Ski Touring in France | The Secret Powder Stashes of the Maurienne Valley
Incredible terrain, cheap lift passes and its own microclimate. This valley really has it all
It’s still early, my breakfast has barely settled, and yet here I am halfway up an icy, 55-degree slope, kicking footholds and digging my board in with every step to stop myself from slipping. Most guides would start a new group of skiers off with a cruisey red or blue run to assess their level. But Sylvain Rechu, who’s bounding up the hill ahead of me with the sure-footed self-assurance of the proverbial mountain goat, has no such time for such niceties.
The experience is all the more discombobulating because less than 24 hours ago I was at home in London. In between there have been two high-speed trains, a metro journey in Paris, a taxi to resort and three chairlifts rides, but it’s definitely still one of the more rapid ascents to 3,000 metres I’ve ever made.
"In winter the road is closed, so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds."
In Sylvain’s defence, our group is pretty experienced, and no-one is uncomfortable getting stuck straight into this kind of terrain. Also, we have a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to show us the best that the Maurienne valley has to offer in just three and a half days.
Although it’s home to no fewer than 24 separate ski resorts, the Maurienne remains something of an unknown quantity, at least to most British skiers. Between us, our group, which includes my friends Matt, Cat and Abi, have spent decades exploring the French Alps, both for business and pleasure. Yet most of us have never been here, and none of us knows the area well.
The zone we’ll be exploring, the Haute Maurienne, is just a stone’s throw from some of France’s most famous mega-resorts as the crow flies. From Bonneval-Sur-Arc, where we met Sylvain this morning, you can actually drive to Val d’Isere in about 20 minutes in the summer. But in winter the road, which winds over the Col d’Iseran, is closed. And so the valley remains a hidden secret, tucked away from the tourist crowds. As Eric Provost, Bonneval’s directeur de domaine skiable, tells us: "We have two kinds of visitors here - families who want something a bit quieter, and freeriders."
The advantages of the Haute Maurienne’s lesser-known reputation are instantly obvious as we reach the objective that Sylvain’s set his sights on - a ridgeline just below the 3,217 metre Pointe d’Andagne. Down the other side we can see a broad, open valley which looks like it could provide a whole season’s worth of lines. Incredibly, although it’s five days since it last snowed, it’s nearly all untracked.
It’s hard not to be excited as we remove skins from our skis and splitboards. But this expectation is tempered by a certain amount of rationalisation. It’s the middle of April and it’s sunny. Even though the bowl isn’t tracked out, the snow surely can’t be fresh, can it? Yet as I follow Sylvain down into the face, I find myself letting out an involuntary whoop. It is fresh! At least a lot of it is.
The long, 600 vertical metre descent (named Anselmet after a local guide) winds its way down chutes and around ice cliffs. On the north facing aspects and in the shade of the rocks, the snow feels as if it could have fallen just hours before. Stopping to gather the group before the runout, there are high fives and broad grins all round. It’s some of the best snow we’ve had all season.
I don’t care how hardcore you are, one of the best things about skiing in spring is the leisurely lunches in the sun. Thankfully the Haute Maurienne doesn’t disappoint. A quick tour up and a run down a more sun-affected lower slope takes us to the village of l’Ecot. Beyond the absurdly pretty stone church and down the winding streets we find Sylvain’s favourite restaurant, a converted farmhouse called Chez Mumu. It’s been a solid morning’s workout and we wash down our plates of pasta and boudin noir (French black pudding) with a couple of well-deserved beers.
As we eat, Sylvain explains more about the surrounding area and its unique microclimate. The valley benefits from a weather system called the Retour d’Est, which spirals up northwards from the gulf of Genoa and regularly dumps snow on the Maurienne even when the more northerly resorts in France are missing out. Could this place be much better for freeriding?
Our impression of the area as something of a secret backcountry paradise is reinforced the following day. Sylvain drives us down the valley (past a 19th century chateau perched improbably on the edge of a cliff) to the resort of La Norma. Unseasonal clouds swirl around the peak as we ride up the chairlift, but they begin to clear as we put skins on skis and boards and begin the tour up to the ridgeline below the peak at 2,917 metres.
From here, a series of steep couloirs plunge down towards a red piste some 400 vertical metres below, offering a whole plethora of different lines. The chute we drop into has a few tracks down it, and the snow is more chopped up and challenging than what we’d ridden the day before. But there are still some of the same miraculous pockets of fresh, and the run out - fast and open - sees us slashing and spraying each other all the way down to the piste.
Our next stop is Aussois, another of the resorts that are covered by the unified Haute Maurienne Eski-mo pass. Like La Norma and Bonneval-sur-Arc, it boasts fewer than a dozen lifts, but that still doesn’t explain how they can justify selling their six-day, five-resort passes for the ludicrously low price of €158. That’s more than €100 cheaper than a 6-day Espace Killy pass, which covers Tignes and Val d’Isere in the Tarantaise.
