4.13.2016

First Impressions of Chamonix

So this is Chamonix I thought as I stared out my hotel room window at the tall and jagged mountains outside. Wow! Huge, rocky, icy, rugged, dramatic. So many superlatives and that was only one side of the valley.It was a "So this is Yale" moment for sure.

Chamonix was where I'd meet my group before heading off on the Gran Paradiso hut tour. From here, it is an easy drive through the Mt. Blanc tunnel and our starting point in Italy's Val d'Aosta.

After hearing about Chamonix for years it was a thrill to be there for the first time. My stay was cut short due to travel delays so my time to check things out was limited. Upon arrival, I decided that exploration would have to wait as rest was a must. A two hour nap turned into four hours and probably could have gone on for much longer but I forced myself out of bed in an effort to re-align my sleep pattern with the local time. It was time to hit the town.

Here are some initial impressions...

The Mountains
Gralcier, Chamonix, France
As seen from hotel room
They are huge. The town is situated at 3,264 feet and the tallest peak, Mt. Blanc, rises to 15,777 feet. It is hard to make out where the skiing is this time of year. The snow line is several thousand feet above the valley floor and even if it were lower, the mountains are extremely steep. Trees, rocks and ice dominate so it's hard to envision a traditional ski shot. But great skiing is up there accessed by a series of lifts and trams with names we have all heard of; Aiguille du Midi, Grands Montets, Argentiere and many others.

A huge glacier can been seen from my hotel room window. It's massive bulk tumbles down the mountain and comes much closer to the valley floor than I would have expected. It's an enormous sheet of ice in striking shades of blue and grey. My photo above does not do it justice as the day was cloudy but I imagine you'd have to be quite a good photographer to capture the glacier in all its glory even in the best light.The blue-grey ice is dull and muted yet stunning and other-worldly at the same time. It had me captivated.

The sight of the glacier reminded me that I was no longer in the Northern Rockies. While we have excellent mountains to explore at home, they pale in comparison to the beasts that loom up from Chamonix's valley floor. Intricate glacier travel is absent from even the most rugged mountains in the Northern Rockies so mountain travel around Chamonix takes on a whole other dimension of risk and required knowledge.

The Amenities
As for the town itself, it is a shopping and gastronomic paradise. The narrow streets are filled with cafes, pubs, boulangeries and all other forms of eating and drinking establishments. Many of these places are located in a car-free pedestrian zone known as High Street. Temperatures were cool with a steady breeze the day I went exploring but that did not stop piles of people from sitting at the outdoor tables to eat, drink and socialize.

Outdoor stores are everywhere in Chamonix and seemingly ordinary stores consist of several floors and are jam-packed with outdoor gear for all activities and seasons. It seems like every outdoor brand has a retail store here; Millet, Mammut, Icebreaker,The North Face, Patagonia, Hagslรถfs, the list goes on and on. Shop staff were friendly and welcoming but not overly so or in a phony way.  Between the abundance of high-tech gear available and the welcoming environment in the stores it was a nice change of pace from the outdoor retail environment at home.

As with any tourist town, Chamonix also boasts an abundance of lodging, souvenir shops, guide and tour companies, real estate agencies, clothing stores and the usual tourist establishments. Surprisingly, there is also a Chanel store but that was the only upscale designer brand I came across.

Chamonix, France
Mountain Charm
The Vibe
Like many mountain towns people and dogs are constantly out and about.  Fit looking folks can be seen everywhere lounging, walking, eating, socializing. People on mountain bikes and in ski gear pass by on a regular basis. Folks seemed pleasant and I didn't find there to be many loud mouthed poseurs or egomaniacs.

Chamonix has a few quaint old buildings and a nice church with a stunning mountain backdrop but I didn't find it to be overly charming. The town did not give me a warm, fuzzy "I have to move here" feeling like I sometimes get with some small mountain towns but it didn't have a contrived, strip-mall feel like other resort towns do.

Overall, my initial impressions of Chamonix are positive. There is no doubt it offers limitless opportunities for outdoor adventure and would be an excellent place to base yourself as a visitor or a resident. With an abundance of food, lodging and public transportation, Chamonix is a great and convenient location for the keen outdoor athlete.

Chamonix, France