The Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass might only be the size of a credit card, but with the addition of the Evasion ski area (Megève, Saint Gervais, Les Contamines, Combloux, St Nicolas and La Giettaz), it gives you access to a large and wonderfully varied ski area.
With the addition of the Evasion Mont Blanc ski area in the winter of 2015/16, Chamonix effectively gained 445km of pistes (take a look at the piste map), easy access to several ski touring areas and a great bad weather skiing option for when the snow or wind is too much for the higher altitude ski areas of the Chamonix valley.
The skiing in Combloux, Megève, St Gervais, St Nicolas and La Giettaz (all of which are linked) is predominantly below the treeline and not too steep. Blue and red pistes predominate - if you like Les Houches then you'll love these areas. In contrast, the stand-alone ski area of Les Contamines is much more open, but still with blue and red pistes making up the majority of the skiing. Its like the Le Tour ski area but much bigger, and you get to see the other side of Mont Blanc too. If mountain side aprés-ski is important to you, then you should head to the legendary Folie Douce at the top of Mont Joux in St Gervais/Megève for afternoon DJ/Champagne spraying sessions.
Access from the Chamonix valley is quickest by car. It's about 25 minutes from Chamonix centre to the closest area, St Gervais, and about 45 minutes to the furthest away, Les Contamines. All the ski areas have large car parks at their base stations. If you'd rather take a more environmentally friendly route, the train from Chamonix to Le Fayet followed by either public bus or the Tramway du Mont Blanc up to St Gervais is one option, alternatively you could always ski at Les Houches then take the Tramway du Mont Blanc down to St Gervais, and return the same way at the end of the day.
Beginner areas in [locality]
You could argue that when you're learning to ski you've got enough on your plate, but there's still a lot to be said for having some good views to distract you. All too often the best beginner areas are hidden away at the base of the ski hills, in the shade and near the town.
At St Gervais however, the beginner area is right at the top of the hill, with 360 degrees of some of the most stunning views in the Alps. It's worth a stop for skiers of all standards just to have a look about. The higher altitude means that the snow quality is better and therefore easier to learn on. Situated at the top of the two stage gondola that rises out of St Gervais town centre, which also makes getting to AND from the beginner pistes easy for all abilities, the Arbois beginner area has a selection of green and blue pistes. The pistes vary in length and aspect, with drag lifts and chairlifts to get you back up for another go.
Another advantage of being at the top of the hill is that there are no advanced runs feeding into the beginner area. This means you don't need to worry about other skiers speeding through the area with varying degrees of control to quite the same extent.
If you're looking to step up from green to blue pistes, then the winding runs around the Prés chairlift nestled between Megève and Combloux should be right up your street. Easily accessed from Megève via the Jaillet gondola lift and a blue piste, there's a few different ways down to lap the Prés chairlift. All the options are graded blue, and vary from the more winding to wider but more direct. Once you've got your confidence there, you can move on to longer blue pistes below the Pertuis and Plan Joux chairlifts or the longer again Pére Noel (remember, skiing is for life, not just for Christmas...) blue back to Megève. Then again, if you're tired and want an easier way to ski back, there's also the green Sept Nains piste to bring you back to Megève without having to take the Jaillet gondola.
Advanced areas in [locality]
If you want to get a good burn in your thighs whilst attracting envious looks from the chairlift as you power down through head height moguls then a trip up the Aiguille Croche chair in Les Contamines should be in your plans. Both the Aiguille (red) and Croche (black) pistes are steep and generally covered in moguls for most of the season, often with surprisingly consistent spacing.
At the other end of the Evasion Mont Blanc ski area, the red and black pistes descending from the Christomet télésiege have the enticing combination of steeper terrain, little traffic and a mix of well groomed and mogulled options. The black Aigle piste in particular has some steeper, narrower pitches that can catch out less confident skiers, lulled in by the more mellow and flowing upper sections, and leave them wishing for a (non existent) escape route. If that's a bit committing, then the Côte and Moineau pistes are a bit more forgiving with more space to play with, and to let your skis run.
