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Colter Hinchliffe's one way ticket to Chamonix

Pt 1 - One way ticket to Chamonix

My winter kicked off to a painfully slow start here in Colorado. The storms were missing us to the north, every time! You don’t realize how far south Aspen is until you start looking at maps and understand that Colorado and all its ski country basically make up the southern border of all skiing in the northern hemisphere.

Anyways before I get too far off on a tangent let me cough up the fact that here in Aspen, our November and December snow total was at a 40 year low and around 30cms total. We were basically skiing the “ribbon of death” from Thanksgiving straight through the new year.

When that New Year came and was upon us I decided to pull the trigger and a 1-way flight to Geneva Switzerland which would eventually deliver me to the promise land of Chamonix, France. I have had many people tell me that I have to go to Chamonix, “its the Mecca” they would all explain… “ it's like Aspen times a thousand” they would say… “its a place that could kill” you they would say. I decided on a trip to Hawaii one time that if a place isn’t trying to kill you its not that cool. Hawaii was trying.

As I rolled into the Chamonix valley smelling like I had been traveling for 40hrs in my rental car that would turn for me (I shit you not) my hopes were high and my eyes were wide. I hadn’t “really” skied yet and here I was January 13th rolling into the Mecca with Aguilles towering above me thousands of meters and not looking, to be honest, very skiable.

I spent the next week plus skiing between Chamonix and Courmayeur with my buddy Griffin Post. Luckily some local flavor was cool enough to put up with me, and show us around. We seemed to be spending a lot more time over in Courmayeur which is just on the other side of Monte Bianco from Chamonix, and its also over the French/Italian border. Courmayeur Italy is a very special spot and to be honest I prefer it to Cham. The food is so much better, the weather seems to be less harsh, the language is more pleasant, the people are more relaxed, and the scene doesn’t exist.

 

The shame of it was that instead of staying in lovely Courmayeur we had rented an AIRbnb in ChamSud (a dungy yet cool corner of Cham) and were forced to do an expensive and stressful commute each morning through “the tunnel”. The tunnel is a boring as 11km straight line under   Monte Bianco and through the border. I had to roll up just enough grass to get me through the day and hope we never got searched as we drove every so slowly in a line with mostly 18 wheelers through the tunnel. Luckily we never got searched on any of our 20 or so trips through the border/tunnel.

We did score tons of sick pow almost every single day. We mostly rode a crazy tram that is intended only for tourists to see the view, but if you want to get off and ski down there is no one to stop you. Actually, there was no body there at all. The tram and its bottom, mid and top stations are brand new, and sterile. It is hospital clean. The employees outnumber the guests every day and they hand out shots of espresso for 1.5 Euro. It really is the kind of place that keeps skiing special tho. With no powder panic, and the kind of place that can only exist for a sip of time, as the business is clearly losing money with the minimal customers.

One of the main reasons we continued to ski over there rather than Chamonix was because it just kept snowing and most of the chairlifts were closed in Chamonix because the wind was so severe, and the avalanche danger was so high. They would simply close all the resorts. Since this was a “sightseeing tram” none of those rules were being applied and we were allowed to go make our own decisions and manage the hazards ourselves.  It was certainly scary at times being in foreign terrain with high avalanche hazard and wild weather. It was definitely sick enough to kill us and that's what kept me interested, along with the plentiful deep turns and yummy pizza.

Eventually, the storms broke and gave us a chance to finally starting logging some days in the Chamonix valley. By now I had replaced Griffin Post with Tim Durtschi. Tim and I have skied all over the world together but neither of us had skied here in Chamonix. It was only fitting that we would pop our cherry’s on the Aguille du Midi together. If you don’t know what the Aguille Du Midi is your really missing out. It is a pointy spire towering 9000 feet above the town of Chamonix. There is a two teared tram that delivers anyone who shells over 65 Euro’s, to the top. I am not lieing when I say its a tower. Aguille is a French word that means needle, and there are a number of peaks in the range named Aguille. Aguille Verte, Aguille d’ Argentiere, Aguiille de la nueva, and Aguille Du Midi (the most famous one).

