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General climber information on Chamonix


Getting there and around

Train is very adequate to get to Chamonix. There are direct trains from Paris, Geneva, and several major cities. There is a station in central Chamonix and in Argentiere. Your starting point for climbs will be cable cars and a mountain train. Public transportation is practical in the Chamonix Valley. A car is not needed at all, except for escaping from the Valley when the weather is bad, or for finding accomodation in remote parts of the Valley. If you have a car, it is quite difficult to park downtown due to turists. At the periphery it is not a problem. All major cable-cars have big parking lots, so it is free. Be careful not to leave any valuable in the car on those parking lots, thieves are known to operate. On the Italian side, there is Courmayeur, which is pretty much comparable to Chamonix. You could also base yourself here, but I had the feeling that Chamonix is more developped and that it is easier to get around from Chamonix than from Courmayeur.

Where to stay in the Valley

Chamonix is a large town, with plenty of facilities and plenty of gear shops. Argentiere further up the valley is more modest, and also more quiet. Further up, Vallorcine and Le Tour are even quieter.

Personnaly, I don't like camping in the Valley, but I have never stayed there for an extended period too. I prefer the confort and convenient location of gites (alpine dorms). And it does rain in the Valley. There are several of them, called in French "gite d'etape" ( I don't know the exact translation, it is the reason why I used the french word, "gite" = lodge ?, "etape" = a stopping place). It is devised for hikers, skiers, mountaineers (not the average turist). You find collective dormitories, a place where you can prepare your food and eat, collective sanitories, at a cheap price, something like between $5 and $10 the night. I usually go to a gite at the left of the Brevent cable car, called Chalet Ski Station. It is the closest to downtown (although the road gets a bit steep :-), and is a bit shabby, but still ok. Two gites which are close to each other and not too far from downtown are Le Chamoniard Volant and La Tapia. I remember that the latter is definitively nicer than Chalet Ski Station. I suggest that you ask either at the Turist Office (near the church,, or at the OHM at Maison de La Montagne (see below) for a list of gites. If you have a car, you will find several gites which are probably quieter. A person on the net (jh8x+@andrew.cmu.edu) has recommended in Argentiere: "Le Belvedere" It has rooms for 4 6 8 people... You can use the kitchen to cook. You have near a supermarket. The owners are Francois et Michelle. (At least two years ago). "La Boerne" This one is like 6 Km away from the village, in the route to Switzerland. If you do not have a car, it may be annoying. Good place and superb breakfast to prepare to burn it when climbing. Here the rooms are for many people. The only place I did not like was the upper room, where you sleep having the roof at 10 inches from your head. Besides that, good place. In both of them you can dry the cloths, ropes... when coming back from a climbing.

There is an alpine dorm operated by the CAF (French alpine club) located even further in the Valley, at Le Tour. It provides affordable (I think. As a CAF guide I didn't have to pay myself) accomodations and meals. It is a little remote (more convenient with a car, but well accessible from the train station and a walk) but if you want a quiet place and are tired of the commercialism in Chamonix you'll like it.

If you prefer camping, there are plenty of campgrounds, but I don't know them. It is illegal to camp out of campsite in the Valley, and you are not even allowed to bivvy at all, but must stay in the official camp sites. This seems to be strictly enforced these days. However they seem to be fairly cool about this as long as you shift ass first thing in the morning. Mark Begbie wrote " Certainly when I was there it was a couple of guys in a white fiesta who drove around ALL the known bivvy sites starting at eight in the morning. "Morneeng, Ceety of Chamonix, You must go now..." As long as you went before they came back there was no problem. Think they just want the woods neat and tidy for all the rich tourists crawling out of their hotels. ". Pascal Brisset advised Don't go to the campgrounds "Les Rosie`res" (dirty), "Les Drus" (No shade, small bathroom facilities). You can try "La mer de glace" (Clean, nice places, kind people).

Bill Wright stayed at Les Arolles which is less than a mile from the train station and is beautiful mowed grass and cost 14F. Obviously, there are tons of climbers there from all over the world. It was like Camp 4 in Yosemite. Other campgrounds are Camping L'ille des Barrats and Les Moliasses.

