing. A 2500m2 area of snowfield is maintained year-round where you can walk safely on the snow between hot chocolates in the solitary summit cafe.
When the weather closes in
When the weather closes in, the lifts stop. With winds upwards of 100kmph and snowfalls of 20cm plus even in September there are inevitably going to be days when you're restricted to the valley floor; this is the time to check out some amazing museums. Mountaineering is central to Chamonix and naturally dominates when it comes to museums with the The Musée Alpin, the Exposition Alpinism and the Aiguille du Midi's Museum of Alpinism amongst them.
For the 150th Anniversarry celebrations the Alpine Club has loaned the Musée Alpin a collection of 19th century paintings and etchings from some of the classic names of mountaineering history including Edward Whymper originals. The Musée Alpin is very much in the classical tradition of museums as befits its impressive setting in the former Chamonix Palace; it's very much no touching, no photography, no speaking louder than the faintest whisper type of museum.
In total contrast the Exposition Alpinism adjoining the Musée des Cristaux at the Espace Tairraz is a stunningly modern and hands-on museum where you can spend hours. Here you can look closely at historical routes, rotating maps on touchscreens with linked videos tracing the routes up the Eiger, The Dru, The Grand Jorasses and more. You can look at and touch the tools from boots and packs from ancient to modern and try your hand at knot tying.
Step onto the simulator and try following a classic climb with motion sensors detecting your hand and foot movements or get a birds-eye view of climbers approaching a summit. The classic names from Whymper and Croz through Cassin, Messner and Bonnington to Desterville and Steck are given their due respect in a line up of alpinism from start to present and at the end of the average 90 minute visit the chances are you'll want to go around again. At between €4 and €5.50 (there's reductions available for a whole range of reasons) it's not only quite possibly the best alpine museum in the world but also fantastic value.
The Musée des Cristaux in the same building as the Exposition Alpinism is a superb collection of crystals, primarily from Mont Blanc and the surrounding area, combined with explanations of how it was "crystal hunting" that first brought wealth to Chamonix and how Mont Blanc and the Alps were formed. With text in English alongside the French (as in the Exposition Alpinism) it's aimed at just the right level to give the basics clearly and you leave feeling you've actually learned something from a visit.
Well where do you starts? If there's a European or even World adventure capital then Chamonix must have a very strong claim. The birthplace of alpine climbing, mecca for paragliding, home of the legendary Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, Mountain Biking hub or hill walking heaven there's not much you can't do in the valley between the seasons. Throw in kayaking and white water rafting and you really don't need to wait for the ski season.
So with cheap airfares, no crowds and good weather is there anywhere better you be in just 3 or 4 hours (including transfers)?