© Graham Pinkerton
© Graham Pinkerton
© Graham Pinkerton
© Graham Pinkerton
© Graham Pinkerton
Courmayeur, although not strictly part of the Chamonix valley, is included on the Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass and is easily accessible from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc Tunnel (journey time 30 minutes).
The Italian ski area of Courmayeur offers an entirely different skiing experience to that of Chamonix, despite being only 22km away. It has a more relaxed feel, with gentler pistes and charming, well-priced mountain restaurants. The weather here can be substantially different too. If you wake up to a cloudy Chamonix, there is a good chance it will be sunny in Courmayeur - it's always worth checking the webcams in the morning.
The main ski area has 31 pistes (see the piste map) offering a mix of nice wide pistes and pretty tree skiing, and there are several challenging off-piste routes. With a good number of snow cannons servicing the pistes, there is guaranteed skiing from December to around mid-April. There is a well-connected lift system that operates from two locations on the valley floor at 1,224m and most of the ski area lies above 2,000m. The ski area also has a wonderful selection of characterful mountain restaurants, many offering typical home-cooked Italian cuisine and great coffees in a cosy atmosphere.
Access to Courmayeur is easily done from Chamonix via the Mont Blanc tunnel, either by car or by regular buses that run in winter and summer. There is a discount available on the tunnel pass and the bus ticket if you have a Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass. Check out our webcams to see live conditions on the mountain.
Beginner areas in [locality]
Courmayeur makes a great day trip from Chamonix for the early intermediate skier, or fast progressing beginner late in their first week on skis. Lots of blue pistes coupled with the huge number of cafés to stop for a break and let muscle memory do it's thing whilst recounting how great your last run was over a hot chocolate. However, for the absolute beginner the options here are a little more limited.
Children usually get taken to the small magic carpet accessed area at the top of the Val Veny gondola. Conveniently situated next to both a ski school hut and a café/restaurant, with stunning views over towards Mont Blanc it's a great spot to get the hang of "pizza" and "french fries," but there's not much to progress to.
The other main beginner areas are at the base of the hill next to the small village of Dolonne and up on the hill by the Maison Vielle refuge and restaurant. The Dolonne area is very similar to the Vel Veny beginner area, with the difference of being at the base of the hill, so the snow conditions aren't always as good, but the weather is generally a bit milder.
The beginner area next to Maison Vielle has a small drag lift, Tzaly, and is set a little away from the main pistes. This has the advantage of stopping faster skiers from hurtling through the beginner area and keeps a much more relaxed pace to the area. The Maison Vielle restaurant also has a great reputation with locals for high quality Aosta food. Skiing burns a lot of calories you know!
Advanced areas in [locality]
The biggest draw for the advanced rider in Courmayeur is the off-piste and the tree skiing. Whilst the piste skiing is great, it's never that steep. The main options for steeper pistes come from the Bertolini chairlift. The Rocce Bianche piste has the most sustained gradients in the resort and, being on the shaded side of the hill and mostly in the trees, generally has very good snow quality.
Further along the ski area, the black piste Diretta will certainly leave you feeling fully alive as it takes a direct line below the Zerotta chairlift, cutting between the more circumspect blue pistes that also make their way to the Zerotta chair, albeit at a more leisurely gradient. The Diretta piste isn't fully groomed, several of the lower pitches are left ungroomed, encouraging the formation of moguls. But, if bumps aren't your thing, these sections can all be bypassed on the blue pistes.
There are no on-piste routes from the very top of the Courmayeur ski area, the Arp gondola. Instead for the longest run and biggest vertical, without the need for off-piste equipment and knowledge, you need to join the queue for the small Youla gondola. From here at 2,624m you can descend on red pistes all the way to the Village of Dolonne. From there either three gondolas (Dolonne, Checrouit, Youla) bring you back to where you were over 1,400m ago, or you can wander through the quaint, narrow streets of Dolonne in search of coffee or pizza.
