I’ve flopped down in a soft bed of powder, taking a break after a long traverse beneath the Glacier de Grand Col, which drapes the northern slopes of 3,650-metre Mont Turia, a shoulder of 3779-metre Mont Pourri, the highest peak around.
The sun smiles down upon us from a cobalt-blue sky and glistens off a billion snow crystals, and surrounding us are craggy mountains, glaciers and, way down below, snow shrouded forests, whilst the only sound is that of my own breathing and, eventually, the swish of my mate Norman’s skis as he joins me on our break.
This complete lack of humans is quite remarkable when you consider that we’re in the heart of Tarentaise Valley, which is home to the biggest concentration of world-class ski resorts in the world. To the immediate south is the Espace Killy ski area (Val d’Isère and Tignes) and Les Trois Vallées (Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens); on the other side of the valley from us are Sainte Foy, and La Rosiere (which connects to the Italian resort of La Thuile); and we’ve got here from the Paradiski ski area (Les Arcs and La Plagne).
There were once plans to link all these resorts, which would have created a ski area that is literally bigger than some countries, but that vision was scuppered with the creation of the Vanoise National Park in 1963, the first in France (the French were late starters in the conservation game given that the USA’s first national park was created in 1872…).
But even without them all being linked the various ski resorts of the Tarentaise Valley dwarf anything in North America (the total ski area of the Paradiski area comes in at a phenomenal 320 square kilometres, or 199 square miles, with over 140 ski lifts serving a vertical drop of over 64,000 metres, or around 210,000 feet).
Things were not always so skier-orientated, however – far from it. A hundred years ago the population of the region was dwindling as people left for cities such as Lyon and Paris in search of an alternative to the back-breaking agricultural toil and long winters of the mountains, and despite the development of hotels for the mainly summer tourist trade from the 1920s, it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the first ski lift (powered by a mule, and called ‘Youpoupou’ after the encouragement yelled at the mule by its owner) was introduced.
The first ski school was set up in 1936, but further development was interrupted by the Second World War; I regularly pass defences from the period that are still standing at valley promontories when I walk my dog, and the French Resistance were a thorn in the side of the Germans in this area, being able to use their knowledge of the local mountains to evade the enemy.
Hostilities over, France enjoyed an economic boom during the sixties and seventies which saw both public and private investment in the Tarentaise develop the mega ski resorts for which the region is now famous; the first proper ski lifts were installed in the early sixties, from when development has gone on almost continuously to the point where anyone who has never visited the region could be forgiven for wondering if there’s a slope left here that hasn’t sprouted ski lift pylons.
However, it’s a measure of the size and grandeur of the mountains in which these ski resorts sit that you can quite easily lose all the paraphernalia and hullabaloo that is part and parcel of Val Thorens, Val d’Isere, Les Arcs and the rest with comparative ease.
As, in fact, Norman and I had just done…that said, I cannot deny that we cheated to get here. We could have skinned up here from our homes in the village of Le Pre, but that would have involved an ascent of around 5,000-feet and Norman and I only had the morning free, which gave us the perfect excuse to get part of the way there by ski lift.
This may not be in the spirit of true backcountry skiing, but the harsh truth in this part of the world is that it’s an accepted way of accessing the boondocks hereabouts. It’s easy to see why when you consider the size of the mountains – the summit of Mont Pourri lies almost 8,500-feet above Le Pre, for example, and the village is nowhere near the lowest point in the valley; few skiers with my level of fitness have much chance of crawling their way up that kind of vertical in a day.
However, there is some skinning involved all the same. From the top of the Grand Col chair, probably the oldest, slowest and most rickety lift in Les Arcs (and as such it’s obviously been sited to sit in shadow for much of the morning in order that you can freeze for that bit longer as you ride upwards) there’s a short twenty-minute hike to the eponymous col, which lies between Mont Turia/Mont Pourri and Aiguille Rouge, and which at 3226-metres altitude is Les Arcs’ high lift-accessed point.