As for altitude camping, be careful. I used to be a common practice to camp at Col du Midi, but a friend told me that it is possibly illegal now (on the grounds that "it is not legal to camp outside of campsides in Chamonix"). The mountaineering police has given tickets last summer ! I (Mark Begbie) was over there two summers ago and the laws had come in earlier that year if I remember correctly. The police came up to the Valle Blanche one day while we were up on a route, and told everyone that they had to be away by the last cable car that evening. They would be back the next day and would impound any gear that they found etc, etc. They had a helicopter and guns so noone argued. Everyone agrees that the reason is that they want people to use the expensive and Chamonix-operated alpine hut at Les Cosmiques. There was quite a community at the Lac Bleu and the police didn't seem to bother anyone over there for some reason. Note that this has been confirmed by several people on the net. Other that this story, the only restriction I was aware of is that you cannot normally camp closer to 200m from a hut (don't know why). However, it is still legal to bivy (= pitch your tent at dusk and unpitch it at dawn). If you leave a tent there it is likely to be packed up and taken away. On your return you will find a tag in the snow where your tent was and you can reclaim your tent from somewhere using the tag.

If you need a place to store gear in Chamonix, there used to be lockers at the train station. I use this on my week-end trips. Otherwise, it is generally safe to leave your stuff in the dorm/tent while off doing a route, but you can always ask the housekeeper to put it in a safe place for you.

Basic planning info

In Chamonix, there is a strategic place, which is "Maison de la Montagne", in front of the church. It is a building where you can find the guide company, weather forecasts (you can speak to the technician), and, at the last floor OHM (Office de Haute Montagne). Although OHM is in the same building than the guides' office, their purpose is entirely different, as they are sponsored by the Chamonix city and their job is not to guide people, but to centralize information on route conditions and give people advice. The women who do this job are not top climbers (I suppose), but, to my experience, they are extremely competent, helpful and they speak english. If you want to contact them in advance, phone is

If you need to rent gear in Chamonix, the best choice was "Sport Extreme", which has an extensive choice, and would rent even harnesses. As of 1996, things have changed a little according to Kevin Banach. Sport Extreme now only rents alpine ice axes. They don't have any axes available that are made for steep ice or waterfall ice. Technician du Sport does rent technical ice axes but they only have a few in supply (about 4 total). Of course, there are tons of gear shops which are well stocked. They usually have a winter sale (mostly ski gear) and a summer sale after the season. Price of European gear is much cheaper than in the US (for instance a Pulsar is $120 in France vs $200 in the US) although it tends to be higher than in other places in France. I have been told that some Italian goods (like boots) are much cheaper in Courmayeur. The best stores in Paris is:

If you're going to use the Aiguille du Midi cable-car for an early start, you'd better be there real early (before 6am) since there will be a crowd (and professional guides have priority).

The reservations (by phone) are recommended for huts, but unless you are a big group, you can do generaly without, and the hutkeeper will generally find a spot for you to sleep. This does apply to the Gouter hut (see below), although it is always overcrowded, but there if you don't have reservations, you won't get a bed (but reservations are made months in advance anyway). The rate is about $15 per night, and you get a 50% discount if you are an Alpine club member. See below.

Rescue is free in France. It is a public service on public lands, and all high mountain areas are, except for some ski resorts. It is why you need an insurance to go skiing, and not to go climbing ! An insurance could be obtained from several sources such that CAF (may be worth to become a member for around $80 if you intend to stay more than 8 nights in huts, if you count the discount, the membership is free, and then you have also the insurance, a fine journal, etc..), and the climbing store "Vieux Campeur" in Paris, among other sources. But it is basically useless in France. Maybe not so in Italy and Switzerland, and these contries share the Range with France. There are some legal differences between these contries. For instance, a guide is responsible for all the parties that he is guiding in France, whereas in Italy he is responsible only for the climbers who are roped with him. This subtlety has had some unexpected consequence more than one time. There are some people who have been billed. The claim is simply unjustified, like the pilot wanting to earn an "extra", assuming his passenger didn't know the local rules. I have heard stories of the chopper coming and then the rescue team saying "we will rescue you only if you pay". I think the issue was raised once in the CAF official journal "La Montagne". They do take advantage of unaware people. But if you are on public land (ski resorts are another matter), the legislation is clear. Remember this point.

