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Trip Report Chamonix vs Zermatt

Discussion in 'Europe' started by UAE Slider, Feb 4, 2019.

  1. UAE Slider

    UAE Slider Hard Yards

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    My fine wife relented and granted 2.5 days sliding in Zermatt, then 2 days sliding in Chamonix two weeks ago, while she was stuck at home wrangling the kids. For this, I will be forever grateful, since it gave me the chance to hit up some places that have been on my bucket list. Even though I have no more child-avoidance credits left for at least another 12 months, both place were well worth it.

    I thought it worth sharing some thoughts on both places for anyone planning their next Euroski adventure.

    Terrain: Zermatt/Cervinia is a massive area, in the top 5 size-wise in the world (360km of pistes). It's split into 4 major sections each with their own "peak" but the terrain is very undulating with lots of red runs that can have steep sections followed by an uphill to wash off speed. The runs are long and 85% is above the tree-line (lucky it was sunny the whole time I was there). There are a few flat cat tracks too so be sure to get your board waxed!

    The 3 main areas of Chamonix are small in comparison (114km of pistes). I had not done the math before the visit and I was quietly lamenting Chamonix for having such a small ski area after visiting Zermatt. What it lacks in groomers however is more straightforward, consistent vertical faces, few spines, which means some seriously fast red runs. Lachanel at Brevent/Flegere would have to be one of the best red runs on the planet. One would be hard-pressed to find anything else as steep, with a continuous flat face for as long.

    This consistency in fall-line makes it great for off-piste action. It snowed 15cm overnight in the Chamonix valley while I was there and I was in Grands Montetes laughing at myself for questioning why people love this place so much. The truth is one would be hard-pressed to think of a better place to be after a good-sized snowfall. It has obvious off-piste, with few dead ends and steep, continuous faces. Without having a guide, one can have a lot of off-piste fun in Chamonix. And then if one is keen to complete some short-medium hikes, there are many "off-the-back, out-of-resort-bounds" routes to be had as well.

    Zermatt is no slouch for off piste either. The itineraries along the Stockhorn glacier are excellent, and despite it not having snowed for a week, there were still fresh tracks to be had. Most Zermattians, unlike Chamonix natives/visitors are not off-piste obsessives so it does not get tracked out as quickly. The tracked out areas were fun too since the snow was still soft underfoot given the high altitude (2500m+). The downside of off-piste Zermatt is the aforementioned undulating terrain, unlifted valleys, and glaciers. This makes it tricky for newcomers to navigate. It'd be great to get a guide next time.

    Overall, both places are great for intermediate/advanced sliders (tho I'd still suggest
    Verbier/4 Vallees is the best place I've ever been terrain-wise).

    Snow Quality: I would have to give this one to Zermatt since by, virtue of altitude alone, the snow quality was great (the top of the highest lifted point is 3900m meters, and the other two peaks are also fairly high too with the top of Sonnega/Rothorn being 3100m, and the top of Gornergratt/Stockhorn being 3250m). In contrast, the lower altitude (<2100m), south facing pistes in Brevent/Flegere were a little icy, and needed a top-up of snow even in late Jan (which they subsequently did). Not surprisingly, altitude and aspect counts for everything.

    Both places were super cold. Zermatt was -11 in the village during my stay and means it was at least -15 at the top (pro tip: do not take the drag lifts when trying to get over to Cervinia if temps are low. You will freeze). Chamonix was pretty cold too at -7 in the valley, which meant good, dry, fresh snow. Oddly, the amount of fresh snow was highest mid-mountain.

    Costs: Zermatt is an expensive place, though Chamonix has its moments. The snackhouse on Brevent charged EUR6.50 for a cappuccino from an automatic machine, while I paid EUR3.50 in Valtourneche. Realising my rookie error, I hit the one of several bakeries in Chamonix on the morning of Day 2 for a baguette and a coupla pastries for lunch. My guess is this is how the local snow bums do it. I saw one guy pull out a thermos of coffee on the gondola. That's one way to save a few $$$s.

    That Zermatt charges EUR5 for the lift pass card, a bit of plastic, is a bit of a joke but it's telling that they get away with it. A Zermatt/Cervinia pass works out to be EUR81, which might be the most expensive pass in Europe. Though, with fine weather and full snow coverage, it's more than justified. A single day ski pass in Chamonix will only set you back EUR47 but a return ride up to the Aiguille du Midi was a whopping EUR50 (forget it).

