Fifty kilometres to the east of Annecy on the Swiss and Italian borders looms Mont Blanc (4807m), Western Europe’s highest peak. First climbed in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, two intrepid gentlemen from Chamonix, the mountain and its surrounding valleys are now the biggest tourist draw to the Alps.
The closest airport is in Geneva, but if you’re coming from France then Annecy is the easiest city from which to approach the mountain, and, of the two road routes, the one east via the Megève is the more picturesque. The two main approach roads to Mont Blanc come together at Le Fayet, a village just outside St-Gervais-les-Bains, where the Tramway du Mont Blanc begins its 75-minute haul to the Nid d’Aigle (2375m), a vantage point on the northwest slope. Experienced mountaineers can press on from here along the famous Goûter ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc itself.
If you are heading into Italy from Chamonix, the most direct road is the N205, which takes you south out of Chamonix, then through the 11.6km Mont Blanc Tunnel, and brings you out on the road to Aosta and Milan.
The bustling, cosmopolitan town of Chamonix (known officially as Chamonix-Mont-Blanc) is the primary French base for outdoor activities on or around Mont Blanc. “Cham” throngs with visitors throughout the year, and although it may have long since had its village identity submerged in a sprawl of tourist development, flashy restaurants and boutiques, the stunning backdrop of glaring snowfields, eerie blue glaciers and ridges of sharp peaks that surround Mont Blanc are ample compensation.
Naturally, the mountains provide the main sights and activities, but on days when the bad weather sets in, there are a few things to do in town. Otherwise, it’s a case of just chilling out in one of the town’s many convivial restaurants or bars.
Climbing Mont Blanc is not a task that should be undertaken lightly, as testified by the number of lives claimed by the mountain each year. It is a semi-technical climb and fast-changing weather conditions mean that a guide is essential. There are several different routes, the most popular of which is the Gouter ridge route (three days), which ascends from the Nid d’Aigle at the top of the Tranway du Mont Blanc. The best season for climbing the mountain is mid-June to September (when the majority of refuges are also open), but even in this period, it should only be attempted by fit, acclimatized and well-prepared mountaineers.
The classic way for walkers to admire Mont Blanc without putting themselves through the dangers of an ascent is to undertake the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 250km circuit of the mountain across French, Swiss and Italian terrain. The trail normally takes eight to twelve days, during which you can either camp or stay at the refuges (€20–25) en route. Many of the refuges provide food and other supplies, but it’s worth checking the latest details with the Office de Haute Montagne in Chamonix, which can also provide maps of the route. Even in early July, many of the passes on the route can still be covered in snow, so walkers should carry crampons and heavy-duty waterproofs. Several tour companies in Chamonix can provide guides for the walk, though the venerable Compagnie des Guides (see Mont Blanc) is your best bet.
Easily the most famous excursion in the Mont-Blanc/Chamonix area is the téléphérique to the Aiguille du Midi (3842m), one of the longest cable-car ascents in the world, rising 3000m above the valley floor in two extremely steep stages – anyone even remotely suffering from vertigo should forget about this particular excursion. Although the trip is absurdly expensive at €57 return, penny-pinching by buying a ticket only as far as the Plan du Midi (2310m) is a waste of money: go all the way or not at all. If you do go up, make the effort to be on your way before 9am, as the summits tend to cloud over towards midday, and huge crowds may force you to wait for hours if you try later. Take warm clothes – even on a summer’s day it’ll be below zero at the top – and sunblock is also advisable to protect against the glare off the snow.
The Aiguille is an exposed granite pinnacle on which a restaurant and the téléphérique dock are precariously balanced. Here, too, is an extraordinary new skywalk called Step into the Void, an all-glass box suspended some 1000m above empty space – an astonishing feat of engineering, this really is not for the faint-hearted. Even if you’re not willing to brave the skywalk (it’s included in the price of the cable car) the views up here are incredible. At your feet is the snowy plateau of the Col du Midi, with the glaciers of the Vallée Blanche and Géant sloping down the mountainside. From the Aiguille, the Three Monts climbing route takes mountaineers up the steep snowfield and exposed ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc with its final cap of ice. On the horizon lies rank upon rank of snow- and ice-capped monsters receding into the distance. Perhaps most impressive of all is the view from east to south, in which the Aiguille Verte, Triollet and the Jorasses, with the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, form a cirque of needle-sharp peaks and sheer crags.
If you haven’t tired of superb panoramic views, you can make for the Montenvers rack railway, a train service which has been running up from Chamonix to the Mer de Glace (1913m) on the flanks of Mont Blanc since 1908; indeed the advent of the Montenvers rack railway effectively signalled the beginning of Alpine tourism in the region. Taking around twenty minutes, the little red train chugs its way up to the “Sea of Ice”, which, at 7km long and nearly 2000m at its widest point, is by far the largest glacier in the Alps. At the top you have the option of walking for twenty minutes or taking a short cable-car ride down into an ice cave freshly carved out of the Mer de Glace every summer – this is usually open between mid-June and September. Another excellent possibility is to make the relatively easy hike from Montenvers to the Plan du Midi (2hr) and take the cable car back down to Chamonix from there.
Despite its fame, Chamonix is not the most user-friendly of ski resorts and access to the slopes relies on shuttle buses, trains or a car. For advanced skiers, however, it’s probably one of the best places in the Alps since it offers an impressive range of challenging runs and off-piste itineraries. It’s not so much a single resort as a chain of unconnected ski areas set along both sides of the Chamonix valley and dominated by Mont Blanc. The Brévent and Flégère areas on the southern slopes both have a good variety of pistes and provide some fine views of the Mont Blanc massif across the valley, while Argentière–Les Grands Montets is a colder, north-facing area that is well-suited to advanced skiers. The famous Vallée Blanche can be accessed by cable car from the Aiguille du Midi; skiing here involves a 20km descent which passes many crevasses and is not patrolled, so a guide is strongly recommended. Closer to Chamonix itself, the Les Planards and Le Savoy areas require artificial snow and snow cannons to stay open, but they are good spots for beginners to hone their technique. There are plenty of ski schools in Chamoix, which provide lessons for skiers and snowboarders, as well as guides. The ESF office is situated in the Maison de la Montagne; the guides here hold special lessons on the famous runs of the Vallée Blanche.