Chamonix, part of Haute-Savoie region in Southern-Eastern France is a trip long-awaited for. With enough qualifying points and after 2 years of applying into Ultra Trail Mont Blanc CCC ultra trail-running race (101km 6000m positive change in 26 hours 30 minutes), I finally got lucky in the draw for August 2015 race. This trip was a look-and-see visit and to get as much as hill training possible given how flat pancake Dubai is. Here is quick share of SOTG’s experience in the ‘death sports capital of the world’.
Chamonix vs Queenstown
Never been to Europe’s alpine and ski town – prompted moi to wonder what is Chamonix like.
Previous resident of down under (more than a decade length), I have always proud of Queenstown, in South Island New Zealand – being the mecca for adventure seekers and its surrounding mountains part of Southern Alps made famous by the Lord Of The Ring films trilogy.
Chamonix is not just the French Alps, it’s home to the vast and tallest Alps of them all-the Mont Blanc (means ‘White Mountain’ at 4,810 m) which is also the highest peak in Europe. The town nestles in a big valley and home to some of the highest and best concentration of glaciers, alpine ice and rock route in the planet. The fast gondola ride and air lift (cable cars or chair lift) bring quick access to the high mountains – to nature that is otherwise inaccessible.
Chamonix has one of the highest cable cars in the world, which links the town to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi at 3842 m. Easy access to Italy, Switzerland and Italy are added advantages.
Queenstown on the other hand is a town by Lake Wakatipu (a long Z-shaped lake formed by glacial processes). Skifields are a bit of a drive from Queenstown compared to Chamonix and on-mountain accommodation is not very common. Hence, the ski-in and ski-out is rare in New Zealand despite the world-class facilities. But during summer in Chamonix, what is missing after a long day of hiking and trail-running in high mountain is indeed a dip in the lake – just how summer is enjoyed in Queenstown.
History wise Chamonix went back to 11th century, one of the oldest ski resorts in France, recorded first ascent to Mt Blanc in 1786 and hosted first Winter Olympic in 1924. Queenstown came in a bit later – where the Maori first discovered in 18th century and with discovery of gold, it attracted Europen settlements. Now, Queenstown host bi-annual New Zealand Winter Games.
Gain altitude and smell the mountain air
Three consecutive days spent on running and hiking on selected routes – the combination of last third part of race day UTMB route (which going to be experienced in dark based on race projection) and some touristy scenic trails.
Guided with map in pockets, warm clothes and rain-jacket in case of changes in weather, sufficient food supply, easy water access from fresh stream, taking note of last chain lift and bus service of the day; the trail running around Chamonix, its surrounding villages (Servoz, Les Houches, Argentière, and Vallorcine) and UTMB route can be enjoyed smoothly. The refuges (huts) are also handy for quick bite and rest.
Among highlights are getting up-close and personal with retreating glacier where melting sound can be heard, crossing Swiss border on foot, bumping into fast runners who were also on training (though no sight of Kilian), overtook a group of hikers who wondered why we ran not hike, wonderful alpine forest scent at lower altitude and picking fresh berries like the local do.
Savoyard and Fresh Market
Not prepare to consume all the rich starchy and cheesy that this region is famous for called Savoyard cooking (Fondue, Raclette and Tartiflette) – as it is important to eat healthy during the training. Summer is long (sunset 9pm) and hot (not like Dubai desert scorch), so the taste bud is more inclined for clean and refreshing meal with a bit of carbohydrate and protein.
There are plenty of eating options in the town centre which can be enjoyed while people watching (of who’s and who’s among elite), witness the majestic panorama, and if lucky view of paragliders hovering over sky. Purchase at the local fresh market certainly guarantee a high quality produce like cheeses and dried meats (every Saturday morning at Place du Mont Blanc).
Stay tune on the food department as SOTG will return to Chamonix in August with exciting foodie adventures. You can read here.
From Chanel to Salomon
Well, this is not Dubai Mall – though there is Chanel boutique as well as other specialty shops. Salomon’s shoes wearers are sighted mostly everywhere in the town centre. Given the active lifestyle and nature at its best, Chamonix is heaven for skiers, hikers, ice-climbers, mountaineers, and trail-runners alike where outdoor and sport shops offer quality gears and clothing of most brands that catered for this niche customers. Sales staff offer technical advice of the products which lead to enjoyable and educational shopping experiences. Well-informed buying decision can be made based on pros and cons given. Chamonix also a testing and promotional ground for some of the big brands. SOTG recommended shops are: Ravanel (friendly know-how staff and shop offers liquidation sale, so most UTMB mandatory gears were purchased here), The-North-Face-Shop, Salomon (small but must visit), Lafuma Shop, Snell Sports (massive shop for climbers), Mammut, Ice Breaker, Patagonia, Intersport, Boadriders Quicksilver, and Quecha.
FLIGHTS: We flew from Dubai to Zurich (a 7 hours flight), then to Geneva (another 45 minutes) with Swiss Airline. From Geneva Airport (GVA), a smooth MountainDropoffs door to door service to and from Chamonix is about one hour via motorway.
GETTING AROUND: Highly recommended to obtain Carte d’Hôte pass from accommodation host – that has many advantages including free travel on buses and SNCF trains. With this pass, you can get around free with Month Blanc Express (SNCF line from Servoz to Vallorcine), Chamonix bus (from Servoz to Le Tour) and Le Mulet or mini bus (for travel around the Chamonix centre).
ACCOMMODATION: We stayed at Hotel Alpina in a room with a view of city centre, high looming mountain, waterfall and sound of river Arve flowing. Convenient location given close proximity to bus stops and just across from the Saturday fresh market. There are plenty of other options from camping, self-catering unit, budget, mid to high-end.
This trip is not possible without the guide and help of Stephen Turner from Dubai Creek Striders – an experience runner and frequent flyer to Chamonix.
The return to sandpit accompanied with burning quad (credit to the endless elevation), slight niggle in the knees (thanks to painful downhill), nevertheless high dose of spirit to return and desire to finish the race strong.
Very keen to return and experience winter in Chamonix. Surely the buzz and charm is different to hot, long and relax summer. Surely the trails cover with powdery white snow are an invitation for another kind of adventure in the alpine.
When I farewelled Chamonix, jazz music was in the air marking the beginning of Cosmo Jazz Festival. Imagine trail running or cable car ride with background from jazzy sound of brass bar.
Have you visited Chamonix? Any other local or insider tips?