If you are just starting out in your snowsports career and have heard that Chamonix is only for the hardcore don’t believe it: you will find the Domaine de Balme area (also known by village names Le Tour and Vallorcine) is perfect for you.
The Domaine de Balme ski area is the gentlest of Chamonix’s snowy areas in the winter. It’s a mixed terrain that’s relatively rock free and where pistes tend to be wide cruisy blues or fairly easy intermediate reds (see the piste map). There are two access points to the ski area, from the villages of Le Tour and Vallorcine. Being right at the top of the valley means that it’s the furthest ski area from Chamonix town but it’s worth making the 20-minute journey up there either by car or the local free bus. You can also take a pleasant train ride to and from Vallorcine and the station is directly by the gondola. The train doesn’t go directly to Le Tour and instead has a stop at Montroc, about 1km from Le Tour itself which therefore requires a further bus ride to reach the main lift station area. From the top of the Domaine de Balme ski area there are some spectacular views across to the Emosson Dam and down to Switzerland.
For as much as it’s a great area for beginners, it also offers an expanse of off-piste skiing and can be a great place to learn how to ski or board in powder as you can stay relatively close to the piste, diving off when you feel confident enough to do so.
- Beginner areas in Le Tour and Vallorcine
- Advanced areas in Le Tour and Vallorcine
- Snowparks in Le Tour and Vallorcine
- Best pistes in Le Tour and Vallorcine
- Off-piste skiing in Le Tour and Vallorcine
- Bad Weather areas in Le Tour and Vallorcine
- Backcountry routes in Le Tour and Vallorcine
- More inspiration...
Beginner areas in Le Tour and Vallorcine
Le Tour/Balme ski area can be found at the far end of the Chamonix valley and is accessible by ski bus or by car. You can also take the train to Vallorcine from where you can get on the Vallorcine gondola, which links up to the ski area. The area offers plenty of variety for beginner skiers, from the nursery slopes of La Vormaine (1,500m) to the green and blue runs higher up the mountain, the natural rolling terrain is the perfect place to learn and perfect your skills.
La Vormaine (1,462m) is the largest nursery ski area in Chamonix, served by four drag lifts of varying length and a magic carpet lift. There are two green pistes and one blue piste here, as well a small snowpark and freestyle area. The nursery area is very wide and flat, allowing plenty of space to make progress and build confidence. You’ll find this area located just to the right of the main gondola and bus stop, to the side of the main home run back into the village.
Higher up the mountain this ski area has 11 more blue pistes (the highest concentration of blue pistes in the Chamonix valley) and the terrain is mostly gentle and not too steep, making it very popular with beginner skiers and snowboarders looking to progress. The majority of the blue pistes are accessed by four drag lifts (good for skiers but not so easy for beginner snowboarders) and two chairlifts. At the end of the day it’s easy to take the Charamillon gondola down the mountain, to avoid having to do the red home run piste back to the bus stop and car park.
Advanced areas in Le Tour and Vallorcine
For advanced skiers, Le Tour and Vallorcine don't really recommend themselves as the slopes here tend to be cruisey blues and reds. For steeper gradients we'd recommend looking elsewhere.
Snowparks in Le Tour and Vallorcine
The Summit Park at Le Tour is billed as one of the biggest snowparks in Europe and is much bigger than the one at Grands Montets. Situated at 2,000m, it benefits from great snow conditions and has routes graded from blue through to black with the most advanced routes meeting FIS competition standard. A regular competition takes places here once a year called Ride the Snake, making the most of the large kickers and jumps.
If you go through it you can appreciate it really is a beast. It includes modules such as jumps, boxes, whoops and step-ups, plus two pipe lines on the black route. There is also a CoolZone here where you can chill out, watch the riders coming through the park or just admire the view of Mont-Blanc.
Use the Téléski Le Col to lap it.
Best pistes in Le Tour and Vallorcine
Take the Autannes chairlift at the front of Le Tour for some good intermediate runs, Les Ecuries being the most obvious as it runs below the lift. If you carry on down Charamillon you'll end up in the car park and can take the gondola back up. The area is littered with gullies which fill with snow and make natural halfpipes.
