What do you imagine when you think of riding off-piste? Empty powder fields, snow laden trees and no people perhaps.
You don’t think of the popular French ski resort of La Plagne. It’s high, it’s busy and it’s very family friendly.
Last year, La Plagne was voted the world’s favourite resort with the highest number of visitors at a whopping 2.5 million.
It towers above nearby resorts with a snow-sure glacier at 3,250m and 225km of marked pistes. If you lined them all up, you could ski the distance of London to Nottingham.
But can you still visit La Plagne and disappear off down hidden couloirs covered in untracked powder with not a soul in sight? This is what we were here to discover.
By 11am on Tuesday morning, we were hiking along a snowy ridge on the south face of the Roche de Mio behind our Italian guide Matteo from Oxygene Ski and Snowboard School.
Blue skies, empty powder faces and alpine views so perfect, they looked like a Microsoft computer background. We were also red faced, sweating and panting like 40-a-day smokers by the time we reached the top.
“It’s… the… altitude,” I puffed once I reached Matteo. He just smiled and shrugged in the way only über-fit European snowboard instructors can.
However, it was the view from the top that really stopped us in our tracks. Dozens of snow-capped peaks, leading your eye straight across to the outline of Mont Blanc.
Then it was time to drop in. One by one, we launched ourselves down the slope. It can only be described as a perfect powder run. Steep but not too steep, completely untouched. We glided over the pillow soft snow, carving sharp turns into its pristine face.
This was a real surprise. At this point in the season, there had not been a lot of snowfall in La Plagne. The pistes had started to take on the resemblance of an ice rink. But Matteo knew exactly where to go to find the best pockets of powder in resort.
This is the definite advantage of having a guide when you visit a resort for the first time. If you’re new to a ski area, the likelihood is you’ll end up riding the same runs again and again. With a guide, you’re taken to sections of off-piste you never would have discovered otherwise.
We weren’t experts by any means, just a group of skiers and snowboarders with a small amount of off-piste experience. Cliff drops and stomach-dropping traverses aren’t something we tackle everyday.
Matteo pushed us to ride couloirs and gullies we never would have tackled on our own and left us frothing for more.
Exploring The Town
While La Plagne might be popular, it isn’t known for being particularly picturesque. The town is made up of 1960s apartment blocks and concrete buildings, which means it lacks the traditional French alpine prettiness.
However, when the town is covered in snow and your chalet has a view of the piste, you hardly notice the buildings at all.
We stayed with VIP Ski in one of their chalets at the bottom of La Grande Rochette. If you’re looking for ski-in ski-out, super friendly service, log fires, blueberry pancakes for breakfast, then VIP are perfect.
“Matteo pushed us to ride couloirs we’D never tackle on our own and left us frothing for more…”
All seven of their chalets are within snowball hurling distance of the pistes. It’s an easy two minute stroll to the Grand Rochette Funiplagne which whisks you up to 2,505m in just four minutes. The view at the top is spectacular, a 360° panorama across the Paradiski area and over towards Courchevel in Les 3 Vallées.
Everything is so accessible. You don’t even need to leave the chalet block to explore Plagne Centre. There are bars, restaurants, supermarket, patisseries, even a cinema all hidden within the apartment block. So if you don’t feel like braving the freezing temperatures at night, you can still keep yourself fed and entertained before crawling those aching muscles into bed.
Venturing Further Off-Piste
By day two, the slopes were beginning to look even better. Snow began to fall overnight in thick clumps. By breakfast, there was 30 centimetres of fresh powder and it didn’t show any sign of stopping.
Poor visibility edged us from Plagne Bellecote up the Arpette chair lift to explore the tree runs around La Salla. We slashed through powder, dodged tree trunks and rewarded ourselves with the biggest chocolat chantilly in the French Alps from Le Pain Bos.
If you’re really looking to push yourself, ask your guide to take you over to the vertigo-inducing traverses and steep couloirs on the north face of the Roche de Mio. You’ll join up with the Chalet de Bellecôte chair at the bottom.
It was only when we looked on the piste map afterwards and saw a yellow warning symbol showing a man tumbling off a mountain surrounded by rocks, we realised what we’d accomplished.
While the dangers of snowboarding off-piste are always present, Matteo made sure safety was a top priority. Every morning, he loaded us up with avalanche safety kits and double-checked our transceivers were on.
For those who haven’t used them before, transceivers are small electric devices strapped to your body. If you were caught in an avalanche, your friends on the surface would be able to track you down using their transceivers in the style of a metal detector.
Feel The Rhythm, Feel The Rhyme
When the second day ache started to set it, we headed over to La Plagne’s very own Olympic bobsleigh track. It was built for the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992. At 1,500m long with 19 hair-raising bends, it’s no smooth ride.
As beginners, we were sat comfortably in a fully padded four-man bob ‘raft’, rather than the metal kind you see on TV. Amazingly, it’s computer programmed to drive (and brake) itself.
Still, you can definitely feel the G-Force around the bends as you hurtle to the bottom at 80km per hour. It’s a totally unique experience that I’ve yet to experience elsewhere in the Alps. After all, who doesn’t want to re-enact their own version of Cool Runnings?
For those who want to take the experience one step further, you can book in with Olympic medallist and world champion bobsleigh athlete Bruno Mingeon. He will take you in a real competition bobsleigh, reaching top speeds of 130km per hour.
On our final day, we emerged from lunch at Le Chalet de la Grande Rochette, stuffed full of chicken with reblochon cheese. Matteo decided to test us on one last real leg burner.
It was a steep couloir descent off the back of the Grand Rochette, finishing up at the Borselier chair lift. Hoots and squeals echoed down the mountain side, as we charged through the knee deep powder.
“Have you guys had enough?” Everyone nodded in accordance. After two solid days of shredding powder, our legs felt like jelly. Within half an hour, we were curled up on the sofa in our chalet with a cold beer and slice of chocolate Guinness cake.
As we sat discussing the day and watching the snow continue to fall outside, I began to think just how overlooked La Plagne is in terms of off-piste.
Yes, there are great facilities for kids here, hundreds of kilometres of pistes and more restaurants serving steaming tartiflette than you could hope to cover in a year.
But it’s not just full of screaming children and beginners clogging up the pistes. La Plagne has a huge variety of off-piste areas to explore, it’s an untapped powder heaven. You’d better just cut off-piste quick before the crowds discover it.
More info about our trip
For more information on off-piste skiing and snowboarding in La Plagne, visit la-plagne.com
Swiss Airlines (swiss.com) operate up to 10 flights daily from London airports to Geneva.
We stayed in one of VIP Skis catered chalets, where rooms start from €759 per week based on two people sharing. Read more on vip-chalets.com.
We hired equipment and a guide from the brilliant guys at Oxygene Ski and Snowboard School. Take a look at their website oxygene-ski.com.
La Plagne offer runs on their Olympic bobsleigh track from €41 per person. Find out more information on bobsleigh.net
We ate at Le Dou du Praz, Le Refuge and Le Chalet de la Grande Rochette, all of which were excellent.