Backcountry Spotlight | 10 of the Best Backcountry Skiing Descents In Tignes

We bring you a snapshot of the backcountry and off-piste skiing available from the Tignes ski resort

Header: Simon Perry hucking the huge seracs found on the Face Nord du Grande Motte. Credit: Jordan Tiernan

While it may not have the charm or postcard-perfect layout of many of the other resorts scattered around the French Alps, Tignes more than makes up for this with it’s amazing accessibility to some of the finest backcountry skiing out there. While many in the Chamonix valley are packed like sardines in buses to reach different ends of the valley, Tignes is able to offer access to a huge variety of terrain, with lifts encircling the town in every direction.

If you call yourself a backcountry skier / snowboarder, then you need to make the pilgrimage to Tignes at some point – there’s a lifetimes worth of skiing ranging from lift accessible sidecountry to full-on touring missions keeping all levels of skiers frothing.

For the moment when you decide to get yourself out to this cracker of a resort, we’ve brought you our top pick of ten of the best routes to get you going – ranging from the two day backcountry missions to the glorified restaurant trip.

“There’s a lifetimes worth of skiing… keeping all levels of skiers frothing”

Disclaimer: If you’re planning to ski any of these descents, then please ensure you do so in the stable conditions, with the correct equipment (transceiver shovel and probe), partners and correct training to perform avalanche rescue. If you’re unsure of what stable conditions are, then a mountain guide will happily show you.

This guide has also been written assuming good snow conditions on the descents – they’re obviously going to increase in difficulty if you find them in icy conditions.

Tufs Couloirs

Pictured: Simon Perry looking over Les Tufs. Credit: Jordan Tiernan

Rating: *****
Difficulty: Advanced
Equipment: Downhill skis

Looking over Tignes Le Lac are seven perfect looking couloirs that are each split by sandstone ridges running alongside the full length of the couloirs – these, Les Tufs, are a Tignes classic and a must do for any keen off-piste skier or snowboarder visiting the area. Ranging from Tufs 4 on the looker’s right hand side to the longer and steeper Tufs 3 which cuts down the centre of the face, there’ll be something for everyone to have a go at in Les Tufs.

Conditions in the couloirs has a huge impact on the difficulty; you could find them with snow banked up from wall-to-wall, or the complete opposite where there’s not enough snow and large ice falls blocking the route. There are few safe spots to tuck out the way, so keep an eye out for sluff that’ll inevitably be chasing you down the couloir. When you do manage to find Les Tufs in the right conditions, you’ll be hard pushed to find any easier accessible off-piste terrain in the resort.

Couloir Face Nord de la Grande Balme

Pictured: Jamie Patterson crossing the exposed section of Grande Couloir du Grande Balme. Credit: Jordan Tiernan

Rating: ****
Difficulty: Expert
Equipment: Touring skis

The Grande Balme is accesible from the top of the Grande Motte funicular and can be skied either with or without ski touring equipment (skins are definitely preferred if the snow is deep). The length of the approach tends to keep the crowds away, so you’re definitely rewarded for the extra effort.

Similar to how Les Tufs watch over Tignes Le Lac, the Grande Couloir found on the North Face of the Grande Balme looks over Tignes Val Claret. This couloir starts off pretty mellow, with a relatively simple traverse into the couloir, then soon steepens out into a narrow section. Be aware during this steep section – you’re skiing above cliffs, so make sure every turn counts. Once you’re out of the couloir, you can open up the taps and let the skis run for the onlookers down in Val Claret.

Café Liégeois

Pictured: Jordan Tiernan in the upper sections of Café liégeois. Credit: Holly Burns

Rating: *****
Difficulty: Advanced
Equipment: Downhill skis

The small summit of Pointe de la Chardonnet is peppered with classic couloirs and short face routes. Hidden on the far side of the peak of Chardonnet is Cafe Legois – a definite contender for the top pick of the area as this relatively unknown (unseen) couloir is able to remain untracked long after the last snowfall.

You’ll more than likely find large cornices at the top of this couloir, which can easily be cut and down-climbed or just dropped completely – just be aware that you’re going to be landing on a pretty steep slope below! Once past the couloir, the skiing below is sublime, with a constant steepness holding true throughout the length of the couloir before you’re out in the wider (and more mellow) Chardonnet bowl.

Face Nord Centrale du Grande Casse

Pictured: Simon Perry contemplating the drop in at the top of Face Nord Central du Grande Casse. Credit: Jordan Tiernan

Rating: *****
Difficulty: Experts only
Equipment: Ski mountaineering equipment & touring skis

The Grande Casse is the giant of the Tarentaise, standing at a height of 3,855 metres. And while there’s quite a straightforward way down its west slopes, there isn’t really an easy way down its steep, icy, and extremely exposed north faces. If you’ve got the technical skiing, climbing and glacial travel experience, this descent is a real beauty.

Usually done in a two day, spring-time, assault when you can guarantee conditions are going to be as safe as can be throughout the entire journey. Access can either come by climbing up the north face itself, or via the grand couloir on the slightly more mellow west face of the Grande Casse. The north face of the Grande Casse is split by three separate routes, the Face Nord Centrale cuts down the centre of the face via a hanging glacier before you’re spat out onto the steep and open face below.