Megève and St Gervais
Unlike ski areas such as Grand Montets in Chamonix, these areas don't really have the gradient for long sustained black pistes. This doesn't mean there's nothing to keep the more advanced skier interested. Working your way along the plethora of red pistes between the Rochebrune gondola and the Côte 2000 chairlift will warm up your legs for the Marmotte and Descente black pistes, before the return journey helps relax the muscles ready for a well earned trip to the cafés, bars and restaurants of Megève.
Snowparks in [locality]
OK, so it's not Mammoth mountain, but there's still a variety of parks dotted about the Evasion Mont Blanc ski area to help you get yo' jib on.
Below the Plan Joux chairlift in the Combloux area is a small boardercross track and snow park with a variety of boxes, rails and smaller kickers.
Further out there's a snowpark by the Torraz drag lift. As well as beginner modules there are a variety of bigger wallrides and features, with lots of edge friendly wooden constructions.
Near the Jaillet lift that heads out of Megève there's another boardercross zone.
Whilst Les Contamines has hosted the Skicross World Cup before, there isn't a permanent track in place, instead a small snow park "ludoparc" is constructed by the Tierces Télésiege, as well as occasionally a half pipe near the town itself when there's enough snow.
Best pistes in [locality]
Ask 10 skiers what makes their "best piste" the best, and you'll get 10 different answers, but for me you need a combination of killer views, well groomed slopes and not too many other folk on the piste.
These elements all come together in the Hauteluce area of Les Contamines. The views stretch out across the Beaufortain and Savoie regions, very different in nature to the verticality of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix Aiguilles. The grooming of the blue, red and black pistes is of a high standard. And, perhaps best of all, hardly anyone skis there! Being hidden away on the back of the ski area and with no convenient road access the Hauteluce slopes seem to get forgotten about by most, which is to your advantage. This side of the hill gets more sun than the rest of Les Contamines, so the pistes can be a bit icy first thing and a bit soft late in the day, but time it right and you'll have a grand time.
Similarly if you head over to the St Nicolas de Veroce area, hidden in the metaphorical shadow of St Gervais and the literal shadow of the Domes de Miage, you'll find mile after mile of quiet red piste. These pistes start up above the tree line on the side of Mont Joly and end through glades in the forest. Linking the Grand and Petite Epaule red pistes gives around 800 vertical metres of varied and interesting skiing with great views.
Above the village of Combloux, lesser known and less busy than its neighbour Megève, are the Plaine Joux and Jouty chairlifts. Set off to the side of the ski area and not really leading anywhere, most skiers seem to pass them by. As a result the long, mostly red graded pistes stay almost deserted giving you plenty of space to let your edges run free and tear about the slopes. Enjoy the Arve valley stretching out before you as you descend, and take in views along the Chamonix Aiguilles, sandwiched between the Aiguille Vert and Mont Blanc, for the chairlift ride back up.
Off-piste areas in [locality]
The Evasion Mont Blanc ski area doesn't have the reputation for the "steep 'n' deep" off-piste experience that Chamonix has, but that doesn't mean you can't get some great skiing there. If anything, the family friendly reputation helps keep the pow hunters away leaving a much more relaxed vibe to the resorts on a powder day. Expect gentle ribbing from the lifties about how you've escaped from the Chamonix valley if you turn up on anything approaching a fat ski though...
Do you like Le Tour off-piste on a powder day? Then you'll love Les Contamines. The topography of most of the ski area is very reminiscent of the Le Tour slopes between the Autannes chairlift and the Posettes drag lift. Big open rolling slopes at a moderate angle, coupled with north east facing slopes sheltered by the Mont Blanc massif from the worst of the winds means that fresh snow stays in good condition for a surprisingly long time after a dump, and the predominantly family based clientele don't ski far from the groomed pistes. So, for the less confident skier looking to get lots of stress free time in powder snow, it's hard to beat playing around anywhere between the Fredze, Tobogan, Buche and Combe pistes on the front face.
