Ski Touring in France | In Pursuit of Powder in the Tarentaise Valley
The challenges of backcountry skiing in St Foy, Val d'Isere and La Rosiere
When the police pull us over, we’re struggling. The car is weaving all over the road, fishtailing like a trout being tickled as my friend Pete wrestles with the wheel. “Pull over there," gestures the gendarme with his hand. We look back at him helplessly: “We’re fucking trying!"
Thankfully, Pete isn’t all over the place because he’s drunk, and the police don’t want to breathalyze us. There’s simply so much snow we can’t keep the rental car in a straight line, let alone drive it uphill.
“The car is fishtailing like a trout being tickled as Pete wrestles with the wheel."
“It’s better that you put your snow chains on here," says the copper when we finally do manage to make it to the side of the road. But we’re in the town of Annecy, only 447 metres above sea level, and a long way from our final destination. If we need to put the snow chains on here, what the hell is it going to be like 1,850 metres up the mountain in Val d’Isere?
If I’m surprised by the sheer amount of snow that’s fallen, perhaps I shouldn’t be. This trip is effectively round two. Last season we’d done the same thing - gathered a crew (at the instigation of my friend and colleague Matt) and when we’d spotted the snow coming, headed out to explore the lesser-known regions of the Tarentaise on touring skis and splitboards.
This valley, home to La Plagne, Les Arcs, Tignes and Val d’Isere, is one of the most famous skiing destinations in the French Alps - or indeed, anywhere in the world. But alongside these mega-resorts, there are a whole host of smaller, hidden gems. These may not attract the same amount of attention, but are more than worth a visit - especially on a powder day.
Our previous season’s trip took us first to La Rosiere, a small, traditional-looking station de ski located just off the road which snakes over the Col de St Bernard into Italy. It was snowing heavily on the drive up and we arrived in resort excited about getting stuck into the soft, fluffy white stuff the following day.
“When the snow is dumping, Val d’Isere has some of the best tree runs anywhere in Europe."
Unfortunately the next morning dawned anything but bright. “Normally, this can be one of the best off-piste resorts in France," Xavier, an instructor with the French Ski School Evolution 2 and our guide for the day, told us apologetically as he offered round the world’s biggest hip flask on the lift. “In the Alps we have just two resorts which are south facing, so you can enjoy the powder with the sun on your face. But today there is no sun."
He wasn’t wrong, it was absolutely dumping it down and we couldn’t see a thing. But despite the white out conditions, we spent an entertaining morning tearing through the thick blanket of snow that covered every piste.
An invitation to the traditional shepherd’s hut owned by one of Matt’s French friends rounded off the day nicely. As we sampled his homemade genepi, Xavier waxed lyrical about the famous off-piste run that he’d planned to take us on. “The Combe des Moulins, it’s amazing. You start at 2,600m and you finish at 1,500 m, so you have 1,000 vertical metres." We’d not been lucky. But surely, we thought, the weather would clear over the next few days? Surely, (to paraphrase D.Ream) Things Could Only Get Better?
“In all my years in St Foy, I’ve never seen anything like it," said our guide Colin the following day, shaking his head. The conditions were bluebird and everywhere around us the snow looked pristine - untouched, individual flakes glinting in the sun.
Unfortunately overnight as we’d slept soundly in the cosy Apartements des Balcons in La Rosiere, the snow, already quite wet and heavy, had turned into rain. The freezing level (the altitude at which rain turns into snow) had risen to 4,000 metres - above the height of the highest peak the Tarentaise has to offer. Rain on top of the masses of new snow, followed by freezing temperatures as the sky cleared, had created an inch thick crust of ice on top of ball bearings.
Off-piste was not only ill advisable because of the avalanche risk, it was positively unpleasant to ride. A horrific, crunching experience that sounded like bottoming your car out over a speed bump, and felt almost as bad.
“In all my years in St Foy, I’ve never seen anything like it."
We fared little better the following day when we headed to Val d’Isere. After exploring the valley’s less famous resorts, Matt’s plan had been to show us the lesser-known zones of one of its most celebrated. He’d skied here many times and between him and our guide, they knew it like the back of their hands. Unfortunately this time they were reduced to talking about former conquests, pointing out the runs we could have ridden if the conditions were better.
We consoled ourselves with an evening making the most of Val d’Isere’s unparalleled après scene – this is a place with a bar to suit all tastes, from dingy dives featuring punk cover bands to clubs where the champagne starts at 300 euros a bottle. The following morning, battling through the hangovers, we were again treated to a taste of what might have been. The snow was falling as snow again, and we had an excellent couple of runs through the trees underneath the Fornet cable car. But we left feeling frustrated – we could see the incredible potential of the riding in the Tarentaise, we’d just not had any luck.
Which is why, almost exactly one year later, we find ourselves heading back to Val. This time surely the powder gods will smile on us? This time surely we’ll get lucky? “I can’t believe we have to put chains on in Annecy," says Pete, who’s driven these roads many times before. But with the snow falling thick and heavy, it’s 3am before he finally pulls into the carpark in Val d’Isere. It’s a Stakhanovite shift - a journey that was supposed to take two-and-a-half hours has taken us the best part of six.