    Pistelife: Maybe 'cos it's close to Italy, but Zermatt has a reasonable volume of on-piste jaunts, and usually quite lovely. The two that I visited in Zermatt were great, Zu Swingee near Gant, and Foyer des Guides near the bottom of Valtourneche. On Sundays, it even seemed important to make a reservation. Chamonix has few such pitstops. It is strictly focused on sport and mostly had cafeteria type places with snack food rather than 3 course dining. As I mentioned above, best bring your own lunch.

    Both places had uncrowded pistes and few long queues. I was subsequently told that January was "off-season", a lull after Christmas/New Year and before Swiss/French school holidays begin. Well, good. It was rare to encounter "slow" sliders carving the full width of a fast cat track, when a passing manoeuvre could send one tumbling off the edge into a treed abyss or slamming into an ice-wall. In fact, Zermatt felt rather empty.

    Chamonix has old lifts that would not be out of place in Australia. Even the telecabines of Liason and Flegere are romantic at best (looks like there are plans to replace the Flegere telecabine imminently). Most of the lifts in Zermatt are modern and it has just installed a new, impressive lift to the Klein Matterhorn (3900m). It's like a gondola but instead of the usual egg-shaped cabins, it has massive square boxes that could fit 30 people. Apparently several of these cabins have been designed by Swarovski. It carries 2000 people an hour, which is not massive but not bad for a lift that covers 900 metres of vertical (the new Eagle chair at Falls carries 2400 an hour, prob 300 metres of vertical).

    The scenery was great in both places (see photos), especially the Zermatt glaciers but I'd still say the Dolomites in Italy are the most spectacular.

    Chairlift Comrades: Oddly, I met quite a few yanks in Zermatt. Around town, Zermatt had a fair share of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, probably drawn to see the Matterhorn. My airbnb host said that a lot of his guests are Korean and they bring their own noodles. I met a few Swiss too. Obviously, as soon as you are in no-mans land at the top of the Klein Matterhorn and moving towards Cervinina there are suddenly lots of Italians as well.

    In Chamonix, there seemed to be lots of French but also a lot more British, Australian, and Canadian.

    Nightlife: Zermatt is filled with many fine dining restaurants and very few bars/clubs/apres. That's not to say that you could not have a late one, it's just that it did not seem much of a "party" town. Chamonix, on the other hand, had all manner of venues and buzz. Though neither has anything like Austrian apres-ski or an emphasis on partying like, say, Verbier.

    Townlife: Every major Swiss watchmaker has a boutique in Zermatt, plus other jewellers. Interestingly, both have McDonalds, which is to suggest that both are definitely towns rather than villages. For every watch boutique in Zermatt, Chamonix had a mountain-wear/equipment retailer. It's Little Bourke Street times one hundred. It's a wonder that they all survive but I guess it's indicative of the types of visitors each place gets. Zermatt did have a few people that looked like they could drop $20k on a watch on a whim while Chamonix has those types that have enough gear at home for a 20-man trek up Everest.

    Both town are quite pretty but I did prefer Chamonix since it had a little more hustle and bustle.

    For dinner in Zurich, the focus is on Swiss-German food, particularly raclette and fondue but you have your staples like bratwurst and schnitzel. In Chamonix, most French restaurants offer classic Savoyarde fare, steak, game, also raclette etc. Given the proximity, both places have Italian food at various levels of sophistication as well.

    For families with young children:
    I would suggest Chamonix wins on that front. Despite having to catch buses everywhere, bus stops are also everywhere. In Zermatt, the two launch pad lifts are spaced a fair way apart, maybe 20 minutes walk, too far to walk with children. My guess is the well-to-do parents in Zermatt get the electric taxis that zoom about the village.

    Most of the slopes in Zermatt are suited to experience sliders. Chamonix is the same in Brevent/Flegere and Grands Montets. However, I did venture to Le Tour and was pleasantly surprised at how well it suited beginners. It reminded me of Sun Valley at Falls Creek (tho the runs in Le Tour are much longer). It had lots of wide open spaces with an easy, but not flat ,gradient. One can go fast but it's never particularly steep. For the parents, there is enough to keep them busy while the kids are at ski school, whether that be tree runs under the Tete de Balme lift or the plenty of side-country on offer.