For the more experienced and knowledgeable skier, great turns are usually easily found in the terrain to skiers right of the Télésiege de Buche Croisée, just make sure to keep an eye on the lift because if you miss the traverse point back it can be a sweaty slog back up. Or you can keep going down the hill and out of the ski area for a long descent to the valley floor, keeping to the open sections between the forest as best you can. Be aware though that this line will take you far outside the ski area. After the descent you'll need to return by skiing down the often icy Roman road followed by a long skate along the ski de fond pistes and a little bit of walking to the Télécabine de la Gorge lift to return to the ski area.
Megève, La Giettaz and Combloux
If big open bowls aren't your thing and you prefer skiing in trees, then the area around Le Christomet and Col de Jaillet between the lifts of Megève, la Giettaz and Combloux is well worth a visit. To make the most of the skiing here a set of touring skis or snow shoes are very useful. You never need to ascend very much vertical, but a 15 minute skin is much less effort than a 45 minute bootpack! The Jouty and Torraz chairlifts help to bring you back to the pistes with a minimum of effort.
Bad Weather areas in [locality]
It's too windy for the lifts to run, there's so much snow that most of the pistes are closed due to risk of avalanche and besides, you can't see anything anyway as said wind is whipping up said snow and obscuring anything more than a couple of ski lengths away. If you're in Chamonix when this happens, there's a simple solution - head to St Gervais, Megève or Combloux.
As all of these areas are lower than the Chamonix ski slopes and away from the more extreme height differences of the mountains, the wind is never as strong and the lifts can generally keep running. The long tree-lined pistes help shelter you even more from the wind as well as providing good contrast to help in flat light or poor visibility. With only a few exceptions the slopes aren't threatened from above by large avalanche prone zones either, so whilst the powder hounds are still waiting in the queue for Grand Montets to open you can already be on your umpteenth lap of the day.
As long as you stay in the trees you really can't go wrong, and a quick look at the piste map for any of these areas will show that the majority of the ski pistes are in the trees.
You can still explore a good range of pistes here on a bad weather day, and the more adventurous can head into the more open forested areas such as between the top of the Prés chair and Bel Ava pistes,. Still not convinced? Well, the whole area is rarely too busy in good weather, but on bad weather days it can feel more like a private ski resort.
Ski Touring areas in [locality]
The starting point for a number of great ski touring routes. Whilst the lift infrastructure in Chamonix allows quick and easy access to more terrain than you can shake a selfie stick at and put it on Instagram, this ease of access makes it harder to get out of sight of the lifts and other people. Les Contamines is much quieter and it doesn't take long on skins before you've left the lifts behind and are out in terrain that can feel very remote. The area is included in several ski touring guidebooks now, and coupled with relatively cheap ski tourers lift passes, all the main ascent lines will generally have a bit of a skin track in, unless you're very quick after the last snowfall.
One of the best beginner tours within easy reach of Chamonix is the Col de la Fenêtre, which gives over 1,000m of descending for only 200m of uphill effort. Even better, the ascent gets some shade in the morning, saving you from being roasted by the sun, whilst the descent is on the same aspect as much of the skiing from the Buche Croissée chairlift within the Les Contamines ski area, so you can get a good idea of the snow conditions for the descent without breaking sweat.
From the top of the Buche Croissée chairlift in Les Contamines (ski randonnée passes are available from the ticket office) traverse a little south and begin the gradual climb on skins with the Aiguille de Roselette above you on the left and the Lac de la Girotte below you to the right. After about a kilometre you should see the col, nestled halfway between the summits of the Aiguille de Roselette and the Tête de la Cicle, continue towards the col. Passing over the col your descent awaits, along with a whole new valley of views and the chance to put some more clothes on and have a bite to eat.
The descend initially runs to the right, below the east slopes of the Tête de la Cicle. The rolling terrain leads you to the small hamlet of the La Balme chalets where you turn back towards Les Contamines and pick up the well marked Roman road back alongside the Bon Nant river to the ski de fond tracks and the Télécabine de la Gorge.
If you're looking for some where to practise your ski touring, train without worrying about snow conditions or just enjoy some fresh air whilst going uphill, Combloux is also host to a dedicated ski randonnée itinerary. A 5.8km long, 784m of height gain track is prepared from the Bouchet car park just above Combloux village and continuing up to the top of the Pertuis chairlift, the highest point in the Combloux ski area.