The Sick and the Steep
Ice creams or ice axes?By Andrew Revitt
Walking down Rue Joesph Vallot in the centre of Chamonix you bump into legends. I’ve seen the spiky top of Glen Plake, Seth Morrison, Neil McNab, Scot Jurek and Kilian Jornet.
Chamonix is often sensationally referred to as “the death sport capital of the world”. On the surface it’s much the same as any ski town but out in the backcounty it’s different. Most resorts in the USA would have big warning signs all over the place. In the UK they would have fenced the whole place off.
In the height of the summer season, sitting in one of the many cafes, it’s easy to miss the constant buzz of the PGHM or Sécurité Civile helicopters heading up to over 4000m to rescue another person in trouble. Chamonix has a bespoke two helicopter landing pad and station. It’s always busy.
It’s easy to jump on a lift or take a train that whisks you up to 3 or 4000m without a problem. From that point things can get difficult quickly. Up at the top of the highest ski lift in Europe, the Aiguille du Midi, there is a little gate that you exit to the Vallee Blanche, a very long, unmarked double black ski run. It’s basically says once you go through this gate you are on your own. Good luck. This backcountry access is where it’s at for the skiers, snowboarders and climbers. The skiers and snowboarders come equipped with climbing gear.
Mountain biking takes a back seat but that’s not to say it’s not there. It’s been there for years. I’ve been riding the marked routes in the valley for 12 years. It’s not Whistler bike park by any stretch. Attempts have been made to create lift friendly tracks but without much success. There are some sweet trails, some superb singletrack and a lot of it sick and steep. It’s not unusual to come across a ladder or similar on these trails. A favourite ride, Le Merlet, the first section is a steep set of steps and a tiny singletrack littered with rocks and drops and a sign that says “Don’t stay in the couloir”. A massive drop to nothing on your right means walking this bit is often sensible. Those protective pads you can hire in the town won’t help you if you fall here.
Most of the trails are not super tech death though, although a mountain biker did die falling from the Petit Balcon Nord, a trail most people riding the valley use. This is very unusual. The big loop of the valley uses the Petit Balcon Sud and Petit Balcon Nord, some of which is off limit in July and August when local laws mean mountain bikes are limited to marked routes. It’s a great loop with lots of climbing and descending and a real variety of trails. Stunning views most of the way. Ride it in spring or autumn.
You can take your bike on most lifts except the Aiguille du Midi. It’s not always worthwhile though. Take the lift up to Lognan for some nice descents and switchbacks. Le Tour has some trails and you can access Vallorcine’s steep downhill track. Attempts at more bike park type areas have failed so far. Both at Flegere and Les Houches trails have been built and either abandoned or knocked down.
Chamonix’s local trails are great but as a base for exploring other areas it’s fantastic. Through the tunnel to Italy in 25 minutes, an hour over Col du Forclaz and you have all the riding in the Swiss Valais or Vaud. Less than an hour to the Portes du Soleil resorts. An hour to Les Arcs. I ride all the local trails and then do day trips to new or old places.
Chamonix has a buzz, a vibe, hidden to the day tripper and my word there are a lot, but it’s there under the surface. Looking at the faces in town you can see people are here for serious purposes. I’ve seen wingsuits fly into the valley, pull chutes and land just over the river. I’ve watched avalanche debris crash down onto the Grand Balcon Nord while walking up the river. I’ve seen boulders the size of trucks crash down into the forest while standing in the main car park. I’ve stood next to cracking seracs. I’ve flown through the Aiguelles in a helicopter that couple of years later crash landed on the Argentiere Glacier. I’ve been told to ‘catch the doctor’ by a Gendarme as he was winched down from their helicopter onto a 1m wide trail with a 600m drop on one side. So many stories. Chamonix feels like living, because you are so close to death.
This article originally appeared on a Medium.