Refuge du Palet

Pictured: Simon Perry and Alexandra Beuchert touring with the Refuge du Palet behind. Credit: Jordan Tiernan

Rating: ***
Difficulty: Beginner
Equipment: Touring skis

Not so much a gnarly backcountry descent, more of a long walk with a few short off-piste descents scattered in-between, with the option to go for a fondue in the middle of the ski tour – what’s not to love about that? There are a few different ways to reach the refuge du Palet, but the most common way is straight from the Col du Palet drag lift where a short traverse and ski leads you to the refuge, where a fondue and some of the finest beer in the region awaits.

While the skiing isn’t the most jaw-dropping, it’s the surroundings that put this descent into our top 10 backcountry descents in Tignes. Another beautiful thing about this ski tour is that you’re not reliant on the lifts spinning, just head to the refuge from last lift to return in the evening. Make sure you give both the pisteurs (ski patrol) and the refuge a call with your plans.

Pisteur’s phone: +33 4 79 06 32 00
Refuge phone: +33 4 79 07 91 47

Face Nord du Grande Motte

Pictured: Jim Adlington ripping the Face Nord du Grande Motte. Credit: Jordan Tiernan

Rating: *****
Difficulty: Expert
Equipment: Glacier equipment and touring skis

The Face Nord du Grande Motte is a fantastic late season choice. While many other descents in resort are holding sun transformed snow, the Face Nord is frequently holding cold, dry powder. Remember that you’re going to be skiing on a glacier during this descent so crevasse rescue skills equipment are mandatory. If you don’t know, don’t go.

There are many different routes through the glacier, the easiest (in terms of route-finding) is straight down the furthest skier’s right hand side of the glacier. As you start to venture on the skier’s left then you start to step foot into some complicated terrain where you really do need to know where you’re going. Again if you don’t know, then grab yourself a mountain guide to show you the way.

Couloir 3500

Pictured: Ben Styles in the upper reaches of Couloir 3500. Credit: Jordan Tiernan

Rating: *****
Difficulty: Expert
Equipment: Touring skis

Despite being a resort favourite on the sunny side of the Grande Motte, 3500 never usually seems to get popular enough to ruin the overall wild feeling of this couloir that spits you out into the Vallon de Leisse, where touring equipment is required to ski tour back to resort. Starting at 3,500 metres (funny, that) on the south side of Grande Motte, this couloir can be easily reached straight from a short traverse off the 3500 piste

Sometimes requiring a sidestep or short downclimb, the top portion of Couloir is frequently steep and icy, so solid technique is required. This steepness rarely relents for the entire length of the couloir, so make sure every turn counts until you find yourself in the remote Leisse valley where a ski tour back up the valley will place you at the base of the Leisse chairlift.


Pictured: Jordan Tiernan rappelling through the cliff in the middle of L’Entonnoir. Credit: Ben Styles

Rating: *****
Difficulty: Expert
Equipment: Ski mountaineering equipment

Steep skiing, ropes and rappels – what’s not to love? Well quite a lot it seems as L’Entonnoir is one of those routes that’s able to ‘repel’ the hoards, presumably due to the technical nature of getting through the couloir itself. If you’ve got the sufficient ski mountaineering skills to get yourself down P4, then this one is a certain must-do for all expert skiers in resort.

The top of P4 is a large funnel that must only be skied when you are 100% certain of snow stability as if anything is released here, then there’s a high chance you’re going over the cliffs below. Once the top funnel is skied, then you reach the cliff band and the rappel station where you can clip in and start the rappel. Once through the rappel, you’ve got one of the most well situated couloirs right beneath your feet. Step in and get ready for one hell of a descent that’ll most likely have very few tracks through it.

Le Trou de la Souris

Rating: ****
Difficulty: Intermediate
Equipment: Downhill skis

If you ever find yourself chatting to a keen skier about Tignes and mention you’re planning a trip out there, they’ll most likely bring up the “Mouse Hole”. This hidden powder bowl is reserved for only those with the knowledge to pass through the Trou de la Souris, a short, yet steep down-climb (there’s usually a fixed rope to aid this passage) through a rocky section before finding yourself on top of a hidden powder slope below.

Many local instructors and guides know of Le Trou de la Souris, so you’ll be lucky to find it untracked shortly after a snowfall, but it’s still hidden enough to keep the masses out, thus raising your chances of finding some fresh turns in the bowl, plus the adventure in itself is more than worthwhile!

Combe du Glattier

Rating: ****
Difficulty: Intermediate
Equipment: Downhill skis

It’s sadly not always blue skies and powder out in Tignes. When the snow is falling and visibility low, there’s a great descent to be found down the long and wide gully of Combe du Glattier, where you’ll find the sparse trees and shrubs giving you some much needed contrast. Be aware; the Combe du Glattier is an extremely popular route, so be aware of groups skiing above you, to avoid anything being released above you, the same goes for you skiing above other parties.

Once you’re at the end of the descent, you’ll find yourself on the top of the Glattier avalanche tunnel, where you’ll usually find enough snow has been blown onto the middle of the tunnel – creating a ramp that allows for an easy sideslip down onto the road, to catch the bus back to Les Boisses.

We’ve deliberately left information out of this introduction to backcountry skiing in Tignes, for you to go and source the required information yourself. In doing so, you’ll be preparing yourself and your group adequately enough to take on many of these off-piste itineraries.

Remember. If you don’t know, don’t go.

Grab The Guide

Shameless plug from yours truly time. Be sure to check out the all new definitive Tignes Off-Piste guidebook (co-written by me). With more than 432 pages bursting full of information, it covers a large majority of the off-piste itineraries found in Tignes – both in and out of the resort boundaries.

Proceeds from the book go to Tignes charity SOLEA. Get your copy here

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