Sunday, 20 March 2016 15:30

A Winter Week in the Alps

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In a follow up to the article The MyOutdoors Guide to Chamonix between the seasons from Dave and James, one of our Mountaineering Team, Alan 'Tosh' McIntosh and his wife Sam, headed for the Alps earlier this year. Alan describes how they developed their Alpinism skills from Ice Climbing to Snowshoeing to an Introduction to Skiing with details of the areas they visited and some costs associated with their experiences.

Day 1 arrive in Chamonix via Geneva,

Best way to Chamonix is via Geneva, approx. 2 hour flight from the UK, then hire one of the many transfer buses (before you land as you can’t book at Geneva) for a 1.5hr hop to Chamonix (I’ve used Alpybus each time and they seem very good). You can either pay in advance or pay the driver but if you opt for the latter make sure and take Euros with you as Geneva ATM’s do not give out Euros to non-Swiss residents. Rough costs is 55 Euros each way.

Accommodation wise there is lots to choose from but Winter (November – May) is ski season so prices tend to be higher than Summer (June – October). Options include Air BnB or you can opt for one of the hotels. We chose Hotel Alpina this time (booked via Booking.com) and it was almost center of town so has easy access to everything and even a local ski hire company connected for discounts. A room in winter can cost £30 a night if you use Air BnB or £100 a night upwards for a hotel.

Cham is a vibrant town so if you are staying centrally be ready for the odd late night music disturbance or “Happy” reveller in the streets but it’s not too bad – you can always join in!

Chamonix Fly 4

The town is small and you can easily walk around it end to end. Outdoor shops are abundant and there are a great spectrum of bars and places to eat. We can highly recommend Big Horn in Cham Sud - a new arrival (but great!),  Moo Bar  and a lunch time favorite  Boccalatte and , other favorites for drink and buzz are Elevation and Bistro du Sport (climbing/skiing videos on a loop) – I highly recommend Mt Blanc beer , especially the Vert (green one) with added Genepi!

Check-in done first thing to do is check the weather and avalanche forecast for the next day – one way is via the Chamonix app available for Android and iOS , or check your hotel lobby for postings. The Chamonix Website and apps include webcams, lift times (needed if you plan to go up the mountain) and ski information. Access to the Vallee Blanche area for hiking/climbing is via the Aiguille du Midi lift and with a top station and restaurant at 3842m elevation it’s a great place to start your acclimatisation and get some awesome views!

Chamonix AdM1

Day 2 Weather reports and what to do

With a day on our own before we were linking up with our guide for a few days climbing we took one look at the weather and decided to stay in the valley and maybe take in some local sights. Sam (my wife and climbing partner) needed new boots so we took the opportunity to hire a car (Europcar in Chamonix, opposite the station, is very good but go in person, the website is not up to date) and head to a nearby town called Sallanches to visit the outdoor “mega store Vieux Campeur.

Prices are a bit cheaper than UK and Chamonix town and the range can be bigger so it’s a good idea if you need kit and can drive.  The outdoor stores in Cham do stay open until about 7.30 pm though so last minute grabs are easy. Never worry about not having gear with you, you can buy everything in Cham!

From there we parked in Sallanches lovely town centre and had a walk around for a bit before grabbing a late lunch and then heading back to Chamonix to relax and prep for the next day.

Day 3 Ice Climbing in Cogne

Ice is fickle so our guide James Thacker had a personal challenge finding us routes that were in condition and accessible given the bad weather in Chamonix Valley. The answer was Cogne on the Italian side of Mt Blanc so off through the tunnel we headed (Carry your passport at all times as border guards are on high alert these days). If you want good routes and no crowds get up early so at 6am we are grabbing coffee and pastry in a bakery before arriving at Valnontey valley to access Patri a WI3/4 graded route. The walk in was beautiful, deep snow making it inevitably comical at times but at last we reach the route base (avoiding protected nesting areas marked by signs).

We geared up and managed a couple of great pitches, taking out indoor ice wall practice outdoor and it paid off. Bullet hard ice and amazing views made for a super days climbing. Patri splits at the top to Patri a droite (right) and Patri a gauche (Left) so plenty options. Bolted belay points makes abbing off simple once finished. A great intro to WI (Water Ice) climbing.

Day over it’s the walk back out, drive back to Chamonix and a beer and sleep ready for the next days climbing!

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Beautiful walk in and out

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Topping out of the first pitch of Patri.

Day 4 Ice climbing in Lillaz valley,

Today was more ice. Given the desire for a shorter (non-Scottish!) walk in we initially headed for the left of Lillaz Valley where a cascading waterfall freezes to form a superb multi-pitch route almost 10 minutes from the car. Sadly the rising temperatures has rendered it unclimbable for now so we turned around and headed across the valley to Lillaz Gully. After a steep push up the hill we arrived at a stunning twisting, narrow gully full of cascade ice and snow pitches. Steeper and a bit tougher than Patri it made for amazing climbing into the afternoon. The full route runs to around 8 pitches however time means we only did a few before backing off, just as some small avalanches were starting as well as darker clouds creeping up the valley. As we reached the car the first rain drops started so we timed it well.

