Chamonix Mont Blanc, the Mecca of mountaineering, is a town that attracts the full range of tourists from the bearded, dirty and smelly English alpinist, to the chic Italian ladies who shop and adorn their bodies with the skins of several hundred small furry animals, to the omnipresent Japanese being herded around Europe to the hard freestyle skiers with their state-of-the-art gear and scary stories.
However, in the winter there’s a whole world far away from the madness of the ski lifts and the jostle of the ski trails. On snowshoes there is a wealth of summits to discover and nine out of 10 times there’ll be no one else there.
In the European Alps snowshoeing has been popular for years but mainly with people who don’t ski, are not too fit and tend to stay in the valleys doing a forest stroll before heading off for a large lunch.
All that has changed in recent years and with the development of technical snowshoes, encouraged by the explosion in off-piste snowboarding, suddenly snowshoers are “cooler” and younger (in their heads if not in reality) and fit dudes are rejecting the organised limits of skiing and the resorts and heading up into the hills away from it all.
The tree-line here ends at about 2,000 metres (6,500 ft.) and above are wonderful high Alps and summits. Many of these summits can be climbed on snowshoes. Here are three to get you going.
MONT DE L’ARPILLE 2,085m./6,839ft.
Perched high above the Rhône valley, the Mont de l’Arpille is a classic snowshoe summit. Beginning in a typically charming Swiss hamlet perfectly situated on a sunny hillside perch, the walk gently wanders up through larch and spruce forest to the Arpille alps (the word alp actually describes the summer meadows above the trees). This in itself has often proved too attractive to leave and many people content themselves with a couple of hours sunbathing here. The Grand Combin is seen in all its splendour whilst in the foreground is the large summit of the Pointe Ronde. However, to get the full panorama you must continue. The summit requires an hour or so more effort but this is more than compensated by the spectacular panorama. Below is the flat-bottomed Rhône valley, and the Roman town of Martigny, and as far as the eye can see are snowy peaks and snaking glaciers, including Mont Blanc, Mont Buet, the Bernese Oberland, the Jura and the impressive rocky west face of the Dent du Morcles.
The descent from the summit is a blast with short steep slopes interspersed with trees and rocky drop-offs. In powder it’s absolutely unforgettable. Nearer to Chamonix there is the AIGUILLETTE DES HOUCHES 2,285m/7,495ft.
Though not a major summit compared to the giants all around, the Aiguillette des Houches provides unbeatable views of the neighbouring glaciated peaks. Situated at the southern end of the Aiguilles Rouges range, opposite the Mont Blanc massif, the Aiguillette des Houches occupies a privileged position. Indeed, it was from the Brévent, the access point for this route, that in 1760 the young Genevan botanist Horace Bénédict de Saussure came up with the then innovative idea that he’d like to climb to the summit of Mont Blanc. It was to be another 26 years before Jacques Balmat and Gabriel Paccard succeeded in this feat in 1786, but it’s a testimony to the magnificent view of the peak when seen from this vantage point that de Saussure was so inspired.
Easily accessible from the Brévent cable car, the summit is a popular outing. The expedition starts with a descent from the cable car, down sunny slopes, then up in the shade to the summit. You can descend the other side down steep slopes into the forest and on down to the valley. Or you can retrace your steps back to the lift station – if you do this you have to be sure to leave enough time to get back before the lift closes. It would not be good to miss the last cable car down!
Finally here’s a big peak that gives a great two-day trip, spending the night in a mountain hut. Here in Europe these huts are pretty well equipped and even when there is no warden, all you need is in the hut (even drinks are available and all they ask if that you put money in the box).
DENT DE MORCLES 2,969m/9,738ft
The Dent de Morcles is a huge rocky summit that dominates the east side of the Rhône valley between Martigny and the Lac Léman. The west face of the Dent de Morcles is craggy, steep and imposing and the east face provides gentle and accessible terrain that make this summit a perfect snowshoe peak.
The view from the summit is apparently endless – from Mont Blanc, to the Matterhorn, to the nearby Dents du Midi to the far away Gran Paradiso to the hazy plains of Geneva.
Although the summit can be climbed in one day on snowshoes, why rush such a beautiful walk? Better to take two days and spend the night at the well-appointed Cabane de Fenestral on the Col de Fenestral. The first day you can either walk from the valley or take a chairlift up and walk. The hut walk is gentle and enjoyable and the next day an early start means you can also climb the summit in the cool and still have good snow for the long, wonderful descent – all 1,589m/ 5,200ft of it! However, beware, this area features complicated terrain where fog could cause great problems of orientation, and the many steep slopes can be avalanche prone in high-risk conditions. Pick a period of settled weather with stable snow conditions.
So there you are, Chamonix is not just about Mont Blanc, or skiing or climbing. The snowshoeing is as good as any in the world – at least as far as I know!!