Snowparks in [locality]
There's just the one small snowpark in Courmayeur and it packs a fair bit into its area. Situated part way down the Checrouit piste and below the Checrouit gondola, you can use the Aretu chairlift in the absence of a dedicated park lift to get in lots of laps.
Not all the features are available all the time, but generally from the old télécabine that serves as store and sound system for the park, there is a jump line with the choice of small, medium and a bit bigger kickers, a kicker to airbag landing (maybe best to practice those double backflips here first before giving it a go on the main kicker line) and parallel to this, a rail zone with flat tables, boxes and more technical rails. The set up varies over the season, with transitions appearing and disappearing as the shapers feel like it, so don't assume that the park yesterday will be the same as tomorrow.
Best pistes in [locality]
The Courmayeur pistes are always well fed with artificial snow if a top-up is required, and are impeccably groomed with the exception of a couple of the black pistes that are left un-pisted to encourage the breeding of moguls in their natural environment.
What pistes stand out above the rest?
The twin red pistes of Combe Moretta and Lazey from the Gabba chairlift sit at the furthest end of the ski area, and as a result are always quieter than the rest of the resort. Both pistes feature a mix of wider mellow sections more akin to a blue piste interspaced with steeper gradients to really let your speed build on. You'll regularly see the next generation of ski racing superstars training here for these reasons. Not only is the skiing great on these pistes, but you have the stunning view of the North East face of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey right in front of you.
The main ski area is mostly comprised of long red pistes and the best of these options is usually the furthest on skiers left; Aretu. It starts by the main Checrouit gondola top station and initially is very wide and very flat. Perfect for getting the feel of your edges gripping as you roll the ankles and carve out big lazy arcs whilst gradually gaining speed. The piste rolls away in front of you, you get closer to the edge and then suddenly it opens out to a wide, flat piste on a steep gradient. The piste continues in this theme, always staying wide with lots of space for everyone, not that it ever gets that busy, until you get near the Aretu chairlift where you can either jump on and go for another lap, or keep cruising down to the Plan Checrouit area with its myriad choices for your next piste.
If you're looking for something more relaxing, the Pra Neyron blue piste from the top of the Pra Neyron chairlift is a grand choice. The piste is a little unusual in that it starts in trees then, about half way down, breaks out into the open on the main face of the ski area. It's a good choice in poor visibility as a result, though it would be shame to miss out on the views you get to all sides of the ski area as you work your way down the run. Another bonus is the excellent and varied choice of restaurants and cafés about halfway down by the base of the Dzeleuna chairlift, just in case you can't make it the whole run without stopping for another cappuccino. Intermediate skiers will also enjoy the cruisy blues pistes off the Zerotta chair lift.
Off-piste areas in [locality]
When the snow's dumping down and piling up fast, Courmayeur has some of the best off-piste in Chamonix. Ok, so it's not IN Chamonix, but when you go through the Mont Blanc Tunnel and the car park's filled with French '74' plate cars and the chat in the lift queue is where in Chamonix to go for aprés, so you might as well be in Chamonix.
Perhaps the biggest pull of the Courmayeur ski area for the off-piste skier is the tree skiing. As ever with tree skiing, the best spots vary from snowfall to snowfall as features get buried and reappear through the season, so the line that's almost impassable due to bushes in late December can be incredible open skiing just a few snowfalls later.
With this in mind, perhaps the most reliable tree skiing is close to the Val Veny cable car. As you start down the blue "Val Veny" piste you'll see an open clearing on your right-hand side. From here, all the way down the piste until the base of the Peindent chairlift, you can drop in right pretty much where ever you want and enjoy mostly open, but sometimes quite steep, tree skiing all the way down the summer road which then winds its way back past the Mont Blanc Tunnel entrance to the Val Veny parking area. The road is used by snowshoers, ski tourers and snowmobiles for going up, so keep your eyes (and ears) open and don't assume you have right of way.
If there isn't quite the snow cover low down for skiing the Val Veny trees, then the higher slopes above the Bertolini chairlift should be worth a look. Starting from the wide, mellow slopes of the upper Aretu piste, you'll see several gaps in the snow barriers to your left. Going through these gaps gets you into a series of gully lines that start just above the tree line and drop thought increasingly thick trees then meet the Rocce Bianche piste, just before the trees start to get too dense.