Maps and Guidebooks

Maps: there is no real choice. Get the 1/25000 IGN maps. You need two of them to cover the range, and you can find them everywhere in Chamonix.

Guidebooks: My suggestion is not worry to much to buy it there, since you will find easily numerous guidebooks in Chamonix, including English guidebooks.

In French, the reference guidebook is the "Guide Vallot". The exhaustive edition (4 volumes) is mostly out of print, and there is now an excellent selection of routes in 2 volumes with photographs. Other recommended books are coffee-table books by Rebuffat (see below), and Piola.

In English, there are only three books specific tho the range that I recommend:

If you are looking for something which covers many ranges in the Alps, you might want to check Richard Goedeke's The Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes. He describes the easy routes (some of them not that easy !) to the summit of 61 different mountains.

During my last visit to Chamonix (1997) I have noticed a book on the snow and ice climbs by Francois Damilano and Godefroi Perroux. Knowing the authors, I am sure it is an excellent book which should in particular include recent climbs.

Alpine ratings: These are "technical" ratings. They don't take much into account how commited and serious a route is. For instance the NNE ridge of Aiguille de l'M (a relatively short, well-protected, low-altitude climb free from objective hazards) and the Brenva Spur (900m route, 1400m to the summit, in the awesome East Face of Mont-Blanc, serious objective hazards, involves somewhat mixed climbing and going through seracs) receive the same rating: D-.

The letter rating is a overall rating for the route. It takes into account roughly the technical difficulty of the most representative pitches. The rock rating applies to each pitch, or even to a single move. Snow/Ice/Mixed are given for "normal" conditions. Rock is supposed to be dry.

    French                   English              Rock (French)     Snow/Ice 

F   Facile                   Easy                            walk-up
PD  Peu difficile            Not too difficult      up to III         35/45    
AD  Assez difficile          Fairly difficult       up to VI          40/55
D   Difficile                Difficult              up to V           50/70
TD  Tres Difficile           Very Difficult         up to V+/VIa      65/80
ED  Extremement Difficile    Extremely Difficult    up to VIc/aid     to 90
ABO Abominablement Difficile Abominable                               serac

I have found that the rock ratings in Chamonix are quite mild, when compared with those in Yosemite. There is about one letter grade difference, ie Yosemite 5.9 = Piola 6a. However, Piola ratings are still more severe than those found in old guidebook, where the difference is again perhaps a letter grade.

Note that in France, the longer the route, the less severe is the rating: there 1.5 level difference between crags (resp. icefalls) and mountain. Traditionnally, for rock ratings, arabic numerals are used on crags and equivalent roman numerals on mountains. With this in mind, here is another equivalence table.

Rock ratings (from the Verdon)   global alpine rating       snow/ice

|UIAA    G.B.   U.S.A.  France|
|V+      4c      5.7      5a  |      
|------------                 |
|VI-             5.8      5b  |       D+             55/65 
|                             |
|VI      5a      5.9      5c  |                                           3
|       ----------------------|       TD-            75/80   
|VI+             5.10a    6a  |      
|-------                      |       TD             80/85    4
|        5b      5.10b    6a+ |      
|VII-   ------                |
|                5.10c    6b  |                                           4+
|                             |       TD+            85/90
|VII             5.10d        |
|               --------  6b+ |                                           
|        5c      5.11a        |                                           5
|                             |       ED-             90      
|VII+            5.11b    6c  |                                           5+

|---------------              |
|VIII-   6a      5.11c    6c+ |      
|                       ------|        ED              90      6
|VIII            5.11d    7a  |
|      -----------------      |
|                5.12a    7a+ |
|                             |        ED+            90/100   6+
|VIII+   6b      5.12b    7b  |
|-------                      |
|IX-             5.12c    7b+ |                             
|      ---------              |                            the higher grades
|IX      6c      5.12d    7c  |                            in ice climbing are
|               --------      |                            function of the 
|IX+             5.13a    7c+ |                            nature of the ice
|---------------        ------|                            (free-standing...)
|                5.13b    8a  |                            rather than the
|                             |                            angle.
|X-      7a      5.13c    8a+ |
|                             |
|X               5.13d    8b  |
|       ----------------      |
|X+      7b      5.14a    8b+ |
|-------                      |
|XI-             5.14b    8c  |

With whom to climb , what to do alone

With respect to guide services, American Alpine Institute (Bellingham, WA) offers guided climbs (alpine and rock) and have a base in Chamonix. It might be a good idea to look for a local guide. In Alpine countries (France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, UK) it is illegal for locals to guide professionnaly (ie for direct retribution) without a certification, and in most of these contries, the certification is confered by a governmental institution. In France, there is a highly selective and very long (total six years with several months in "school") process to go through. Climbers as brilliant as the late Pierre Beghin have failled at
exams. This guarantees a fair level of all-arround competence among the professional certified guides (except maybe the older).

