When you first set eyes on Argentière there are few clues as to how it came to be known to serious skiers the world over. The answer is largely out of sight from down on the valley floor, but down at the ski lift access point it’s les Grands-Montets which get top billing. There’s long been a choice of first-stage lift access, as the 53 year-old Lognon cable car simply couldn’t cope unaided during peak periods. Last time we were here the second part of the double-act was a 4-seater high-speed chairlift, but in 2014 this was replaced by the 10-person Plan Joran gondola, an altogether more civilised affair which now continues past the 60-place cable-car’s 1965m top station and instead drops skiers at 2138m. We take the gondola.
Argentière & Les Grands Montets
After a windchill-free haul we step out of the cabin and survey the scene around us: immediately below is the Croix de Lognon mid-mountain complex which in 1997 added restaurant facilities to the lift stations, beyond which the broad, snow-covered valley falls away impressively. To our right second stage gondola and cable-car lifts head further up the mountain, currently still out of sight from our vantage point, while before us are some groomed intermediate pistes – a couple of blues and a red, offering a leisurely cruise down to join the second-stage lifts.
First, though, we decide to warm up our legs by exploring the pisted runs, so cruise down to the foot of the Marmottons two-seater fixed chairlift, which since 1973 has provided a slightly pedestrian haul up to 2197m. Not that most of its passengers will be in much of a hurry, since the area which it serves is designed to offer the kind of relaxed, undemanding skiing which lets you take in the full majesty of the surrounding landscapes. So we do just that, dropping down to 1902m to take the Tabé 4-seater, before heading round to the Combe de Pendant – a longer scenic blue-graded cruise (whose lowest section is often mogulled) down to the Retour Pendant 3-seater fixed chairlift (1857m).
The gentler side of Argentière
Now it’s decision time: if you’re looking for relatively relaxing terrain take the slow Marmottons chairlift back to the Plan Joran gondola top station for some easy runs among fine scenery, with more of the same on offer through the treeline in the Pendant sector via the Tabé chairlift. This gentler side of Argentière is something you seldom hear about, but it’s enough to broaden the appeal of what is otherwise pretty hardcore skiing. Taking the Bochard gondola to 2767m gives a foretaste of things higher up, with a choice of a steep Red-graded piste back to Lognan or a Black which will take you over to Combe de la Pendant .
Visit the panoramic viewpoint
Most skiers, though, will join the frequently long queues for the second-stage Grands Montets cable car, for which you’ll generally need considerable reserves of patience (and at peak times you might decide simply not to bother). When you do finally shuffle onto the cable car, though, you get the feeling that you’re about to head to somewhere which is likely to be well worth the wait. Even by Chamonix standards it’s quite a ride, the final near-vertical docking at the ice-encrusted top station leaving you in no doubt that keeping the cable car open at all is no easy task. On the roof of the building is a panoramic viewpoint which is worth visiting before your descent, since it reveals the full drama of the sensational location.
Do the full vertical drop
Now all you have to do is negotiate the icy steps down to the snow-covered glacier, decide whether you’re going to take the longer or shorter route down (on Pylônes or Point de Vue— each of which is graded Black) and let the skis run. Either way the scenery is like nowhere else, and when you finally reach Lognan you can either take a break (we did) or continue on Pierre à Ric for a Red-graded cruise back to the village. It’s an entertaining run, and made more so by the icy patches which will test your edge-control in the frequent shaded sections.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020