Picture below of James starting off on pitch 1 of Lillaz Gully (WI4), looking back down the gully.

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Day 5 Snow shoeing around Les Houches, Le Prarion

Our climbing objectives pretty much done and continuing tough weather meant we opted for a more “relaxing” next day. A great way to see the Chamonix Valley and have a real alpine experience (if you don’t ski) is to snow shoe (or Raquette as the French call it)!

Hiring snow shoes is very cheap (roughly 7 euros a day) so we grabbed a pair each and headed to the next village of Les Houches to hit the snow shoe trails. There are raquette trails all over the valley and we grabbed a pass at Les Houches for a day (around 24 euros) and headed up the ski lift to head off. The falling snow, trees and thick ground covering meant we entered a world of quiet, white enchantment – think Narnia without the weird animals. Walking in such thick snow is almost impossible but the snow shoes make it easy and you can cover a lot of ground pretty fast. It was superb, great fun and on our way to the summit of Le Prarion (1860m) we stopped to practice some avalanche search skills. Learning how to use a transceiver, getting a shovel and probe out and ready in under a minute - and some guidance on types of snow pack formation, temperature gradients, and crystal formations  (Alp’s vs Scotland) as well as basic but essential rescue tips.

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A highlight of the day was a top on descent at an amazing little find called Les Vielles Luge, just off the piste it’s a tiny but amazing restaurant. Its somehow manages to pack lots of skiers in to a tiny place but in comfort, the staff are brilliant , the atmosphere very friendly and the food and drinks delicious (think hot chocolate with rum and strawberry cheesecake as well as traditional fare). Small, wooden and with mountain paraphernalia round the walls it was a great respite from walking.

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Approaching Les Vielles Luge

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The alpine interior

After eating and drinking our fill it was time to get the snow shoes back on and head off down the mountain to finish our day.

Day 6 Skiing for beginners at Les Houches,

It was our last day so we had to make it count.

One benefit of social media is making new friends and we have now forced some great friendships in Chamonix with some amazing and inspirational people. Two of which, Steve and Menna, were kind enough to offer to teach us to ski. As I’m slightly older than 25, learning to hurtle down a slope at high speed on 2 planks was daunting but it was well overdue and if I plan to gain entry to more challenging climbs skiing would be essential so off we went.

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The planks, Sam and I looking the part

A quick stop into the ski hire shop at Hotel Alpine saw us fitted out in boots, skis, poles and a helmet for less than 30 euros! Steve picked us up at 8.30 and we headed to Les Houches once more and up the ski lift (a day pass is around 45 euros). Steve is a superb skier and mountaineer while Menna has recently learned so we had benefit of experience and someone who remembers what it’s like to learn, and under their expert tutelage and after a few tumbles, scary turns and frustration at 4 year olds flying past us we soon managed to enjoy ourselves. By the end of the day we were getting more confident, the ski lift operators even coached us each time we clambered on!   

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Les Houcehes offers all garded of run as well as nursery slopes so is ideal for beginners an more experuecend skiers alike! The mountain backdrops prvide a stunning atmoshpere and we had a truly excelelnt day. Late afternoon we decided it was time to head off so while Sam and I jumped back on the ski lift Steve and Menna opted for a more direct route, with Steve taking the black run directly under the lift so we could watch him in awe!

Ski lessons now booked for more! If you want to find out more about Steves incredible story look out for the forthcoming film Magentic Mountains - http://www.magneticmountains.com/

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What a backdrop!

Alan McIntosh is an aspiring mountaineer who together with his wife now travels to climb and hike across Scotland and Europe and has recently competed the Big Hex Mountain challenge where he and his team set the official and current time record. For more info contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or see his tweets at McLovinTheMountains.

Read 1192 times Last modified on Saturday, 02 April 2016 15:52
Davy Wright

Most at home in the outdoors, preferably on top of something big and pointy. Scotland is Davy's playground, which is why he doesn’t mind getting wet. But winter is where it’s at. Hiking, scrambling, camping and a bit of climbing when I can. Sucker for a ridge. At a lower altitude he try getting out on his bike and run if he has to.

Davy describes himself as "a bit of a gear geek, maybe less of the bit. I like to see how things work or don’t!" In following this line Davy has become a respected and authoritative blogger over the last few years, working with many of the UK's major manufacturers and retailers.

Preferred activities: Hillwalking, camping, scrambling, trying to get better at climbing/ice climbing, cycling/mountain biking

Areas commonly visited: Lochaber, Cairngorms, Lake District