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How to Tackle Chamonix, France, One of the World’s Toughest Climbing Destinations

by Anna Shevchenko May 25, 2021

Chamonix, France, is a small municipality of 16 villages in a lush valley between glacier-filled mountain ranges that contain the highest peak of Western Europe: 15,774-foot-tall Mont Blanc. First attempts to ascend Mont Blanc date back to the 18th century, and since then Chamonix has been at the center of the development of alpinism and mountaineering in the world.

Many of the crags in the Chamonix valley, which is named for the largest of the valley’s villages, were first developed as training grounds for alpinists. These areas eventually gained prominence with rock climbing enthusiasts in their own right. Chamonix frequently hosts the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Cup, attracting elite climbers from all over the world to the valley.

You don’t need to be an elite climber or an alpinist to make the most of the crags in the valley. Our guide will help you plan your climbing trip and introduce you to well-developed bouldering areas and sport climbing in Chamonix that are beginner to intermediate-climber friendly.

Sport climbing in Les Gaillands

Les Gaillands is a climbing area located less than a mile and a half outside of the Chamonix city center. You can take a bus and walk right up to the base of the wall from the bus stop. The crag was developed in the 1930s as training grounds for alpinists and has been well-maintained by local climbing guides.

Les Gaillands features over 100 routes tightly packed in a small area, so you can complete many climbs in a single visit. Climbs rating 5.0 to 5.7 on the climbing scale are considered easy, 5.8 to 5.10 are ranked as intermediates, and anything over 5.12 is for a few extremely skilled climbers. In Les Gaillands, 60 percent of the climbs rate below 5.8, making it a very friendly crag for beginners.

The height of climbs ranges from 32 feet to 260 feet allowing for several multi-pitch routes. The hardest climb in Les Gaillands is within a 5.12 grade and there are many climbs within the 5.10 to 5.11 range. The rock is a gneiss that crumbles easily, so be sure to rent or bring your own helmet. Sunblock and SPF gear are also a must as the crag is exposed to the afternoon sun.

Les Gaillands is a beautiful area for a day out. There are two small lakes and an easy hiking trail nearby. The crag is across the valley from the Mont Blanc massif and the Bossons glacier, so when you are up on your climb take a moment to catch your breath and savor the spectacular mountain scenery around you.

Bouldering in les Bossons

Les Bossons is a small village located right outside of the town of Chamonix. The village is below the most visible glacier in the Chamonix valley: Les Bossons. The forest below the glacier is filled with granite boulders that were developed by the Chamonix climbing club at the end of the 90s. You can take the bus to the village of les Bossons and then walk for 15 minutes through the community to get to the boulders.

The boulders are granite and range anywhere from six to 30 feet in height. There are 120 problems — as bouldering routes are called — marked on the boulders. Different colors designate difficulty levels of the climbs. Yellow routes with grades ranging from V0 to V2 are great for beginners; green routes have grades of V2 to V3; red and blue routes ranging from V4 to V6 are for advanced climbers.

The problems have plenty of slab and traverse, as well as some overhang. This area is mostly frequented by experienced climbers, and you will find that a lot of the easier problems are covered in moss. Bring your brush and several crash pads, the foam pads that cushion potential falls, and always make sure you plan your way down before you climb the taller boulders.

The boulders in Les Bossons are scattered throughout the shady woodland, so climbing here can be enjoyed even on the hottest of the summer days. End your day with a meal at the Chalet du Glacier des Bossons, which overlooks the Bossons glacier. You can hike up a steep hill right to the chalet. Alternatively, take a 20-minute walk to the ski lift, Télésiège Glacier Des Bossons, and enjoy the beautiful quiet ride to the chalet. The lift operators will let you on with your crash pads.

Sport climbing in Le Brévent

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Le Brévent crag is at the height of nearly 8000 feet and located in the mountain range across from Mont Blanc. You will need to take a gondola from Chamonix and walk down from the Brévent station to the crag. The area is better suited for an intermediate climber, with over 30 sport routes ranging between 5.8 and 5.13. Most of the climbs are about 100 feet tall and some can be accessed from the top to set up top ropes. The rock is solid gneiss, and the routes are mostly slab with some crack lines.

Le Brévent is hidden from the sun, so dress in layers and be ready for some unmelted snow at the base of the crag well into the summer months. The appeal of Le Brévent is that you can experience climbing in the alpine that can be accessed by a short walk. You can end your day with a quick hike to one of the best views of Mont Blanc in the valley or a beer on the patio of the Brévent station.

Planning your climbing trip

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The best advice on bouldering and climbing in Chamonix available in English is in Crag Climbs in Chamonix by François Burnier and Dominique Potard. The guide book includes an international grade conversion chart (USA, French, U.I.A.A, Australian, UK, and boulder grades), photos and maps of the climbing areas, details on how to get to each destination from the center of Chamonix, number of pitches and quick draws required, and degree of fall safety on roped climbs. You can order the book from VAMOS editions online.

You can rent locally some of the equipment for climbing in Chamonix. Snell Sport is a Chamonix institution that’s been serving the valley for over 85 years. Equipment rentals are available on a first-come, first-served basis, or you can make a reservation ahead of time by email. Snell Sports rents harnesses, climbing shoes, helmets, and crash pads. You can rent equipment for as little as half a day to multiple days. If the summer rental price list is not yet published online when you plan your trip, Snell Sports can email it to you. If you plan to sport climb, you will have to travel with your own rope, quickdraws, and belaying device. You can also buy new gear locally in Chamonix.

When you arrive in the valley, visit the Chamonix Tourism Office to buy the Vallée de Chamonix Summer Mountain Hiking Map. Even if you don’t plan to hike, the map is useful to find your bearings around different villages within the valley, bus stops, locations, and schedules of gondolas and lifts. Ask your accommodation provider for the Carte d’Hôte Guest Card — a free visitor’s pass that will allow you to ride the buses in the valley free of charge.

Getting to Chamonix

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Chamonix valley is located in France close to the borders of Italy and Switzerland. The easiest ways to enter the valley are from Geneva, Switzerland, or via a seven-mile-long highway tunnel at the base of Mont Blanc from Italy. Multiple providers offer a 1.5 hour shuttle service to Chamonix from Geneva airport or city center. Booking the shuttle service ahead online is required. There are coach bus services that will take you from Milan to Chamonix in about four hours. The above options work well with international flights to Geneva or Milan. You could also fly into Paris and take a speed train to Geneva or an overnight eight-hour bus ride directly to Chamonix.

Best time to climb in Chamonix

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The best months for climbing in Chamonix are mid-June to late September when the snow has melted in the valley. Precipitation averages are consistent year-round in the area so it’s hard to predict the driest time to visit. The valley itself is over 3000 feet above sea level and surrounded by glaciers and 15,000-foot-plus mountains covered in snow year-round, so the weather can be quite unpredictable. Your best bet would be to hope for good weather for your outdoor climbing, but plan activities you can do instead if it rains. You can hike, climb indoors, walk through a glacier, visit the Alpine museum of Chamonix, or rent a car and drive to Switzerland or Italy for a day.

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