Val d’Arly Guide | 3 Days In the Secret Resort Where You Can Ski With Eagles
We got an eagle-eyed view of this magical French resort
Words & photography by Daniel Wildey
I hadn't truly seen grace and style on a piste until I skied with Fletcher. His turns were as controlled as they were effortlessly powerful, and he was getting more air than the combined talents of an entire X Games roster. It was hard not to compare my descent to his, despite the fact he's a White Tailed Sea Eagle, unencumbered with such prosaic things as ski boots and a one-sided relationship with gravity.
I was in Val d'Arly Mont Blanc, one of those perfectly French, unknown areas that remain under the radar while Brits target the surrounding mega-resorts. And where small pockets of magic are to be found, such as the Festival Aigles a Ski.
"People think we can't live with wolves and bears and eagles but I want to prove we can live with predators…"
The Skiing With Eagles Festival could easily have been like a cheesy sideshow to a third-rate village fete, but for a few key ingredients that lifted it high above the ordinary: the most obvious being the backdrop of Mont Blanc, clearly visible through the crisp spring air. Even more awe-inspiring was the surreal experience of being able to keep pace (to some extent!) with Fletcher and observe his aerobatics at relatively close-quarters as he swooped and glided down the flanks of the mountain.
Yet perhaps the most impressive aspect of the festival though, was its personnel. Jacques-Olivier Travers was the head falconer of the day, and you might be surprised to learn that you already know his work and have likely discussed it around the office water cooler.
Travers is the man behind one of the stand out moments of the BBC's Planet Earth II – the eagle-mounted POV footage that caused the nation to collectively drop its jaw. But you don't come to David Attenborough's attention by accident. Travers has dedicated himself to the conservation and reintroduction of the White Tailed Sea Eagle around the south coast of France and in the Lac Leman area in Switzerland.
"Travers is the man behind one of the stand out moments of the BBC's Planet Earth II – the eagle-mounted POV footage that caused the nation to collectively drop its jaw."
"People think we can't live with wolves and bears and eagles but I want to prove we can live with predators," he tells me, "and that there's no risk to people, and especially to kids." To this end Travers is training Fletcher, and 7 others like him, to hunt for fish and feel comfortable in their natural environment using not only skiing but also kayaking and paragliding.
This close contact with the wild side of the Alps was over all too quickly, and the thought of returning to the confines of a hotel room was one I wasn't quite ready for. Luckily there was another bird’s eye view on hand in the form of one of the most original accommodation options in the Alps: the treehouses at Cabanes Entre Terre et Ciel.
Still in Val d'Arly, a short drive up a virtual dirt track above the village of Saint-Nicolas-la-Chapelle takes you to, well, almost nothing. A wooden sign blends into the forest and if you weren't looking for it, you'd likely miss it. It reads 'Entre Terre at Ciel' which means Between Earth and Sky. It points to a non-descript footpath, which belies nothing of the splendour, which awaits a few minutes into the woods.
The treehouse, perched 30 feet above the footpath in perfect camouflage, is called the bird's nest and is clad in traditionally hand-woven twigs for its entire circumference. There's one giveaway, a fenced off platform on the ground, directly beneath a hatch in the floor of the cabin. Curious. This turns out to be the landing pad for the remote-controlled descending ladder by which you access the treehouse. It's a Bond villain-esque incongruity, the alternative would be grappling up ropes I guess, and is undeniably cool.
Inside, any other high tech touches are entirely obscured by the visceral presence of nature, but like the external walls they're woven into something which abounds with finesse, craft and romance, and in fact, unexpected luxury.
The icing atop this cake-shaped cabin is equally unexpected, a rooftop terrace with views across to Mont Blanc and a dining table for a most secluded romantic meal. It can be tricky to get away from it all in a ski resort, but this is as complete a back-to-nature getaway as I've ever visited.
So I'd seen Fletcher in his playground, soaring through the skies, and I'd approximated his living quarters in the woods. Wouldn't it be interesting to see his hunting ground?
Slight problem there, as Fletcher eats fish, and in winter in the Alps, water is generally frozen. But where there's a weird idea, there's a way, and it's a surprisingly short journey from Val d'Arly to Val Thorens where drysuits and scuba equipment await on the solid surface of Lac du Lou, after a quick ski-tour up from the lifts.
If you've ever skied the off piste itineraries from Cime de Caron or La Masse above Les Menuires, chances are you've crossed Lac du Lou at the end of your descent. Some even waterski the narrow, thawed-out channel next to the bridge, but I'd always avoided that since I hate the idea of cold water. To the extent that I once abandoned snorkelling one summer in the Med, because I was too cold...
So I was sceptical at the prospect of ice-diving and eyed the drysuit suspiciously, though I guessed it had to be more effective than a covering of feathers.
In fact the cold water didn't get further than my chin, and the dreamlike state I submerged myself into made that tiny discomfort an irrelevance. It's a very different experience to the sensory excitement of diving in a coral reef, and a few short minutes feels much longer. There is little to see below, beyond the encroaching grey murk, but the underside of the thick ice with its upside-down micro-landscape, the shafts of light piercing through the entrance holes cut in the surface, and the mesmerising play of the mercurial air bubbles as they dance and shimmer and seek their escape through the ice-ceiling combine to show you a world you could never imagine.
In the weird and wonderful world of extra-curricular ski resort activities, this is one so alien and tranquil as to be quite a moving experience.
Of course it's as far removed from Fletcher's frantic and violent approach to diving as can be, but in the wider context of seeing the mountains from a different perspective, it's an absolute must.
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Val d'Arly is easily accessed by transfer from Geneva Airport; Daniel flew with Jet2 from Manchester Airport
Daniel stayed at the newly refurbished Fahrenheit 7 in Val Thorens where double rooms are available on a B&B basis from €230 per night. The treehouses at Entre Terre et Ciel are available from €350 per night. Ice Diving in Val Thorens is €150 for 20 minutes including a guided hike on snow-shoes or touring skis and lunch.