There are plenty of guides available in Chamonix, and there is one huge Guide's Office (Compagnie des guides) and one smaller (Guides Independants) where they can be booked. The young guides are usually stronger climbers, some of the older guides do not climb anymore and just guide the Mont-Blanc regular route. For this route, if I remember well you might not have the choice of your guide at the Compagnie (they take turns). The rates should be something around $150 to hire a guide for a day. They can normally take two persons. Overnight and difficult climbs are charged more. A typical price for Mont-Blanc is $700 (with two persons). Guides, as well as the CAF in Chamonix, organise "collective" outings, where several persons share the guide fees. Two young local guides who are very strong and have spent a fair amount of time in the US are Pierre-Andre Rhem and Jerome Rubino.

If you are alone, your chances to find a partner are good, especially if you have some experience, since many are in your case. When looking for a partner, your best bet is again OHM. They have a register "Partner wanted" which is pretty busy. I have found myself partners this way. The CAF has also such a register, but it sees less traffic.

If you are still alone, you can always go bouldering (the best spot is Col des Montets), or even better, ice-bouldering on the lower part of the glaciers. As of 1996 (source: Kevin Banach), the Bossons glacier is no longer the glacier of choice for ice bouldering at Chamonix. In fact the Bosson has become very dangerous to boulder on. The past 3 summers have seen very warm conditions in Chamonix, causing the terminus of the Bosson to recede extensively. The snout of the Bosson is now very prone to falling seracs -- there have been several lives lost in the past year due to falling seracs on the Bosson. There are several very safe spots to still ice boulder in Chamonix. One is the upper part of the Bosson called Pyramide des Bossons about a 2 hour hike from the town of Chamonix. At les Pyramids the slope is rather flat, with relatively easy ice climbing but not a lot of selection. The preferred area is now on the Mer de Glace. This is where the guides take their classes for instruction. The Mer can be reached using the mountain train - about a 20 minute ride - or by a 2 hour hike. They have erected ladders and trails to get onto the glacier. If you are confortable with the idea of doing alone some easy routes, there are a number of climbs where the crevasse danger is pretty low (I dare not say inexistant, since there is always the risk). They include the Mont Blanc regular route from Gouter (the same cannot be said of the routes from Aig. du Midi or Grand Mulets), the Midi-Plan traverse, the Cosmiques ridge, the Rochefort ridge traverse. All of them are classics, described in Rebuffat, and well worth doing. Due to the crowds the Mont Blanc regular route from Gouter is a real zoo, and this is kind of fun, but not a typical alpine experience.

Alpine climbing: what to expect

The Mont-Blanc range is unique in the world as it offers a tremendous range of climbs which are very accessible (thanks to the local infrastructure) and at the same time very challenging and in an exceptional setting.

The Mont-Blanc range is not an extended one. It is fairly compact, which means that the distances are not very large. You won't have very long approaches. On the other hand, it is steep, has relatively high altitudes (there are a lot of climbs close to or above 4000m), and also large elevation differences. Thus, although the approaches are short, the climbs are rather long. You have to get used to this scale.