We were being complete and total tourists on our way up the Midi our first time on a bluebird powder day. We checked out all the view from the top, took selfies and were not in a powder panic even though there were hundreds of people on their way to ski the Valle Blanche in front of us. I’m glad we took our time because the Valle Blanche is huge and we had no problems finding tons of pow all the way down through the glaciers, catching air and hooting and hollering the whole way down. The Valle Blanche is a must do experience as a skier, and you don’t have to be a great skier to ski it, don’t let the crampons and ice axes scare you, you’ll be fine!

After a few days under our belts seeing the sights and feeling alright, we opted to hop in our rental car and head back towards pizza land. This trip through the tunnel and into Italy was not just on a day trip. This is where our real adventure began. We left behind all the local knowledge and set off just us two. With no cell service in a country where we couldn’t speak the language, we hoped we could use our noses to find some deep turns. Somewhere different, somewhere authentic, somewhere cheap.

Monte Rosa was the place our noses lead us and it did not disappoint, it was the highlight of our trip and one of the highlights of my winter and my life in many ways. There is something so  awesome about not knowing anything and not having anyone show you the way and being so surprised around every corner. Especially when you love what your finding. Small, cute hotels at the base of red 2 seater chairlifts with no one around kept the 2 of us bros real happy, especially when we woke up to 30cms new.

When we ventured beyond the 2 seater chairlift our minds were blown to find out that a network of chairlifts and trams connected 3 valleys that we were on a mission to explore. We skied so much pow and had so much fun we vowed to come back, with our babes.

 

The babes had book tickets and were going to meet us in Zurich in only a few days. They had had enough of watching us galavant around Europe skiing pow and staying in romantic hotels without them. By the time they arrived we had skied in France, Italy, Switzerland and Lichtenstien (the worlds 6th smallest country) and February was just around the corner.

The arrival of our babes turned the page to the third chapter of my Euro trip. The first being a week skiing pow via the tunnel with Griff. The second chapter was my time in Cham followed by the road trip with Tim. Now the third, babe time. If we weren’t casual tourists before we certainly were now. Cappuccino’s at cute on hill cafes jumped from really important to the main objective. It didn’t seem to matter what kind of room we booked we were sleeping on twin beds either way, the Euros don’t seem to appreciate the California king the way we Coloradans do. Luckily we missed the babes and they missed us enough that snuggling in twin beds was really no problem at all.

We basically reversed our trip starting by spent some time in Lichtenstein skiing at a really cool little resort called Malbun where we skied through an arch. Next we toured our way back through Switzerland aiming for a resort not known for its skiing as much as its hot springs. Vals delivered an incredible bath and the babes wore thong bikinis. Finally we got the 4 of us all packed into our tiny rental car with ski bags strapped to the roof, and made it back to Monte Rosa. We made sure to tour a castle before we skied and almost missed the last lift out of one of the valleys we skied into. Its too bad we caught that lift it would have been “cute” to be stranded in a romantic Italian village.

After Monte Rosa we crammed ourselves back in our rental and almost ran out of gas on our way to Courmayeur. We were pretty excited to show the babes this spot where the pizza was still our favorite after all our travels. Something special happened here in Courmayeur with the babes. The Superbowl. The game didn’t end until 4am local time but some of us were up the whole time dancing during the halftime show. We were all happy to see the Patriots lose!

One last trip through the tunnel and under Monte Bianco led us back to the Mecca, back to Chamonix. We were able to bring the babes up the Midi for their first time and had some incredible skiing at the mono board capitol of the world as far as I could tell, Grand Monte. It was funny to be back in Cham after the road trip because it was actually familiar. I knew my way around and even recognized some people around town! On our final day, I witnessed one of the greatest “sea of dreams” I’ve ever seen from atop the Brevant. I could see the Aguille Du Midi, Grand Monte, Le Dru, Monte Bianco and all the rest of the giants across the valley full of clouds with black crows playing in my foreground matted perfectly against the sea of dreams. I took a photo that still fills the screen on my iPhone and reminds me of that one-way ticket to Chamonix that I bought to kick start my winter, and what a way to start it.

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