    I think Zermatt knows that it isn't well-suited for kids since lift passes are free for those aged 9 an under! At Chamonix, the ski pass costs kick in at 5 years of age.

    Finally, there is getting there itself. Chamonix is a 90 minute bus ride from Geneva airport. Zermatt was a 3-hour train ride, which is probably 1 hour too many with young children after a plane trip.

    The final word: If there are kids in tow, Chamonix. Parents can tag-team days in Le Tour while the other chases pow-pow at the other ski areas. If no kids and keen to charm the missus then Zermatt. If no kids in tow but with friends that will crash by 10pm after a big day of logging km's on and off-piste, then Zermatt. If your mates like to give it a nudge in the evenings then Chamonix.

    Till next winter.
     
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  2. TOFF

    TOFF Im kind of a big deal Ski Pass: Gold

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    Great report, thanks.
    though no pics :(
     
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  3. Heinz

    Heinz Old n' Crusty Ski Pass: Gold

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    Very nice summary. Sounds familiar. Things may have changed in recent years but much is still the same.
    Next thing you need to do though is the trip from Chamonix to Zermatt.
     
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  4. Tanuki

    Tanuki A Local Ski Pass: Gold

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    Excellent reviews, thanks for sharing. Now to save money and plan a trip to Zermatt and Verbier.
     
  5. CarveMan

    CarveMan Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    Comprehensive post, thanks!!

    I've spent plenty of time in Cham but as much as I love it I do definitely acknowledge that it's not for everyone, I think Val d'Isere is the best ski resort in France and arguably the world.

    My only experience in Zermatt is skiing down the glacier after 4 days of hiking, bumping in to a mate and having too many beers and missing the last train back to the car in Verbier resulting in a $$$$$ taxi. Switzerland is expensive, you can feel the cash leaking out your pores every minute you're in the country, gives me an uneasy feeling. But I do need to go back to Zermatt to ski it properly.
     
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  6. Boodwah

    Boodwah One of Us Ski Pass: Gold

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    Agree w @Heinz that the best run is the one that links them.
    Sz is expensive, and Neither of them are child/family friendly IMO. Great skiing means added cost of guides in Cham. And Bussing anywhere with kids and all their crap is a massive PITA.
    3V, Espace Killy, and Grand Paradski are 3 best options for families I reckon.
    Also Dolomiti Superski or Portes du Soleil if the snow is on.
    Most important consideration with kids is, (again, IMO opinion, but numbers 1,2 and 3!), ski in, ski out accom.
     
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  7. Boodwah

    Boodwah One of Us Ski Pass: Gold

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    Should add that maybe that’s more of an indictment on how massively retarded my kids still are at getting their shit together
     
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  8. piolet

    piolet Better make it three Ski Pass: Gold

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    You need to pile a bit onto them
    And obviously age is a large factor
    The bus is still a novelty for my kids and their gear isn't yet too heavy although we did drive a few times this year
     
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  9. UAE Slider

    UAE Slider Hard Yards

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    A few pics...

    Matterhorn from Rothorn: If you squint hard you can see a few lifts




    Half way down next to the Hohtalli telecabin. This was good fun.


    The Matt looms everywhere plus you can kinda see that there were still a few fresh tracks to be had





    View back down the valley from top of Le Tour
     

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  10. UAE Slider

    UAE Slider Hard Yards

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    Mont Blanc From Flegere. It took a while for the sun to rise


    Clouds Ahead on Grandes Montets: For most of the morning, it was sunny up top then snowing mid-mountain in the cloud. Very strange experience. Also fun that there was 15cm on top of what had been groomed earlier in the evening.


     
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  11. CarveMan

    CarveMan Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    My one ski in to Zermatt came in from the plateau at the top RHS of the pic. Took a few days walking to get there.
     
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  12. LiveToSki

    LiveToSki One of Us Ski Pass: Silver

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    Just curious - A few days walking for how long skiing?
     
  13. CarveMan

    CarveMan Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    Not much. It's about spending a week up high in the mountains on glaciers.

    There was a lot of this:





    But a bit of this too:



     
  14. climberman

    climberman CloudRide1000 Legend Ski Pass: Gold

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    Only 15 years to go!!
     