The skin up is simple enough other than for the fact that you may not be permitted to go any further once you actually reach the col; very occasionally ski patrol or a national park ranger will be stationed up here to check that you’re in possession of what we call the ‘chicken ticket.’
This is a pass which allows access to the national park, which is the abode of said ‘chickens’; they are, in fact, tetra, or black, grouse, which live beneath the snowpack in winter and are easily disturbed by skiers; so if you plan to ski in the park you have to sit through a presentation (in French, naturellement) about conservation of the species as well as pay a few Euros for the pass that then allows you to not ski over the top of their nests (quite how this feat is to be achieved is not made clear).
Assuming you A) have the pass or B) don’t have the pass but there’s no uniformed official at the col, the fun now begins. You drop into a fairly narrow chute on the east side of the col which is steep enough to excite most skiers as well as often holding a good lick of powder, so the initial turns of the descent – which will take you all the way back to Le Pre – are more than ample pay off for a measly twenty-minute hike.
Once at the bottom of the chute you’ve got one of the best excuses there is to stop and regain your breath (which since you’re over 10,000-feet up may well be a tad laboured); the view. My lightning reactions kick in: “Hey, Norman, I’m just gonna stop and get a pic”. He falls for it, the sucker – this should give me a two-minute break at the very least.
We’re in the heart of the kind of dramatic alpine scenery I used to dream of as a kid in geography classes, and it extends in all directions – as far as Italy, in fact. Indeed, Italy is accessible on skis as one of many tours that you can enjoy in this region, with a network of refuges allowing committed skiers to stay out in the mountains for days at a time.
We don’t hang about for long, however, as it’s obvious that a quick and easy traverse to skier’s right will allow us to access an untracked powder field that’s several hundred metres long. Once we reach it we choose our own lines and descend at our own pace – this is as good as skiing gets, surely.
Another reason we can’t afford to hang about is that it’s getting towards mid-day and as the sun warms things up the avalanche risk increases considerably – these slopes are known for sliding. As we descend we eventually drop into thick pine forest; the well-used summer trails between the trees are easy to follow, if a bit lumpy in places, and when we come to a small alpine meadow where stand the remains of a shepherd’s hut we stop for an energy bar and a drink of water.
From here we can see east across the valley of the Isere River to the small ski resort of St. Foy, which is famed for its backcountry terrain, and beyond that the mountain ridge that marks the Franco-Italian border. There’s some great skiing up there too…
From our little hut the descent continues briefly through more forest before wide meadows open out and drop us in the hamlet of Le Planay, a higgledy-piggledy assortment of farms and chalets where it’s necessary to unclip and hike for around 400-metres before we hit one of Les Arcs’ pistes, an easy blue run at the very eastern limit of the ski area that within five-minutes has delivered us to journey’s end, the village of Le Pre.
Most skiers doing this descent from the Grand Col will stop here to refuel at one of the village’s two restaurants before taking the series of old chairlifts from the village back up to the main ski area, but since I live in Le Pre – well, who’s gonna pay €30 for pasta and a beer when I can get the same in my gaff for a fraction of the price?
Not all the skiing in the Tarentaise is so weighted in favour of bon viveurs. From Le Pre, you can see, almost within touching distance on the opposite side of the Isere Valley, a largely ignored peak called Bec Rouge. Standing as it does at a modest altitude of only 2515-metres it tends to get overlooked by the higher peaks that surround it, yet its summit stands proud of all around it and the south-eastern face in particular is most impressive – a huge landslide in 1877 created a vertical face that is some 2000-feet from top to bottom and gives a sense of altitude and exposure when you stand on the summit that is far greater than that achieved by many of its higher neighbours.