This difference in price between the two valleys is something Franck Buisson is fond of reminding his guests of. We meet Franck, the long-serving guardian of the Refuge de la Dent Parachée, after an hour or so of touring off the top of Aussois through the late afternoon sunshine. A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi and a whole slew of stories, most of which involve the stuck up rich folks from the Tarantaise getting their comeuppance at the hands of the wily Mauriennais.
It’s apparently a fairly common stereotype round these parts, but Franck is such an excellent raconteur that even the guides bringing clients over from Val d’Isere can’t help but chuckle. As dinner arrives and the genepi keeps flowing he tells the story of a friend who’s a helicopter pilot stopping in for lunch one day, and accidentally taking off with one of his chickens in the cockpit. “And then I went to Courchevel and they were trying to sell me chicken and chips for €120 - not only did my chicken get taken to the Tarentaise but now they're trying to sell it back to me for €120!" He laughs, outraged.
Sleeping arrangements in the refuge are basic - there’s one main dorm which fits around 30 guests, who have to share the wide on wooden bunks in groups of three or four. But whether it’s the genepi, the long day outdoors, or the quiet of the remote location, I sleep soundly, despite the inevitable snore-chestra that cranks into action after lights out.
“A jovial man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, he welcomes us with a bottle of genepi."
It’s just as well because the following morning we’re out early, strapping harnesses over our ski pants and adding ice axes and crampons to our touring packs. From the refuge at 2,520 metres we’re aiming to tour to the 3,300 metre Col d’Abby. The snow here has definitely been affected by the sun, and where it’s refrozen on the steeper slopes, the ice is slippery enough that skins are no longer enough.
Strapping on crampons and using axes makes everything feel instantly more sketchy, but in the end the final ascent isn’t too taxing. Once again we’re treated to an incredible panoramic view, with fun-looking lines in all directions. Unfortunately despite Sylvain’s dynamic leadership, we’ve reached the ridge a little bit late and won’t have time to drop down the other side and make it back over. There’s a last lift we need to catch in Aussois if we’re going to make it back up the valley to Val Cenis, our final stop of this trip, tonight.
But if we’ve not quite completed the full tour Sylvain had planned, no-one in the group is hugely disappointed. Instead, we opt to take our time over the sunny line back the way we came at a leisurely pace. Arriving at the refuge earlier means we can enjoy another long, sunny lunch too, and a few more of Franck’s stories.
We might not have seen everything the valley has to offer - that would have been impossible in such a short space of time. But we’ve certainly seen enough to get a sense of the potential. With its 3,000 metre-plus peaks, its peculiarly consistent snow, and its lack of crowds, this place offers everything a freerider could want, and all at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere. And then of course there are the friendly locals.
As the TGV whisks us back across France after an entertaining final morning in Val Cenis I reach into my bag and pull out the bottle that Franck had pushed into my hands as we left.
“This is a your payment," he’d said with a wink, after I promised to send him some photos of the refuge to hang on his wall. Franck hasn’t bothered listing such trifles as the alcohol percentage on the homemade label, but needless to say it’s powerful stuff. Whether it’s the speed of the train, the strength of the moonshine, or simply the excellent company, the journey flies by in a blur. And when we pull into London’s crowded St Pancras station with a bump, I feel a little like Lucy coming back from Narnia. Were we really exploring a secret powdery paradise just a few hours before?
Do it yourself:
Train fares from London to Modane, in the Maurienne Valley, start at £116 standard class return. Book with SNCF (voyages-sncf.com).
In the valley, we stayed at he 2-star Hotel La Clé des Champs in Val Cenis Lanslevillard (hotel-lacledeschamps.com) where rooms start at €68 per night.
Up the mountain we stayed at the Refuge de la Dent Parachée (refugeladentparrachee.ffcam.fr) which is open from March 1st and offers Bed, Breakfast, Dinner for €45.20.
Guides & Liftpasses:
We were guided by the awesome Sylvain Rechu, who kills it on skis and a snowboard equally. He works for the French/Swedish outfit Off Piste Maurienne (offpistmaurienne.com)
The 6-day Eski-Mo liftpass includes a day at each of the five Haute Maurienne member resorts (Aussois, Bonneval, La Norma, Val Cenis, Valfréjus) and a second day at the resort at which the pass is purchased. Prices range from €158-€198 depending on the time of year. Book from the Eski-Mo website (eski-mo.com)
Tristan's trip was hosted by the French Tourist board and the Haute Maurienne region. For more info on the area, visit haute-maurienne-vanoise.com.
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