Our most recent trip was a bit of a last minute affair. We had been keeping an eye on the snow conditions, and reports revealed record breaking amounts of snow falling across the Alps. This was too good an opportunity to miss. Plans were hatched over a couple of beers in our local (as most are) and the wheels were set in motion for an early season van trip to Chamonix.
We hastily booked the van into our local garage to swap our tyres for something more appropriate for winter driving. We opted for Goodyear 4 Seasons rather than full on winter tyres. These would give us a better drive throughout the year, and still give us better traction in winter conditions. We ordered a set of snow chains in case things got super gnarly, secretly hoping we’d never have to use them.
We created a makeshift snowboard rack by removing two of the bars on the bike rack. This provided more room in the van, and made the journey much more comfortable. The journey down was, again, quite straight forward. We set off at noon and caught an early evening Eurotunnel crossing. We arrived early and were offered an earlier departure. Eurotunnel don’t tend to hold you to your departure time, unless you’re travelling during peak times. We’ve often been allocated an earlier crossing when we’ve turned up early. Likewise, we’ve never had a problem when arriving late.
We arrived safely on the other side and powered on for a few hours, striking another couple of hundred miles off the journey. When the driving began to take its toll, we pulled in to an aire around Troyes. We woke early the next day, fuelled the van, and continued our journey south.
We arrived in Chamonix with limited accommodation options. The only campsite open during the winter months was les Deux Glaciers. Located in les Bossons, the site is a couple of miles out of town. That said, the site is perfectly set up for winter camping. It has a heated, subterranean sanitaire, a drying room and a place to store snowboards and skis. The main selling point, however, is the view. The site is situated beneath the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers with the Grandes Jorasses rising above in the background.
We parked up and checked in. Having a smaller van, we were allocated a smaller pitch towards the top of the site. The snow was falling faster than they could shift it, so we decided it was time to break out the snow chains. They went on without a problem and I tentatively crept up the road towards our pitch. Driving in snow with chains was new to me, and it took a while to get the hang of it. We eventually arrived at our pitch, managed to get set up before dusk, and enjoyed the Alpenglow fade on the Grandes Jorasses.
Same, but different
Given the conditions, there were a couple of things we needed to do differently. We wouldn’t be able to use the awning, and putting the roof up was out of the question. Cold and snow aside, I was worried about the moving parts freezing up. This reduced the amount of living space considerably. We were also concerned about how the butane would work in freezing temperatures, so we had our trusty propane fuelled JetBoil on stand-by.
With temperatures plummeting to -20 degrees, we needed every bit of kit we owned to get through the night. We had a 3 season down sleeping bag for colder trips, and a 2 season bag each for summer camping. We used the lot, with an extra couple of fleece blankets to plug the gaps and help keep the cold out. Nighttime trips to the sanitiare were a hassle, so we avoided drinking before bed. We kept a 1.5l widemouth Nalgene bottle close to hand, in case the urge to go became too strong. In the event of such an emergency, we’d have a nice hot water bottle to pop into the sleeping bag (although Ka-Wai was less keen).
The first morning
We awoke on the first morning to find the van covered by a soft layer of fresh snow. I warmed the van to a bearable temperature using the remote controlled heater. This has proved to be useful in the past but it really paid off on this trip. I crawled from beneath my down cocoon, dug the kettle out and began to fill it. The water pump kicked in and then, silence. It slowly dawned on me that the water in the tank had frozen solid, and I had managed to burn out the pump.
Luckily, we keep 5 litres of water on board and managed to get a brew on without having to leave the van. After a breakfast of hot porridge, croissants and fresh bread, we got ready for our first day on the slopes. We took the bus to Les Houches, bought our 5 day lift passes, and headed up the Prarion gondola.
Riding in Chamonix
Chamonix has 4 main ski areas, if you include Les Houches. Le Tour sits at the top of the valley on the French /Swiss border. Consisting of mainly green and blue pistes, Le Tour provides access to some incredible off piste. Despite the superb early season conditions, we erred on the side of caution and stuck to the excellent off-piste within the ski boundaries.
Further down the valley, Les Grands Montets offers a broad range of pistes, suitable for all abilities. Keener skiers won’t have to venture too far to access some incredible off-piste should the conditions allow it. Les Grands Montets tops out at 3275m and is accessible from the top of the Lognan cable car. During the peak season, Argentière is home to the Les Grands Montets snowpark.
The largest of the 4 areas is Brevant and Flégere (technically two areas but lift-linked so one in my book). Brevant is accessed via the Plan Praz bubble, conveniently located in Chamonix. The Flégere cable car services the Flégere area from Les Praz. With a south facing aspect, Flégere is the first place to suffer when the temperatures begin to rise towards the end of the season. Following the recent storms and cold weather, the area was in perfect condition, and we were able to ride the home run for the first time ever.
Les Houches lies at the bottom of the valley. Tree lined runs make it the go-to destination on overcast days. It’s also home to the legendary Kandahar / La Verte piste, the only slope approved for a World Cup in Haute Savoie, and the venue for the Kandahar World Downhill Ski Championships. A park can be found on the back side of Les Houche, but it was yet to make an appearance with it being so early in the season. My snowpark fix would have to wait until our next trip!
Other areas of note include Planards and the mighty Vallée Blanche. Planards is a small slope, easily accessible from the centre of Chamonix. 4 ski lifts carry beginners up the slopes, providing access to a blue and a red piste.
The Aiguille du Midi rises above the clouds at 3842m, providing access to the Vallée Blanche. This is an unmarked, unmaintained and un-patrolled high mountain off-piste ski itinerary. Not for the uninitiated, expert skiers can chose from a number of routes over the glacier. The route clocks in at 13 miles with a vertical descent of 2700m, dropping skiers off at the Montenvers train station. This is crevasse territory, so unless you know where you’re going, take a guide. Early season conditions on the glacier scuppered our chances of riding it this year, but gave us a perfect excuse to return in the future.
Off the slopes
Chamonix has a lot going on, with loads of restaurants and bars. Our options were limited however, as we had arrived just before peak season. Buses were operating on a reduced timetable and the last bus to les Bossons left at 8pm. This was not a problem for us. We walked it a couple of times but were were more than happy to jump on the last bus most nights.
There is plenty to do during the day, with all kinds of restaurants and shops geared heavily towards an outdoor audience. The Aiguille du Midi lift is open to non-skiers, and definitely worth a look. The Montenvers train carries people up to the Mer de Glace, where the tour of the Grotte de Glace takes visitors into the very heart of the glacier.
This trip was an eye opener for us. You can learn a lot by doing your homework up front, but nothing beats actually getting out and getting it done. Living in such a small space in harsh conditions means you have to be super organised. Not everything is going to pan out the way you want it. Normally that’s OK, but in these conditions, it’s good to have a backup. We would’ve struggled without our JetBoil towards the end of the trip, when the cold finally rendered our butane gas supply useless.
Visiting just outside of the season had it’s disadvantages. Fewer transport options were available to us. Snowparks were not yet built and some areas remained inaccessible despite the recent snowfall. These mere inconveniences were vastly offset by the fact that the resort was quieter than we’d ever known it. We never queued for a lift, which is almost unheard of in Cham. We had no problem getting into restaurants which are normally booked up days in advance during busier periods, and we had the campsite to ourselves for the majority of the week.
Despite the challenges we faced along the way, this was one of the most satisfying trips to date. It was tough at times, but this only made the rewards even sweeter. We’ve only been back a couple of days, yet we’re already longing to be back in our frozen van in the mountains. This may have been our first snowy adventure but we know for sure, it won’t be our last.