Chamonix (Chamonix-Mont-Blanc) is one of France’s oldest and most picturesque ski resorts. Dense pine forests wind through the valley and spiky mountains provide a dramatic backdrop for more than 150km of piste and 15,000 acres of off-piste areas. This makes the resort popular with freeriders searching for new routes and untouched snow.
However, Chamonix can be expensive: mountain huts charge €30+ for a basic hot lunch and hiring a guide starts at €100 per day. When you take into account accommodation, ski pass and meals it’s likely to cost you at least €1000 for a week’s skiing.
That is unless you book with one of the UCPA centres in Chamonix or nearby Argentière. The French non-profit organisation is dedicated to providing snow sports lovers with affordable ski holidays. Aimed at ages 18-45 (although not exclusive), the centres offer week long and weekend courses for skiers and snowboarders during the winter season.
I signed up for the new 4-day off piste advanced course which runs from Thursday to Sunday. Local skiers usually arrive early in the morning, pick up their kit and are ready to go by 10am.
My course included two days with off-piste instruction and two days of free time to ski as I liked.
During the first morning our French ski instructor, Flo helped us find our ski legs and put us through a series of drills on piste to improve our off-piste skiing technique. Just before lunch he gave us some basic avalanche training and then it was time to put theory into action.
The ski areas in Chamonix are blessed with several large huts where you can tuck into a packed lunch without the need to buy anything.
On the second day we walked to the ski area of Grands Montets and tackled some more challenging off-piste routes, including a vast run covered with giant moguls. As a relative novice I was amazed at how much I was able to learn in just two days. This was mainly thanks to Flo’s attentive and patient teaching.
Aiguille du Midi
The UCPA ski pass includes access to Aiguille du Midi, a mountain in the Mont Blanc massif that can be accessed by cable car from Chamonix. The two cable cars transport you to the summit, which is an impressive 12,604ft (3,842m) above sea level. The views from the top, which include the summit of Mont Blanc, are absolutely breathtaking.
Aiguille du Midi is also home to one of Chamonix’s most famous off piste routes: the Vallée Blanche. Skiers attach crampons to their ski boots and descend a steep, slippery hill to reach the powder below. They then follow a spectacular 20km route that takes them all the way back to Chamonix.
Socialising at the UCPA centre is actively encouraged, and friendships are quickly formed thanks to the communal atmosphere. Dinner is a fun and noisy affair with plenty of delicious buffet food, including a selection of hot dishes (with vegetarian options), salads and desserts. The highlight for me was the Tartiflette night, where we feasted on mountains of smoked bacon, potatoes, reblochon cheese and onions. At the end of the meal you tidy away the dishes and wipe the table, which only takes seconds but again keeps the price down for guests.
There is also plenty of alcoholic merriment to be had at the bar area. To purchase drinks you use a special UCPA card which can be topped up using either cash or card. The centre hosts live music night, quiz nights and dance nights to keep guests entertained. If you feel like a night on the town, you can catch a free bus into Chamonix where there are plenty of bars and nightclubs to dance the night away.
The UCPA experience
UCPA centres are akin to high-end hostels with shared rooms, social area, bar, buffet restaurant and on-site equipment hire. I stayed at UCPA Argentière, which has recently been fully refurbished. The decoration is simple, modern and very clean and as well as the usual amenities there is a sauna, climbing room and heated pool (closed during winter).
There are numerous programmes including beginner courses, ski touring and off-piste courses. Courses are chosen in advance, and it is important to be honest with yourself about your ski ability. If you select an advanced ski course and you can only snowplow, you may be removed from the programme. If this happens you can join another course but there may not be availability at this late stage. So it’s best to be honest from the start.
Once checked-in you receive your ski pass, room code and entrance key. On entering your room, you make your own bed with the sheets and blanket provided. You are also expected to strip the bed and clean the room (again with provided cleaning materials) at the end of your stay. This helps UCPA save on huge cleaning costs and keeps the price down.
Getting there: The nearest airport to Chamonix is Geneva and airlines flying from the UK to Geneva include British Airways, Swiss, easyJet and Flybe. With Easyjet you can fly from London to Geneva for as little as £23.16 each way.
Airport transfers: Shared transfers from Geneva to the UCPA centre in Argentière start at £65 return per person.
Ski pass: The UCPA ski pass usually costs €61.50 for a round trip.
Clothing: No ski clothing is provided by UCPA so make sure you bring everything with you including thermals, outer clothing, gloves, goggles and ski socks.
Booking your holiday with UCPA: The official UK booking partner for UCPA is Action Outdoors. Apart from flights and transfers everything is included in the price: full-board accommodation, ski pass, equipment hire, local bus pass, instruction and avalanche equipment (if going off piste). Prices start from £262 and average at around £630 for the week. All profits are re-invested into improving the organisation.