For skiers, Chamonix is the motherland. The 10-mile long valley boasts one bustling town, five ski areas, and lift access to some of the hairiest steeps on the planet. The Aiguille du Midi cable car rises 9,187 feet from Cham Sud to the needle-nose of Aiguille, delivering you to the front door of Mont Blanc, the Vallée Blanche, and technical lines like the Couloir des Cosmiques, a roughly 45-degree, 2,600-foot couloir that usually requires a rappel in. Ski all the way down to the valley floor and rack up 10,000 vertical feet. For something a little less spicy, try the Vallée Blanche—a 13-mile-long rolling schuss down a glacial valley surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Alps. A full backcountry kit and knowledgeable guides are advised, because there is so much terrain to choose from, it’s not well marked, and it’s easy to get into trouble fast. American ex-pats Miles and Liz Smart of Smart Guides are UIAGM-certified and know the valley inside and out (
$560 per day, up to six people). At day’s end, grab a vin chaud (hot, mulled wine) and kick back to the house band at Chambre Neuf. Then stumble home to the Vagabond, ground zero for Cham’s nomadic ski bums ($36 per person in a dormitory room bunk including breakfast, or $195 for two people in a private room including dinner, December-May).