Aiguille du Midi (1035m to 3842m, two lifts, no pistes)
The two-stage cable car from Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille (2170m) and Aiguille du Midi (3842m) is an engineering marvel and sightseeing highlight in itself, and the famous Vallée Blanche (an unmarked, unmaintained, unpatrolled off-piste itinerary) which runs back down through the glaciers to Chamonix, continues in the same vein, delivering some of the most spectacular scenery the Mont Blanc range has to offer. It starts with an exposed ridge walk and usually finishes with a longer, steep staircase for access to the Montenvers railway back to Chamonix. If snow conditions are particularly good, it may be possible to continue down through the woods to the Planards chairlift, Whymper’s grave (the British explorer and mountaineer who made the first ascent of the Matterhorn) and Les Trois Chamois bistro. The run itself is a long scenic cruise with a few tight sections between gaping crevasses – fairly easy, but dangerous. There are more challenging variants, but even for the so-called tourist route it makes sense to attempt it with a guide. It need not take all day, however, and strong skiers and boarders should consider doing it in the afternoon, when the run is empty. Alternatively, take touring skis and a picnic, and invite your guide to devise a more ambitious itinerary starting from the Aiguille du Midi.
Argentière/Les Grands Montets (1250m to 3275m, nine lifts, 29km of pistes, snowpark, filmed boarder cross course)
Chamonix’s revival owes much to the opening of this sector, which celebrated its 50th birthday by upgrading the access lift and mid-mountain concourse. The upper GM cable car serves an immense freeride playground, much of it glacier, punctuated by two long black pistes of 1300m vertical back to the mid-station, Lognan, and 2000m vertical for the full descent down to the valley. The lift operator rings the changes in trying to manage the high demand, the current system being a combination of free-for-all and advance reservations online (compagniedumontblanc.fr).
Going with a guide is the simplest solution at busy periods, or taking the view that a fairly long rest between tiring runs is no bad thing. The other lifts above Lognan serve terrific terrain, including a few groomed intermediate pistes, but this is not a mountain for easy cruising. The red run down from Lognan to the valley, Pierre à Ric, is great in the morning, when hardly anyone uses it – less enjoyable from mid-afternoon, when it’s packed.
Le Tour/Vallorcine (1265m to 2270m, 11 lifts, 29km of pistes, timed slalom run)
An M-shaped area with gentle open slopes and reliable snow at the head of the valley, ideal for confidence building and entry-level off piste, with an easy link to the attractive woodland runs and more rugged terrain above the village of Vallorcine.
Les Houches (950m to 1900m, 17 lifts, 55km of pistes, snowpark)
An M-shaped area reached by lifts to Bellevue (1800m, best for the snowpark) and Prarion (1900m), either side of the Col de Voza (1650m). There's easy cruising around the saddle and over the back on the St Gervais side, where one feels the pistes ought to go down to the base station of the creaky old Tramway du Mont Blanc and create a de facto link between Chamonix and Megève; but they don’t.
On the Les Houches side, there are long runs through the woods of a kind more often associated with Austria, including Verte – Chamonix’s World Cup downhill race course (3.3km for 870m vertical). The confusingly named La Verte is graded black for that reason, but it's not especially difficult unless taken at downhill racing speed. There is also a top-to-bottom blue run, Aillouds, but the terrain is essentially intermediate, with good lunch options (La Tanière and les Vieilles Luges).
The above remarks are generally confined to skiing and snowboarding on piste (apart from the Aiguille du Midi), although many will hope to spend much of their time exploring Chamonix's legendary off piste. For this, enrol in ski school, hire a guide or join a group organised by the Bureau des Guides (chamonix-guides.com) which has offices in central Chamonix, Argentière and Les Houches (£240 per day for a maximum of six clients, including safety equipment). Alternatively, opt for a holiday package that includes off-piste guiding (see the Accommodation tab for more information). For independent guides and instructors, visit chamonet.com.
Ecole du Ski Français – Chamonix (esfchamonix.com), Argentière/Le Tour (esf-argentiere.com), Vallorcine (ecole-ski-vallorcine.com), Les Houches (esf-leshouches.com). Typically, group lessons cost £110 for six sessions of 2.5 hours and a private lesson costs £70 for 2 hours.
For value equipment hire, book online in advance through Intersport (intersport-rent-france.co.uk) or Skiset (skiset.co.uk).
Off the mountain
Chamonix isn't short on activities away from the slopes. There's a big pool and water chute, plus squash and indoor tennis in the sports centre at Chamonix (chamonix.com), ski joering and dog-sledding at Le Tour, a climbing wall at Les Houches, sleigh rides in town, bowling in Chamonix Sud, a cinema and an ice rink. Snowshoeing is easily arranged and can be combined with a goat farm visit at Les Houches (lafermeapayot.com). Of hotel spas open to visitors, the best are at the Albert Premier (hameaualbert.fr) and Les Aiglons (en.aiglons.com). There's also cross-country skiing available – the best area for this is in the upper valley, in the woods between Argentière and Le Lavancher. Snowshoeing (‘raquettes’) is best at Les Houches and Servoz and easily arranged independently or via the ski school (leshouches.com).