You may find these links useful for more information about Chamonix itself:
A little bit of Chamonix’s history
The Chamonix Valley has long-since attracted visitors from around the world, particularly since Windham and Pococke made their “Journey to the Glacières” in 1741. Famous English visitors from the 19th century include Dickens, Turner, Wordsworth and Mary Shelley who wrote of Chamonix in her novel Frankenstein:
The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence-and I ceased to fear or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise. Still as I ascended higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character (…) augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings.
First mentioned as a early as 1091, Chamoniards have been grinding out a tough living for a thousand years and still have a pride that can never be diluted by any changes to the social structure of the valley. And to paraphrase Shelly once more: while “ephemeral because, human, sorrows” may come and go, “nought changes in those savage and enduring scenes”. This is interestingly demonstrated in the photography of Tairraz and Gay-Couttet, immortalising the Chamonix of old where only mountains and churches are recognisable. You may meet several foreign people in one night out in Chamonix, but like the shops, the crowd changes. On the other hand, if you become friends with a Chamoniard the friendship will likely endure like the mountains, the spirit of which runs through the veins of all Chamoniard families.
Chamonix hosted the very first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, testament to its strong alpine tradition. The valley is still a showcase of French prestige with the daring Aiguille du Midi cable car (longest free-standing cable car in the world-3.1km) built in 1955 by local guides carrying cables by hand under the guidance of ambitious engineers. The Aiguille du Midi attracts many tourists throughout the year, many just for the views but also for skiing the Valley Blanche and other off-piste, glaciated off-piste itineraries. It’s not for the faint-hearted, I’ve seen grown men reduced to dribbling wrecks trying to get down the ridge on their own, having not understood or ignored the warning signs…Mountaineers start many ascents from here as well, including expeditions to the summit of Mont Blanc at 4807m- underestimate at your peril.
Back in the 19th century, the Mont Blanc was also in the sights of ambitious engineers who wanted to bring tourists to the very summit by train from Les Houches. They didn’t make it to the summit because of the moving ice and unfavourable working conditions but the vestigial Tramway de Mont Blanc still takes mountaineers and tourists up high enough to get a good view or a good head start on the summit. Incidentally, it was during this attempted construction (and that of the observatory planned for the summit) that the science of glaciology was born and studies into the effects of altitude were carried out. This was when scientists carrying out surveys first had to think about how glaciers work and in particular, how they move. The observatory on the summit was abandoned because no scientist could stay at that altitude and getting there was obviously an issue.
In local folklore, glaciers were where dragons lived and who could blame them for believing it. Apart from their dragon-like, ridge-backed appearance, many adventurers went up there never to return. Before the end of the last mini ice age in the 1850s, glaciers were a real threat to human settlements, grinding down the valleys towards their houses and churches where believers prayed for clemency from the spirits that inhabited the glaciers. Back then, they were truly an embodiment of omnipotence and although they have retracted away from the valley, they still demand the respect of those in close contact with them and their capricious nature. Of course, avalanches and serac falls are some of the most spectacular natural phenomenon you could hope to see (from a great distance) in the mountains of Chamonix.
These days, Chamonix is a cosmopolitan town, flooded with talented sports people and hedonists who come for the lifestyle that the mountains provide. The climber Mark Twight dubbed the valley the death-sport capital of the world, and that was long before speed riding and wingsuiting became commonplace in the valley!
Redefining the extreme, Chamonix has always been at the forefront of limit pushing so its no surprise that the people you meet here might seem a little bit out there. Just try not to get sucked into anything beyond your ability and you are free to explore your own limits.
There is too much to say about Chamonix, and its past history is as interesting as the feats that take place on a daily basis. The bibliotheque has a wealth of resources for those down days…
Events and Surrounding area
Chamonix itself has quite a busy events schedule, full details of which can be found at http://www.chamonet.com/events/main.html
The main ones are the Kandahar World Cup ski race, the Freeride World Tour, Cosmo Jazz Festival and The Ultratrail.
The Chamonix valley really opens up in the non-skiing season and it’s really easy to go on excursions out of the valley if you have a car.
Some suggestions for this would be:
Switzerland is just over the mountains….
Montreux Jazz Festival (1 hour),
Paleo Music Festival, Nyon (1.5 hours)
Geneva (1 hour), another great little city for shopping, wine by the lake or just soaking up the atmosphere. There’s also a major Car Show there.
Refuge de St Bernard (2 hours), lovely drive up the valleys past Verbier up to the monastery where the famous dogs used to help rescue avalanche victims. There is great hiking opportunities here and you can have a bowl of soup and even stay in the monastery.
Verbier (1.25 hours) winter for skiing, summer for the Tour de France.
The must-see here is Annecy, a beautiful, romantic old city on an azure blue lake, well worth the 1-hour drive.
Through the tunnel in Italy:
The Italian Riviera
Italy is also just through the tunnel (only 35 mins but quite costly). Courmayeur is great in winter (see winter sports section) and there’s great walking and climbing in the Val Ferret and the historic city of Aosta is just 30 minutes further down towards Turin, which is 2 hours from Chamonix. The Italian Riviera is only 3 hours away and could make a beautiful onward destination from Chamonix and the Alps.