There are no ski lifts involved in climbing Bec Rouge; that said, from the beginning of the ascent near the village of Montvalezan, route finding is easy since you’re effectively following summer hiking trais, first steeply up through forest then, as with all the routes in this part of the Alps, out of the trees onto what in summer are wildflower rich meadows and eventually, above this, stark, rocky slopes; obviously the ‘stark’ rocks are by now buried beneath several feet of snow.
Or maybe not; the last few winters in the Tarentaise have not been the best and good snow cover, particularly on south-facing slopes such as these, has only really existed from mid-January through to late-March, which doesn’t make for a particularly long season, especially on lower peaks like Bec Rouge.
That said, as I write in late December snowfall has been frequent and heavy, and more is forecast; locals are saying it’s the best start to the season in decades, so perhaps this winter we’re in for a good one…
But back to Bec Rouge. From the summit you get a good feel for the ski terrain of the northern part of the Tarentaise region. Immediately north of the peak is the ski resort of La Rosiere, and about 30km north of this Mont Blanc; directly south is St. Foy, and further south up the Isere Valley you can make out Tignes and Val d’Isere, whilst directly to the west are (and not necessarily in order of importance), my house, Le Pre, and Les Arcs and the linked resort of La Plagne.
Having taken all this in, along with a good lunch of baguette, local Beaufort cheese and ham, a choice of pretty obvious descents awaits you, none too challenging or difficult to navigate unless the weather closes in, although you will have done over 3,500-feet of climbing to get up here, so your legs may feel it on the way down.
As I remarked earlier this plethora of lift-accessed terrain makes it all the more remarkable that there is still stacks of backcountry to explore. Another of my favourite routes is the descent to the Nantcroix Valley, also accessed from the Grand Col, which goes in the opposite direction to the Le Pre descent and has a backdrop of the imposing 6000-foot north face of the Bellecôte Mountain.
You’re back up at the top of the Grand Col chair for this, but instead of hiking up to the Grand Col itself you turn right off the lift, schuss for a couple of hundred metres and then get your skins on for a low-angle traverse beneath the Glacier de Turio.
This gives access to a wide powder field atop the shattered rock that a century or two ago was being ground away by the now much-reduced, aforementioned Glacier de Turio, at the bottom of which the skins come out again for a short but steep 500-foot schlep up to a fine picnic on a craggy ridge with fine views.
After lunch comes the second descent of the day, which starts off steeply down wide, open slopes before more gradually wending its way for several kilometres and over 3000-feet of vertical down to the valley bottom. En-route you pass Entre Deux Nantes, a high-level ‘alpage’ of ancient stone chalets once used by shepherds tending their summer pastures, cross over an old bridge spanning the gin-clear waters of the Ruisseau des Rossets (which, in deep snow, can’t always be seen so you need to keep your wits about you), before entering a forested area known for some reason as ‘les Herbes Rouges’ (‘the Red Herbs’).
The ancient track through the forest eventually spits you out at les Lanches, a scattered collection of farm houses and ski chalets alongside a minor road where you can hop aboard a free shuttle bus back to Les Arcs to, in theory, head back up into the hills to do it all again – although why would you want to repeat the same route when there are so many other options available?
As you make this long descent from the Col de la Chal it’s hard to avoid the sight of the north face of the Bellecote looming on the horizon; you’ll doubtless be able to see ski tracks taking in a huge variety of lines on its face, some very serious indeed, but then you could say the same thing about so much of the Tarentaise – everywhere you look there’s the potential for great ski touring, whether it be easily accessed via a short hike from the top of a ski lift, or through a climb of several hours.
I can easily see that for the purist, the real seeker of adventure or the holier-than-thou what the Tarentaise offers may not have immediate appeal since it’s perhaps somewhat lacking in true wild country authenticity, but for anyone who simply wants to have fun on their planks in fine mountain terrain that’s easy to get to, it’s hard to beat.
As I write, with heavy snow falling and another three feet due over the next couple of days, the only question on most minds is not about how authentic their next ski ‘adventure’ will be as ‘Where do we go tomorrow?”
‘Cos there’s more than enough to go at…