The general approach involves walking into a mountain hut one day, and starting the climb (very) early the next morning. There are several reasons for this "alpine start" (remember, you are in the heart of the Alps !):

Huts There are plenty of huts in the range, so that virtually all the areas are served by one of them. All of them have blankets and mattresses, except for a very few (called "bivouacs"). Most of them have a caretaker in summer, and are not manned in winter. If you get a spot in a hut, you will have bedding, so there is no need to bring your sleeping bag (so do because they find the blankets too dirty/itchy but it never bothered me). Even if you don't get an "official spot", if the hut is not overcrowded beyond reasonable (ie all huts except Gouter) you should find a spare blanket. If the caretaker is there you can buy a meal and water (but not ingredients). Some of the huts have running water (which would be free) in summer , some of them not, in which case you'll need to melt snow. Whether you should buy a meal or cook yourself is a matter of personal preference. Personally I prefer to cook, because it is cheaper and gives me more options towards the timing and contents of the meals. the meals are expensive and not vegetarian. You also never know if there is a caretaker or not in some less-frequented huts. In CAF huts (french), there is always a room for cooking with stoves, but this is not the case of CAI huts (italian). The drawback is that you have to carry food and stove, but I think that (a) most of the weight is to be carried during the approach and not the climb (if you just bring what you need). (b) it is useful anyway to have a stove in your pack, it is a primary survival tool. for a day climb, i would say take 2 quarts of water and remember to drink. i eat pasta the day before, cereal or rice pudding in the morning, and rely on energy bars during the day. i actually avoid cooking buy taking food which requires only boiling water and mixing up. cooking uses more gas and requires more time and pot-washing. Check the guidebooks for more details on the individual huts and phone numbers. The comfort range is large, and so is the price. The privately owned huts like Monzino in Italy,, Cosmiques in France, and the Swiss huts (owned by the SAC) are very cozy and expensive ($40). The huts owned by the CAF (French Alpine Club) and CAI (Italian Alpine Club) are more reasonable ($18). The huts without caretaker are basically free. With a membership at one of the Alpine Clubs, you get at 50% discount on the huts owned by any of the 3 AC. This is worth considering, since the membership is around $80 for the CAF, esp. if you are going to stay in the Swiss huts. There is a branch of the CAF in Chamonix. In theory it is always better to make a reservation (by phone) if you can. In practice, they are necessary only if you are part of a large party, or if you are going to stay at one of the crowded huts, esp. Gouter. To book a place in one of the huts, you have to find out its phone number. This information is available from the guidebooks, and a variety of places in Chamonix, including the Club Alpin Francais, Maison de la Montagne, and Office du Tourisme, and also by using the phone directory assistance.

Often people walk out again on the day of the climb, but some people will remain at the hut and do a further climb on the next day and so on. The Mont Blanc massif offers more that its fair share of one-day climbs, and only some of the bigger routes require overnight climbing. One of the reason is that since you sleep only on huts, you don't have to take your overnight gear, and thus can climb very light. For instance, I have almost always used a 40 liters backpack, and while climbing, have almost never carried more than 8 kg. You can even find food in the huts. The downside with huts is that those for popular climbs can be very very crowded, getting food (if you don't bring yours), water and sleeping can be a real pain. On the other hand, getting sleep is difficult anyway when you must go to bed at 7pm, and by the way who has ever succeeded in sleeping well before a major (for him/her) climb ?

Your starting point will be mostly cable cars and a mountain trains. Climbing is made easier around Chamonix by mechanical contrivances such as cable-cars and mountain trains. These allow easy access up to about 1500-3000 metres which takes the sting out of some walk-ins.

Be careful, the fact that these conveniences are available does not suppress the inherent risk of alpine climbing. There are more climbers who die in the Mont-Blanc range each year than during the whole history of Mt McKinley climbing for instance. I am not going to detail the numerous hazards of alpine climbing here, which have to do with the combination of technical terrain and relatively severe conditions, but you should know about them, and if not aware, chose your climbs conservatively, and act like the locals. Oh, I forgot, for those who come from countries where it is an established pratice, in France there is no point in suing others for your own lack of judgement.

Addresses and phone numbers

If you are calling from abroad each number is prefixed by "4" instead of "04".