If tree skiing sounds a bit too precise for your liking, mellower and more forgiving terrain can be accessed around the Gabba chairlift. Keeping between its two pistes, Comba Moretta and Lazey, will ensure you get back to the chairlift without any navigational issues (though make sure to stay out of any of the hollows that will result in a sweaty uphill battle to escape....). Trending to the left of the Comba Morette piste gives probably the mellowest off-piste skiing in the Courmayeur ski area, but make sure to cut back to the piste before reaching the tree line as there is no way to get back to the lifts once you get into the trees.
It's worth noting that not all the snow in Courmayeur is 'open' for off-piste skiing. Areas, including the trees below the Gabba chairlift, are closed to skiing and anyone riding there risks a fine and the loss of their lift pass courtesy of the Carabinieri. The closed areas are marked on piste maps displayed near the lifts that access those areas, so have a good look before assuming you can drop in.
Bad Weather areas in [locality]
It would be great if it snowed 25cm every night and was blue sky every day, but that's not how the mountains work sadly. Sometimes you just have to accept that the wind's going to blow and the visibility's going to be poor. Thanks to the barrier of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix Aiguilles, the towns of Chamonix and Courmayeur, though only 16km apart in a straight line, can have wildly different weather. This effect is most prevalent during foehn wind episodes or when there's what meteorologists call a "retour d'est". If these words are cropping up on the weather forecasts then there's a greater chance of very different weather in these two ski areas. So, if the weather isn't doing what you want on one side of the mountain, have a look at the webcams for the other side. You might just get the blue sky/dumping snow you've been looking for.
Of course, sometimes you DO have to accept the weather's not what you're looking for, but with its variety of skiing, on and off-piste, below the tree line and the huge number of cosy warm café's on the mountain, Courmayeur's still a great bet for a day's storm skiing.
The north facing pistes accessed by the Val Veny cable car and the Peindent, Zerotta, Bertolini and Gabba chairlifts all hold good snow to a much lower altitude than the main ski area and so have a greater amount of the runs in the trees. If you stay in this area you can ski blue, red or black pistes all with the trees on either side of you sheltering you from the wind and giving some contrast to aid navigation in poor visibility. There's also lots of skiing off-piste in the trees here, mostly without any large accumulation areas above, reducing the risk of larger avalanches.
Just as importantly, the base of the Peindent chairlift, base and top of the Zerotta chairlift and near the top of the Bertolini and Gabba chairlifts at the Checrouit gondola top station all have cafes and restaurants to sit in with warming beverage of your choice whilst you defrost and dry out between laps.
Ski Touring areas in [locality]
In addition to a lifetime's worth of ski touring accessible from the Courmayeur ski area, there's a wealth of incredible skiing lines that don't require ski touring equipment. Be aware though, whilst all these lines start from ski lifts, you are not in a controlled ski area and everyone in the group needs to be fully aware of the potentially very serious consequences of skiing in these areas. If in any doubt at all, hire a guide and enjoy a much less stressful day in their expert hands.
In the Courmayeur area itself, the highest lift (Arpy) gives skiers the choice of several long itineraries. One of the most popular is the Val Veny route. Starting from the lift station, traverse the sunny slope heading west to the Col de Youla, with a short sidestep or boot pack to the col. From the Col de Youla the first pitch is down the wide open slopes of the combe below the steep flanks of Mont Favre.
Stopping on the flat moraine bench overlooking Val Veny a range of ridge and gullies line up below you. This point is also accessible by traverse from the lower Youla lift. All these gully lines lead to the floor of Val Veny, however, they are not always in easily passable condition. Particularly in the early or late season, the snow can run out and be replaced with frozen waterfalls and rock bands. A good clue is if there are no, or only a few, tracks going into a gully and a boot pack line coming out...you might want to think twice before dropping in.