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  15. Heinz

    Heinz Old n' Crusty Ski Pass: Gold

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  16. CarveMan

    CarveMan Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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  17. UAE Slider

    UAE Slider Hard Yards

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    Yep. Tignes\Val d'Isere is next on the list. Nice pics of the haute route. One day...
     
  18. sbm_

    sbm_ One of Us Ski Pass: Silver

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    My family in Torino had a funny story about coming back to Italy from a trip through Switzerland, went to get coffees for everyone in the car with like 5 euro (because a coffee in an Italy city is 1 euro no exceptions) and he didn't even have enough money for a single coffee.

    It was interesting they also griped to me that Val D'Aosta was like, super expensive by Italian standards (apparently the highway tolls from Torino to Aosta is like 30 euro?) where as that side of the range, really looks like the budget option compared to Cham or Zermatt! Bardoneccia was their Torino local choice (it's on the Italian side nearish to Montgenevre and La Grave) it's right on the train line out of town.
     
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  19. piolet

    piolet Better make it three Ski Pass: Gold

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    Cham can be pricey as hell but not strictly so
    Not being an enclosed resort helps
     
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  20. CarveMan

    CarveMan Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    If your intention is to spend money in Cham nobody is going to get in your way, but I've always found it reasonable if you're budget minded. Maybe I'm skewed by the ridiculous cost of living in Melbourne though.
     
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  21. TOFF

    TOFF Im kind of a big deal Ski Pass: Gold

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    I found it took a couple of days to adjust to Cham prices.
    The first couple of days after spending 100 odd euro on lunch (4 pax) and almost double that on dinner you work out that kids having 2 cokes at lunchtime (@5.5 euro) is not required and that baguettes etc are good value.
     
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  22. TOFF

    TOFF Im kind of a big deal Ski Pass: Gold

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    I should add, after Chamonix we went to Lucurne which was more $ before arriving in Munich which felt very cheap
     
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  23. CarveMan

    CarveMan Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    Best lunch in Cham is a baguette from your backpack, sitting on a rock.
     
  24. climberman

    climberman CloudRide1000 Legend Ski Pass: Gold

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    One of the lovely things in Cham was seeing that many areas have a spot where heaps of families and couples sit back in the snow with a view and break out lunch from a backpack - often quite extensive meals! You can get a E100 lunch or a baguette with salad. Noice.
     
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  25. CarveMan

    CarveMan Pool Room Ski Pass: Gold

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    Not sure if I've got a photo but I had a great backpack baguette sitting on a rock with @piolet up the Argentiere glacier
     
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  26. sbm_

    sbm_ One of Us Ski Pass: Silver

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    Good reading for a trip to the Alps, if you can deal with some 19th century English, is Edward Whymper's "Scrambles Amongst The Alps", a great adventure read from the Golden Age of Alpinism in the 1850s.

    A lot of now-ritzy Alpine towns were very rural backwaters, and a "Chalet" was as often as not a filthy dirt-floored shepards hut that you shared with livestock. No lifts or cars either, they walked literally everywhere. If you wanted to pop over to Val Tournenche from Zermat you walked over the Theodule pass and hoped you didn't fall into a crevasse (roped glacial travel techniques still being a pretty futuristic concept)
     
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  27. piolet

    piolet Better make it three Ski Pass: Gold

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    Can be a hard sell to have a picnic with the fam on a cold snowy January day
     
  28. piolet

    piolet Better make it three Ski Pass: Gold

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    looks like i only took scenics
    no baguette pics, amazingly LOL

     
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  29. Annabuzzy

    Annabuzzy Part of the Furniture Ski Pass: Gold

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    I’ve never seen it said before that Chamonix is a good family destination so it probably says a lot about Zermatt!!

    Not that I’m saying there’s no family skiing in Cham but I can think of a lot of more family friendly destinations!!
     
  30. climberman

    climberman CloudRide1000 Legend Ski Pass: Gold

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    Oh for sure! LOL
     
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  31. piolet

    piolet Better make it three Ski Pass: Gold

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    I tend to agree

    Two very different places too.
     
  32. piolet

    piolet Better make it three Ski Pass: Gold

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    My wallet can verify from the other week :eek:
     
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