Words by Matt Carr | Photos by Kene E-O
Shuffling along the soggy London pavement again, at speeds occasionally pushing 0.2 metres/second, in order to gain entry to the tube station which had only a single barrier open to prevent overcrowding at lower levels, I decided this simply wouldn’t do anymore. It was time to get away. Time to find a ski-based antidote to city life and the super-concentration of human beings.
After much map poring, I zeroed in on the Hautes Alpes region in the southern French Alps. About as far from a big city or international airport as you can get in the Alps, with vast and wild mountains but comparatively few mountain resorts, it seemed the ideal area in which to seek adventure.
I put together a shortlist of potential conspirators and a few phone calls later a team was in place and a plan hatched. I’d be travelling by train from London, via Paris, on the overnight sleeper train with Jenny Jones, recently retired from competitive snowboarding but eager to explore all avenues into the backcountry.
Joining us would be Kene E-O: a photographer from Val d’Isère and Stephen “Chipie" Windross: a skier with an acute case of wanderlust, sometimes based in Tignes. I’d been on many an adventure with the pair of them, including earlier this very winter when we scored epic powder in Areches Beaufort and La Clusaz. If it ain’t broke, I’m often disinclined to fix it, so aboard they came again.
The furthest south any of us had been in the French Alps was La Grave on the northern edge of both the Ecrins National Park and the Hautes Alpes region, but we’d heard murmurings of lesser-known gems further south, on the opposite (southern) side of the park. We aimed for the resort of Vars, the best-known resort in the area as a logical starting point in which to get our bearings, assess snow conditions and hone the crew dynamic.
My knowledge of Vars was limited to the odd photo, and the fact that Red Bull’s backcountry freestyle event Linecatcher had been held there in 2010, won by a Candide Thovex in the early stages of reinventing himself as a backcountry maestro. A friend recommended I get in touch with local ski instructor and all-mountain aficionado Karl “Karlito" Josephine.
Both Vars and Karl ended up being ideal for our purposes. Vars’ Forêt Blanche ski area connecting it with neighbouring Risoul was surprisingly extensive, varied and quiet. Without question though, what really made it the bee’s knees (for our purposes at least), was the smorgasbord of amazing freeride terrain accessible directly from the lifts or with a minimum of uphill individual application.
Visibility and snowpack stability were good, so we set about the three main ridges that tower over the ski area. First up was Pic de Chabrières, which features as its centrepiece a “flying kilometre" speed-skiing track, currently home of both the current speed skiing (253km/h) and downhill biking (223 km/h) world records.
"On either side the face is streaked with splendid couloirs of varying complexity… and with no fresh snow for a few days… we were amazed to find many of these lines untouched…"
On either side the face is streaked with splendid couloirs of varying complexity, including “La Banane" (The Banana) and “Poulie Retour" (Pulley Return- so called as the top of the Chabrières drag-lift delivers you right to the entrance). With all of this accessible with no walking whatsoever, and no fresh snow for a few days prior to our arrival, we were amazed to find many of these lines untouched and in excellent order!
The following day we stepped things up a notch to take on Vars’ emblematic L’Eyssina ridge. A buddy of Karl’s was a cat driver, and with a window of good light set to shut mid-morning, he agreed to take us up at dawn to catch the sunrise.
Approaching the ridge, whose jagged peaks were just beginning to light up with the first of the day’s golden rays, we agreed snow cats were an awesome way to travel. An initially steepish but straightforward 30 minute bootpack from the Col de Crévoux took us up to looker’s right of the ridge, and spectacular views of the southern Italian Alps to the east, and the enormous turquoise Serre Ponçon lake to the west.
Advancing along the ridge to looker’s left; the options get progressively longer and more technical, depending on your appetite. We bagged a few premium chutes between us including l’Epaule (The Shoulder) and Yeti Supérieure (Upper Yeti, the competition venue for both Linecatcher and Freeride World Tour qualifier events).
On our second lap, we were waiting in the wind on top of the ridge for Kene to get in position with his camera, when a lone snowboarder appeared around the corner with his board on his back. In the less-relaxed surrounds of better-known freeride outposts, this development might provoke panic along the lines of: “He’ll snake us and ruin the shot!" Not so in Vars.
"He nodded sagely and stroking his magnificent red beard, reached into his bag and passed around a flask of Genepi and a stick of home-made saucisson… “Please, help yourselves"
Upon learning of our minor photographic timing issues, he nodded sagely and stroking his magnificent red beard, reached into his bag and passed around a flask of Genepi (the local flower-based liqueur) and a stick of home-made saucisson, insisting that he was in no hurry and “please, help yourselves".