Once you've exited the gullies you need to cross the Torrent La Doire on one of the snow bridges that form, then follow the snowed over summer road out to the Zerotta lift and another lap, coffee or pizza depending on the group's energy levels. The road out is quite flat and snowboarders might find a ski pole useful to aid progress, though if you're lucky a friendly snowmobile rider will give you a tow.
If you don't want to wait in the queues for Arp, another option for a big descent with quicker lifts is the Vallone Dolonne. From the Col Checruit gondola traverse across the Le Greye drag lift and piste to find yourself overlooking the Vallone Dolonne. The initial gully is relatively protected but once in the main combe the huge slopes of the Tête du Arp, frequent stop of the Freeride World Tour, tower above you...and frequently shed large avalanches.
Route finding is relatively simple, stay in the fall line, enjoy the wide open slopes, and keep heading downhill as the valley narrows. After over 700 vertical metres of open slopes, the exit gets quite tight as you follow the river out through the valley walls. This section requires good snow cover to bury the river and rocks. When in good condition it resembles a (very narrow and technical) boardercross track and is not suitable for less confident or less competent skiers. The exit track eventually end up at the Dolonne home run, via a short section in the trees and a five metre sidestep, arriving just above the village of Dolonne itself.
There is another side to skiing in Courmayeur. Literally. Opposite the Courmayeur ski area, next to the Val Veny parking, lies the Skyway Monte Bianco. Italy's answer to l'Aiguille du Midi, the Skyway was re-aligned and opened in 2015. From the Val Veny parking, the two-stage cable car rises over 2,100m to the Punta Helbronner, revolving all the way to give you full 360-degree views of Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco, it is the Italian side after all) and the Aosta Valley.
Skiing from the top of the Skyway is the same as skiing from the top of l'Aiguille du Midi. Completely off-piste, on glaciated terrain, and totally at your own risk. The best skiers in the world ride from these lifts, and as a result some of the ski tracks can lead to some incredible places that really are not for 99% of the skiers on earth, but it's not all gnar. The "normal" ski line from the Punta Helbronner down the Glacier de Toule is accessible and gives a great 1,200 vertical metres or so of powder or spring snow skiing, depending on conditions. Though more serious and demanding than the glacier itineraries from Grand Montets, the skiing is easier than the harder variants of the Vallée Blanche such as the Grand Envers.
From the lift station, a rising traverse line needs a bit of a walk up to the Col des Flambeaux (remembering that this is glaciated terrain now, and it's much easier to fall in a crevasse on foot than on your skis) followed by a skate round to the Col Orient de Toule. A staircase gets you down the initial steep section, sometimes finished with a short downclimb whilst holding an in-situ rope over a bergshrund (I did say you're not in a ski area anymore didn't I?).
Once off the stairs and onto your skis you can admire the view over Courmayeur and down the Aosta Valley. You can also survey the vast expanses of snow in front of you, waiting for your skis! The safest descent takes you down the massive combe of the Glacier de Toule towards the skiers left of the basin, avoiding the menacing séracs in the centre of the glacier. After the mellow angled first section of the descent, the slope angle steepens as you descend, sandwiched between rock walls to your left and the séracs to your right. An atmospheric spot for sure but, with the possibility of avalanches from the rocks above and the séracs beside, perhaps not one to hang about for too long in.
Once through this section, you should keep trending towards the left and the long moraine bank that separates the basin of the Glacier de Toule and the area below the lift cables. After crossing the moraine ridge it's just the simple matter of another long descent towards the pavilion mid-station, choosing where you want to ski as the snow conditions dictate. To really get the best of the skiing around the Skyway lift, hiring a guide is strongly recommended, and even without a guide the serious nature of the skiing makes knowledge and practice of glacier travel and dealing with avalanche terrain an absolute must.
NB: Off-piste skiing and mountaineering are dangerous. The opinions expressed in these articles are very much time and condition-specific and the content is not intended in any way to be a substitute for hiring a mountain guide, undergoing professional mountaineering training and/or the individual's own backcountry decision making.