Despite the late arrival, we’re up early doors the following morning – we’re frothing to get out and make the most of the snow that’s still falling. Linking up with Matt and Pete’s friend Kene, a Val-based journalist and photographer, we head again for the Fornet trees that served us so well at the end of the previous season’s trip.
This time we reap our reward and then some. What the day is lacking in terms of visibility, it more than makes up for in snow quality. And when the snow is dumping, Val d’Isere has some of the best tree runs anywhere in Europe. “We’ve been waiting for this this season," says Kene. “You guys really brought the weather with you." After a couple of celebratory après pints in the Blue Note bar, we head down towards St Foy, where we’ll be staying the night.
As anyone who’s been lucky enough to travel to the Tarentaise will know, the drive between Val d’Isere, at the upper end of the valley, and St Foy, just above the train terminus of Bourg St Maurice at the bottom, is a stunning one.
The road snakes out through the two massive cliffs at La Daille, which guard the entrance to Val d’Isere like Tolkien’s stone sentinels. From there it winds its way past the lake and the Tignes dam (with its giant mural) and around a series of switchbacks that give passengers on alternating sides of the car incredible views of the valley below. At night, the lights of distant villages twinkle on impossibly steep hillsides as the shadows of snow covered trees slip past the windows.
Unfortunately we don’t have time to appreciate any of this. Pete, who’s once again at the wheel, used to work as a transfer driver ferrying people to and from the airport to Tignes and Val d’Isere. He knows these roads like the back of his hand. “I used to shit people up round these corners," he says, proceeding to demonstrate. “Once I had this whole family asleep in the back so I was ragging it, and then as I got to the bottom I realised the mum was wide awake, gripping the armrests in terror. Ooops!" I know how she feels - I’m in need of a stiff drink by the time we get down.
Thankfully, the Hotel Le Monal is among the best places in the Tarentaise to ask for one. Set back slightly from the main road in a small cluster of buildings, it’s the kind of place that package tour coaches whizz past without a second thought, but the locals know like the back of their hand. Come in here in the morning and you’ll see many of the pisteurs, lifties and resort staff from St Foy and further afield taking their morning coffee.
It’s also an excellent place for dinner, and the owners put on a lavish spread for us. As we stagger out at the end of the evening, a massive steak and several bottles of wine heavier, Matt lights a cigarette and looks up at the sky. “You can see the stars - shit, it’s totally cleared! Tomorrow is going to be bluebird."
Thankfully the previous evening’s promise outweighs the following morning’s headache, and it’s enough to drag me out of bed before dawn. Matt’s not wrong. The sky is crystal clear, and as we walk back over to Le Monal and revive ourselves with breakfast, we’re treated to the stunning sight of the sun breaking over the Tarentaise, its light slowly snaking its way down the valley, making the new snow sparkle as it goes. “Today is not going to suck," says Matt.
As fast as Pete is, he’s also a technically excellent driver, and I’m very glad he’s behind the wheel and not me as we tackle the difficult snow-covered slope up towards the resort of St Foy proper. This small ski area is truly something special – it has only four lifts, but these offer access to a vast amount of off-piste terrain. There are open faces, narrow couloirs, steep tree runs and mellow sidecountry hits. Basically whatever level you’re at, if you’re into powder, this place is paradise.
We’re guided once again by Colin of Evolution 2, and after the tantalising glimpse of the potential he’d given us the previous year, it’s clear that he’s stoked to be able to show us the goods properly. A short hike takes us up to the top of the Col du Granier, from where we drop into an open powder field filled with windlips to slash, rocks to drop and rollers to boost off. “Holy shit this is good," I say, barely able to contain my whoops as we carve down the slope.
A few turns through some well-spaced trees, a scramble over a stream and a long run out down a fairly flat path lead us to a tiny village where we encounter several other powder hounds with equally wide grins on their faces. Before long a bus pulls up, and after loading our snowboards and skis on the back, we head up for another go.
The rest of the day is spent lapping the terrain off the lifts, finding fresh pockets of powder almost everywhere we go. By the time we finish our final run, I’m exhausted. It’s only 4.00pm, but I have a bus and then a flight to catch if I want to make it back for work on the Monday morning. It’s been an intense weekend in pursuit of powder, but it’s been an incredible one.
I wave goodbye to Matt and Pete, who are heading on to La Rosiere for their final day, completing the previous year’s trip in reverse. As I ride away on the bus, I’m reminded of something one of Colin’s colleagues, Sylvain, had said the previous year.
He was talking about St Foy, but it could equally have applied to the whole of the Tarentaise: “I’ve been in many resorts, I’ve done many seasons. But the off-piste here blows me away. The accessibility of the terrain off the lift… If you just want to ski, ski, ski this is the place." At the time, with the less-than-ideal conditions, we’d had to take him at his word. But now I can see he’s not wrong. We came back, we saw and we shredded. And damn, did the Tarentaise deliver.
DO IT YOURSELF:
We flew to Geneva on EasyJet, who operate multiple flights daily from London airports.
We stayed with Crystal Ski (crystalski.com) in both La Rosiere (Les Balcons self-catered Apartments) and Val d’Isere (Hotel Auberge St Hubert). On our second trip we stayed at Hotel Le Monal in St Foy.
Our guides all came from Evolution 2 (evolution2.com) who offer ski lessons for all levels as well as guiding services all over the Tarentaise valley and further afield.
Read the rest of The Challenge Issue on Mpora here.