Our final run took us towards Pic Saint-André, standing guard over the family-friendly ski area of Risoul. With the weather closing in, and time short, we hadn’t time to push for the main objective - the fittingly named “Raie des Fesses" (The Bum Crack), a hogwhimperingly steep and narrow couloir plunging from the summit. Happily, just a short trot along the ridge delivered each of us our own excellent untouched north-facing chute to deflower in consolation.
After traversing skiers’ left the run continued “off the map" and down an undulating valley. We were treated to a fly-by from a Grand Tetras, a rare breed of mountain wood grouse, before popping out at a tiny refuge and hiking a short trail back to the lift.
"There was no mobile reception in Champoléon. Paradise!"
Vars had been good to us, an ideal spot to ease our way into the sedate pace of life and exhilarating mountains combo that the Hautes Alpes affords. But it was time to push on to pastures new. The Champsaur valley to the northwest is a predominantly sheep-farming backwater and features a handful of tiny ski areas overlooked by numerous 3000m peaks.
The Mairie of Champoléon, the tiny hamlet in which we would be based, had three brown sheep grazing in the tiny front garden. We wondered briefly if one of them was in fact the Mayor, before noticing that they were made of wood. There was also no mobile reception in Champoléon. Paradise!
High winds meant that on our first day in the Champsaur we were restricted to human-powered ascent. Alex Bompar is a mountain guide that grew up in the area and proved just the man to show us what was what. The farming community of Archinard was described by Alex as a place where life is enjoyed much as it was 100 years ago. It was also the starting point for our 800m ascent on splitboards and touring skis to the 2439m summit of La Motte.
The ascent meandered through a few hundred vertical metres of steep and widely-distributed larch trees punctuated by an abundance of pillows and other features that looked like they’d fallen from the cargo hold of a passing marshmallow plane. After taking a beating from 100 km/h winds on the summit ridge, we dropped back into whence we came and enjoyed the fruits of our labour.
"Aside from a majestic eagle cruising by, we’d seen not another soul since breakfast."
The snow had been affected a little by the wind and recent warm temperatures, but we found plenty of fun features from which to take flight on the way back down. Aside from a majestic eagle cruising by, we’d seen not another soul since breakfast.
On the fourth and final day of our trip, we decided we needed to go as high as possible in search of the best snow, despite further high winds. The resort of Orcières has an almost exclusively Marseillaise clientele that come to enjoy its wide, south-facing slopes when (and only when) there’s not a cloud in the sky. Its lifts also deliver the adventurous to a number of long backcountry descents into one of the utterly unspoilt valleys beyond its boundaries.
After pillaging some undisturbed powder directly beneath the lifts that was too inviting to resist, we veered off down one of these, an idyllic descent to the village of Prapic, inaccessible and snowed-in from December until April. The valley starts from the dramatic summit of Rochebrune (with stunning views of the 4000m+ Ecrins range).
After a short climb from the top of the brilliantly-named Gnourou lift, we plunged through a landscape decorated with ice falls and trafficked by a 30-deep crew of Chamois (mountain goats).
We also came face-to-face with an elusive White Hare, navigated a slippery creek crossing, and eventually ended up in Prapic, whose stone cottages and barns betrayed no traces of the 21st century. A fitting end to an old-fashioned and original snow touring trip, where we'd found simplicity and solitude at every turn, and left feeling so much richer with heads clearer for that.
Do it yourself…
- This is an area that’s not easily accessed by plane. The best route (from the UK) is on the overnight train via Paris. Montdauphin Guillestre is 15 minutes down the mountain from Vars, while Gap lies the same distance from the Champsaur valley. Both are accessed on the Paris (Austerlitz)-Briançon overnight sleeper route. See voyages-sncf.com for tickets and prices.
Where to stay:
- Le Monte Pente in Vars is a charmingly laid-back and simple address whose exceptionally friendly barman David is in possession of a deep quiver of snowboard stories from back in the day.
- Auberge des Ecrins in Champoléon is a great base to explore the various options in the Champsaur valley, serves excellent food prepared from the finest local ingredients, and is very much the social hub of the valley.
- In Vars, Karl Josephine of Evolution 2 will deliver you to the goods, and show you how it’s done when you get there evolution2-vars.com
- Alex Bompar knows the Champsaur Valley like the back of his hand and is something of a local celebrity. Find him on Facebook here
For further information on this area rich with untapped potential, see hautes-alpes-tourism.co.uk