	Office de Tourisme
	Place du Triangle de l'Amitie
	74400 Chamonix Mont Blanc
	open 8h30-12h30 and 14h00-19h00

	Centrale de Reservation
	tel. and

	Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix Mont-Blanc
	Maison de la Montagne
	Place de l'Eglise
	8h-12h and 15h30-19h

	Association Internationale Des Guides du Monc Blanc
	used to be "Association independante des guides de Mont Blanc"
	98, rue des Moulins

	also in the Maison de la Montagne
	Ski School and Office de haute montagne (security)
	weather bulletins posted 4 times/day  7h,10h,16h,18h

        Association de Chamonix du Club Alpin Francais
        136, avenue Michel Croz
        74400 Chamonix Mont Blanc

Reader's comments

About the L''Ile des Barrats campground in Chamonix... It''s an excellent place to camp and very clean. The owner, Phillipe is a fountain of info if you have any questions about rock climbing or mountaineering around Chamonix.
Contributed by Alisa Laka on December 22, 1997.
Bonjour, j''ai trouve votre page Web sur Chamonix tres interessante avec des photos magnifiques. 2 remarques: - Vous le savez peut-etre deja, le Pilier Bonatti aux Drus n''existe plus, il est en petits morceaux dans l''ebouli en bas, suite a un eboulement en septembre 97 de 200m de haut sur 80m de large - votre remarque sur l''impossibilite de poursuivre les autres en justice m'' a beaucoup amuse.


Olivier Krumeich

Contributed by Olivier Krumeich on December 30, 1997.
Your story on the Aiguille du Midi camp site is unfortunately truth. It is not legal amy more to camp here. According to the autorities, it is for ecological reasons. So, you have to use the Cosmiques hut, owned by the Guiding Compagny. It is the most expensive hut I know. Futhermore, you are obliged to take your meal here, which is not legal according to the French law. But the French cops do not feel very concerned. Please remind thath it is steel legal to do bivouac. It means that you have to backpack your gear.

For the accomodation, do not hesitate to leave the overcrowded Chamonix valley, for example Passy : http://members.aol.com/chevanne Cheap accomodation and good old advices, provided you speak French (dad was more concerned by climbing that by learning any foreign languages).

Contributed by Pierre Chevanne on March 5, 1998.
I run a site full of information about Chamonix olong with a mass of photos from my trip to the area. While it primeraly to market my apartment in Les Praz there is information that would be welcomed by anyone going to Cham for the first time. As for this site, excellant and one I will bookmark for a return visit. Look at: http://wkweb5.cableinet.co.uk/tim_hall_photographer
Contributed by Tim Hall on March 8, 1998.
Having spent a few winter months in various gites from time to time, I would definitly recommend the Chamonard Volant in preference of the Chalet Ski Station. O.K it''s a little further from the village center, but it has cooking facilities -burners, gas, fridges (not available at the Ski Station). Also the place is more comfortable in genral. It does get quite busy at the weekends, but this can be a bonus as you can find yourself moved to the atic (loft) which is even cheaper than the normal dormatory accomodation. Oh, and one last thing, being in the base of the valley you don''t have to walk up that bloody hill toward the Brevant Lift!
Contributed by Antony Fearn on March 11, 1998.
I recommend Mark Seaton as an excellent, fully UIAGM qualified guide. Mark is a Brit based full time in Argentiere. He is a fast, strong and experienced climber, an excellent communicator of Alpine skills, highly safety conscious, and good company on the climb. He also does off-piste ski guiding and touring in the winter and spring. He is not cheap but you get what you pay for. His email is MarkSeaton@compuserve.com
Contributed by Gerard Clarke on September 18, 1998.
There is a charming campsite near to Chamonix about 5 mins walk from the center. It has croissants for sale every day and if you like camping I would reccomend it to anyone.
Contributed by H HAmlyn on May 14, 1999.
It seems that this summer the prohibition to camp at Col du Midi has relaxed: I've been there and there were lots of tents, and they were left up for the whole day. I put my tent myself and had no trouble. Maybe things are changing ...
Contributed by Arturo Garcia Ares on August 23, 1999.
Good camping 2 minutes from telepherique at 'Belle Vue Camping'. Not muddy, quiet and seemingly safe to leave gear for a while. One person, one tent for 6 days cost 81 francs.(August 99). Reasonable showers. Telepherique cost FF70 return. We had to reserve our tram seats on arrival at the station even though we had tickets. New toilet block at Gouter refuge, the old deathtrap now roped off. We found the 'security cable' at the Grand Couloir was useless - it was strung too high above the route. We also experienced (and survived!) a heavy avalanche of stones at the top of the Tete Rousse glacier - it's not just the Grand Couloir that is subjected to this particular danger.
Contributed by IBurgess on August 28, 1999.

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