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rini sugianto | 04.29.2019

In 1786, before the election of the first U.S. President and well before the colonization of western North America, Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard made the first ascent of 15,781-foot Mont Blanc, the "White Mountain," with gourds of brandy and a handful of bread. The event marks the beginning of modern mountaineering and put the little mountain town of Chamonix on the map as a destination for mountain adventure and innovation.

 


The Chamonix valley from Aiguille du Midi. Kevin Murray.

Chamonix is known for its daring history of adventurers, but you don’t have to be an alpine expert to climb in these iconic and ice-capped Alps. Among the technical glaciers here are ascents that are ideal for beginners and supported by Chamonix’s unrivaled alpine infrastructure. Picture this: the smell of fresh baked baguette, the sounds of locals preparing for the day, and a couple of mountaineers easily spotted walking along the quiet street with rope slings around their necks and ice axes across their packs, heading toward their climbing destination of the day.

While there is no shortage of routes in Chamonix, planning a climbing trip abroad can be a daunting task. A word of caution: The convenience and easy access of Mont Blanc and the rest of Chamonix can sometimes get inexperienced climbers into trouble. If you aren't comfortable or confident with your skills, hire a guide. If you have experience, but you aren’t sure whether your skills are adequate, hire a guide. There are plenty of guiding outfits available in Chamonix. As locals they are very knowledgeable of the terrain and the mountains.

That said, if you’re interested in planning a trip on your own, we’ve put together five alpine ascents in Chamonix that are great for beginners.

Alpine Access

Its established infrastructure sets Chamonix apart, and it isn’t unfathomable to get a butter croissant in the morning, climb all day, and come back for dinner in the evening. With its network of public buses, chairlifts, and gondolas, it's much easier for hikers and climbers to access alpine ascents.

  • In Chamonix proper, a network of mini-buses called Le Mulet (“The Mule”) provides fee-free transit within town. These buses run every 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the season) from 8:00 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. daily and service short routes within Chamonix.
  • Chamonix valley bus lines offer service between Servoz to the west and Le Tour to the east. With a Carte d’Hȏte, a “guest card” available to anyone staying in Chamonix, the valley bus lines are free.
  • A SNCF railroad network connects various parts of Chamonix valley, including Servoz, Les Houches, Chamonix, Argentière, and Vallorcine. Trains operate roughly every hour. With the Carte d’Hȏte, train service throughout Chamonix is free.

Most important for climbers, the Mont Blanc Express connects key access points in the Chamonix valley:

  • The Mont Blanc Tramway out of St. Gervais ascends to Nid d’Aigle, an important base camp for Mont Blanc Goûter route.
  • The Montenvers Train, departing from Chamonix, accesses a viewpoint of the Mer de Glace with alpine traverse trails to Plan de l’Aiguille.
  • Aiguille du Midi, departing from Chamonix and the highest alpine cable car system in the world, ascends to “the Needle of Mid-Day” via Plan de l’Aiguille, a stop midway through the route. From Aiguille du Midi, the Cosmiques Hut accesses alpine ascents via the south face of Aiguille du Midi.
  • The Brevent Cable Car, departing from Chamonix on the opposite side of the valley, accesses treks to Lake Cornu and the Grand Balcon.

With this kind of infrastructure, it's not unusual in Chamonix for climbs to start with a chairlift or a gondola to shorten the approach, and within a short hike you will arrive at the base of your climb. It does come with a price: Other climbers arrive at the same time. The more popular the route is, the more crowded it gets.

 


The view from the summit of Aiguille du Tour. Rini Sugianto.

Aiguille du Tour

For a warm up, most people usually start with climbs around Aiguille du Tour area that can be reached by free public bus from the city center to the town of Le Tour. Albert 1er Hut is a great base, especially for beginners, because there are many easy routes within a short distance of the hut, where you can stay for a couple days, get warm meals and a bed, and climb. Just a short 1 to 2 hours from the top of Charamillon lift, this fully stocked, modern hut with beds, a toilet, and cafe serves thousands of climbers each year.

 


Mont Blanc viewed from across the valley from Le Brevent on the Tour du Mont Blanc. Kevin Murray.

Mont Blanc

It is impossible to visit Chamonix without admiring Mont Blanc, and the climb, while it requires a high level of fitness and equipment experience, is not highly technical. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended for beginners to hire a responsible guiding service. Climbers typically choose the Gouter Hut route. This route is very popular, so it is a good idea to book the Goûter Hut, also known as Refuge du Goûter​​​​​, far in advance. Even though the climbing isn't technically challenging, the route is still dangerous, in particular from rock fall at Grand Couloir.

 


Overlooking Chamonix from Grand Balcon Nord. Rini Sugianto.

Alternatives Around Town

On your day off, start with a cup of coffee at La Jonction in the morning and head for a nice hike to Grand Balcon Nord​​​​​​. For lunch, meander to the Chalet Buvette de Caillet or Refuge du Plan de l'Aiguille—their pie is a must-try!—and enjoy the amazing view of the Mont Blanc massif.

If your body is still tired from all the climbing and all you want is to take it easy, take a lift to the top of Brevent and hang out at one of their patios overlooking Mont Blanc before heading back to the valley for dinner in town. While you’re waiting for a table, be sure to spare some time to check out the climbing stores that fill up the main street of Chamonix.

More Resources

Chamonix is small, and you can easily walk from one end to the other. For more information about sites and scenes, visit the tourist office in Chamonix for information about bus routes, a map, and more. Visit Chamonix.com for more information online.

For more mountaineering-specific information, the Office de Haute Montagne (“High Mountain Office”) office for route conditions, weather forecasts, and guide information. Chamonix is a unique town, where climbers and tourists coexist in the narrow path of Rue du Dr Paccard, where you can feel small wandering among mountains, risk your life doing what you love, and have a five-course dinner in town on the same day.

It doesn't matter what your skill level or your interest, whether in extreme sports or high-country hiking, the town has something for everyone, and that makes it a must-visit destination year round.

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