The Tête de Balme chair at the backside of the Domaine de Balme offers fast access to some steeper runs. If the snow is good there’s always the possibility of skiing right down to the village of Vallorcine and riding back up on the gondola. With some great access to powder even a few days after a dump the backside of Le Tour is one of our favourite areas in Chamonix.
The Aiguilette des Possettes drag lift accesses some great open powder fields down towards the Esserts piste. Don't go skiers' right though, it looks tempting but it's avalanche prone.
Off-piste skiing in Le Tour and Vallorcine
The geology of Le Tour is very different from that of the rest of the valley. It is far less rocky, and in the summer there are meadows filled with grazing cows here. At the start of the winter season it doesn’t need masses of snow to make the off-piste good.
The front side (in between the pistes that fan out from the Autannes chair) is gentle and great for getting a feel for making your first turns off-piste. You are never too far from the piste and the many gullies here are fun to play in, and it’s hard to get lost too as you always end up back at the Charamillon lift station. Here are a few of our favourite off-piste routes.
Route 1: Combes de la Vormaine
Another easily accessible area with no hiking needed is the much steeper part of Le Tour called the Combes de La Vormaine. Staying on the front side by traversing skier’s left around the bowl from the Autannes chair you arrive at the top of the Combes de la Vormaine (it’s just out of sight of the lifts and pistes so chances are it’ll be fairly untracked too). From the chairlift we follow the Chatelet track on the skiers left to the top of the chutes from which we can take our pick to drop into. These steep chutes have several different aspects with gradients that vary between 35 and 45 degrees. They funnel into a valley that leads to the beginner’s area of La Vormaine so don’t attempt them unless you're confident in your ability to ride slopes of this gradient. These chutes are often loaded with snow in the form of cornices and wind lips all the way down, which are great for riding up and pulling powdery turns but its important to remain vigilant.
Route 2a: Aiguille des Posettes
Take the Aiguillette draglift up and then head out skier’s right, away from the pistes staying high below the ridge. This leads to the slopes above the car park at Le Tour. When you reach the avalanche barriers (yes, these slopes are avalanche prone) start to descend towards Le Tour. The slopes are a good pitch here without being too steep, and scattered trees and bushes keep things interesting. You can either head into the trees below to pick up the trail that zigzags down, or head skier’s left into the more open section. When you are just above the river follow the riverbank down to the car park and bus stop. It’s a good run to do at the end of the day, unless it’s hot, which can cause these sunny slopes to become very unstable.
Route 2b: Aiguillette des Posettes
From the Aiguillette des Posettes you can take a three-minute climb over the top of the Aiguillette and descend down to Vallorcine. There are plenty of routes down but plenty of cliffs too, so have a look at the mountain from below first. The most-frequented route is the Posettes couloir, which is wide, open and reasonably steep. The snow here is often good but since the Vallorcine gondola was built it’s a little harder to find completely fresh tracks. Be wary of heading too far skier’s right, as this is where the worst of the cliffs are. By heading almost straight down you should get some good lines through the trees and shrubs and the slopes are shaded and the snow often excellent. At the bottom head right to either the train station if you want to head back to Chamonix, or take the gondola to get back into the lift system.
Route 2c: Aiguillette des Posettes
From the top of the Aiguillette draglift take a ride down the ridge skier’s left. Just dropping over the back of the ridge toward Vallorcine, being a little careful not to drop down too far as it means a walk back up. This opens up some superb terrain with rolling drops, scattered trees and little cornices (the zone below is an animal wintering zone). The area’s not particularly steep but is great fun nonetheless. There are also some good spots here. Traverse towards the top of the Vallorcine gondola and try not to drop below the Esserts Variant piste as the hike back isn’t much fun.
Route 3: Le Tour/Vallorcine
A short hike to the top of the Tête de Balme from the chairlift of the same name opens up a lot of off-piste terrain at the back of Le Tour above Vallorcine. However, this can be a dangerous area for avalanches so take care. The back bowls here are often wind-loaded, with large cornices looming above the slopes: they may look great but can be deadly as there are several terrain traps here where you could potentially be buried under metres of snow. If you want to explore these areas, then take a local mountain guide and be prepared for all risks.
If you don’t want to do the hike to the top of the Tête de Balme, you can access some of the same terrain by heading down the Esserts black run and then traversing skier’s right. You miss out on some good stuff at the top but still get some superb riding through the trees. The woods here are worth exploring, as there are plenty of unexpected clearings and fun drops. The terrain undulates here and there’s always something fun around the corner. As we mentioned above, don’t forget to traverse back to the bottom of the chairlift.
The routes mentioned here are just the tip of the Le Tour iceberg, there are many, many more possibilities to explore in this area.
Bad Weather areas in Le Tour and Vallorcine
Another favourite spot is the tree area at the back of Le Tour above Vallorcine (Le Domaine de la Balme), which offers some great terrain. When it’s snowing, the front of Le Tour is normally in a whiteout so instead, you can take the long traverse round to the back through to the trees on the Esserts piste and then to the Tete de Balme chairlift and take that up to the top. It can be bitterly cold and windy on this chair in a snowstorm so make sure you are prepared with warm clothing.
From the top, follow the Tete de Balme chairlift down and then head skier’s right into the open trees but don’t go too far right as there are some very open and avalanche prone bowls beyond the trees. In the trees, the visibility is normally better and the woods shelter the snow from the wind, thus keeping it in good condition.
The terrain is less steep than the Magic Forest at Grands Montets. There are a few rocks to drop and lots of gentle rollers that often develop small cornices to jump off. It’s easy to get carried away with the powder and go down too far, so you'll have to remember to traverse back skier’s left to the bottom of the Tete de Balme chair - to avoid having to walk back up.
Again, this area is all off-piste and unpatrolled so if you head this way you need to take care and go equipped for avalanches.
Backcountry routes in Le Tour and Vallorcine
In one moment you can be skiing in France, the next in Switzerland, there are very few other ski resorts that can offer the same in backcountry riding. With some steep ascents, glacier travel and long powder field descents this area has a lot to offer those who want to explore. Just remember to take your passport!
There are several excellent guidebooks with descriptions of the many possible routes both within and beyond the lift areas. There are two published by Vamos called Mont-Blanc Ski tours (ISBN 2910672085) and Chamonix Hors pistes-Off piste (ISBN 2910672107); these books are bilingual, in English and French. A more extensive guidebook with more difficult routes is Mont-Blanc et Aiguilles Rouges à ski (ISBN 2960025520), written by Anselme Baud and published by Nevicata; it’s only available in French but is worth struggling through even if your French isn’t so good as it gives very accurate descriptions and has good explanatory photos. But remember, in the backcountry there are many dangers not least from cliffs and avalanches so you should always hire a Chamonix guide.
A favourite ski-tour, it’s best to set off as early as possible because the slopes of the Grands Autannes are steep and catch the sun in the afternoon. Take the gondola up from Le Tour then the Autannes chairlift. Next comes the hard part; either on snowshoes or skins start the ascent up the slopes in front of you. Sometimes it’s best to go up onto the ridge and follow it along to the couloirs, at other times if it looks safe it’s easiest just to head straight up the couloirs. It’s a deceptive climb as it doesn’t look very steep from below, but the upper section by the GAZEX tubes can be intimidating and you need crampons for the last section. At the first saddle, head to the right up the last short rock scramble to the small peak. Once at the top you’ll realise it’s worth the climb, as you have a great view over the back to the Trient glacier.
For the descent to Trient, stay high and traverse skier’s right, avoiding the rock bands below until you reach the open bowl. From there it’s open powder all the way. If you look left you can see the Col de Balme and the restaurant there. Below that is the long gully that leads to Trient. There are several small and steep chutes that lead into the main gully or you can pick your way through the bushes. The chutes are better, but beware of wind-loading, as you can set off small slab slides. Don’t hang around in the main gully, because it is a serious avalanche channel. After a big snowfall this place is extremely high risk. Follow the big gully down, and head left at the bottom into the meadows. Follow the ski de fond trail to Trient and have a beer at the café while you wait for the bus. Job done, powder run completed.
PS. Don’t forget to take your passport on this trip as you may be asked for it when you head back over the border into France.