Ski France & Italy 2013-14 Part 1

With sadly only a few weeks of spring skiing left for the Alps, this is the perfect time to recall some awesome early snow (for it was a fine European ski season overall) and look back lovingly on some exciting northern hemisphere travels.

The 2013-14 season kicked off early thanks to snow brought to the Alps during a November cold blast. This saw TignesAlpe D'HuezVal Thorens, and in Italy, Valchiavenna, among those able to open in November.

By mid-December most of the rest of the ski resorts in the French and Italian Alps had opened up, and so it was that on the 13th December we arrived in Milan, somewhat tired after the long trip from Australia. After picking up our hire car, we made our way along the autostrade through Piemonte, past Torino, and into France through the Frejus Tunnel.

This was to be our first of six brilliant weeks touring the ski resorts of France and Italy.

Trois Vallees
14-19 December 2013

Altitude - 1,100 - 3,230m
Lifts - 180
Runs - 600kms

The Trois Vallees is a huge, huge place. Imagine a huge ski resort ... and then multiply it by five more huge ski resorts. Thats what I'm talking about! When you visit it you can see why it claims to be the largest linked ski area in the world. It is actually made up of eight resorts, or towns even, that each have their own distinct feel and vibe.
Val Thorens from Funitel Grand Fond 18/12/13

Val Thorens
Altitude - 2,300 - 3,230m
Lifts - 32
Snow Depth - 65/105cms (11/12/2013)

I chose the Trois Vallees for the first stop on our tour mainly because of the famous Val Thorens, a town that sits at the end of Vallee des Belleville at a mighty altitude of 2,300m. Back in Australia making the bookings before the snowfalls, this resort looked like a good bet for some guaranteed snow cover at a time of year which can be touch-and-go.

We actually stayed outside the ski area in Orelle, a tiny village in the Maurienne Valley right by the Frejus tunnel from Italy. Orelle has very good value accommodation, and is linked to Val Thorens by a gondola that takes you up from 900m village altitude to 2,600m.

From the Orelle gondola top station, a chairlift takes you to one of the highest points in the Trois Vallees. Arriving there each morning you are greeted by the sight of Val Thorens waking up with the snowmaking machines still going.

The high-altitude toilet at Cime Caron
Val Thorens is surrounded by huge bowls and rocky outcrops and is well above the alpine treeline. There are lots of runs down from the many fast lifts up to the peaks.

In the cold conditions the pistes were nice and fast. It hadn't snowed since the end of November, but lots of snowmaking and some clever piste management/grooming kept things fresh on the upper slopes. We were there to enjoy them nice and early each morning on the way over from Orelle.

The highlights at Val Thorens for me were the long cruisy runs down from the top of the Funitel Peclet, and the incredible views from the Cime Caron, which takes two gondolas to get up to and hosts the (claimed) highest toilet in the Alps!

Access to the other parts of the Trois Vallees is from the town at Val Thorens, which you can ski around and through quite easily thanks to snow bridges over the pedestrianised areas. The link to nearby Meribel Mottaret can get pretty busy though, so timing is crucial.

Altitude - 1,100 - 2,952m
Lifts - 41

Meribel is a group of villages in the middle valley of the three valleys, and is popular with English holidaymakers. Its also - and probably because of this fact - expensive compared to Val Thorens and Les Menuires, despite being just a few lifts away.

Lac de la Chambre at Meribel 17/12/13
The run down into Meribel from Val Thorens - Lac de la Chambre -  is a long, winding piste set in stunning scenery and with good snow. Follow that with a gentle blue run through the trees and you reach Meribel-Mottaret, which is possibly the nicest part of Meribel.

Despite being at 1,750m altitude, it felt much warmer here all week compared to in Val Thorens. The snow certainly suffered as well so we didn't really get to see the best of the large area that is Meribel.

Altitude - 1,350 - 2,738m
Lifts - 56

The next valley along is home to Courchevel, made up itself of a number of different areas with varied runs. Watching a plane take off or land from the Altiport at Courchevel 1850 was definitely a highlight of our time spent around here.

But the real problem for us was that Courchevel is just so far away from Orelle. On our first day we tried to go from one end of the Trois Vallees to the other and almost missed the last gondola home! And we also found better skiing closer to home in Les Menuires.

Les Menuires/Saint Martin de Belleville
Altitude - 1,450 - 2,850m
Lifts - 34

Les Menuires 18/12/13
Les Menuires is the next resort down the Belleville valley from Val Thorens. One side of the ski area is made up of rolling slopes, the other steep and rocky like at Val Thorens.

As the endless sunny days took their toll around Trois Vallees, there was still some fine skiing up high especially in Les Menuires.

This would actually be an incredible place after a dump with its endless rolling off-piste. However there was no off-piste skiing anywhere at Trois Vallees while we were there as it was solid. Luckily the groomed runs had so much variety.

Further down, the cruisy easy runs continue toward Saint Martin de Belleville, a pretty town even further down the valley. All along this side of the valley made a beautiful spot for lunches or an afternoon break in the sun.

After five days at Trois Vallees we headed to the wonderful city of Lyon for a weekend city break. No snow ... but lots of cheese and chocolate were consumed in France's fine second city.

Mont Blanc from Les Houches 22/12/13
Chamonix-Mont Blanc
21-27 December 2013

The Chamonix valley is legendary - Mont Blanc, the Aigulle du Midi, and the fashionable Alpine town at the centre of this mecca of climbing and other outdoor pursuits.

We based ourselves for the Christmas week at Servoz (900m altitude), a pretty, peaceful village of typical Savoyard farmhouses. All the houses were decorated festively.

Being in Servoz gave us access to Chamonix - by car or mountain railway - as well as the ski resorts around Saint-Gervais.

Les Houches
Altitude - 1,000 - 1,900m
Lifts - 16
Snow depth - 30/45cms (22/12/13)

Les Houches is a small ski resort between Servoz and Chamonix and boasts fantastic views up and down the Chamonix valley. Les Houches is also the starting point for climbs up Mont Blanc in summer, and in winter, you are literally skiing in the shadow of Mont Blanc.

Mont Blanc Tramway from Les Houches 22/12/13
As a family-friendly resort, the runs are fairly easy. However, the FIS downhill slope Kandahar is a brilliant piste with a vertical of about 1,000m. You end up weaving through farmhouses before the telecabine takes you all the way back up to the top.

Les Houches had only been open one day when we arrived, and many runs still didn't have enough cover to open. There hadn't been any snow since November!

This lack of snow meant we were to miss out on one of the must-do activities in Chamonix: skiing down the Vallee Blanche.

The Vallee Blanche is an umarked run down a glacier starting at the Aigulle du Midi. The run can be tackled on your own or with one of the many guides available at Chamonix. Once on the run, the skiing is mostly intermediate but, because it is umarked and on a glacier, there can be crevasses and other obstacles to avoid.
Aigulle du Midi 23/12/13

The conditions were just not suitable, but we did get a look at the starting point for the run when we took the cable car up to the Aigulle du Midi, an adventure in itself! The summit is at 3,842m and the cable car takes you up there so quickly you can easily get altitude sickness once you're at the top.

Now Chamonix is very different from the Trois Vallees. A lot of the skiing is for experts and the different ski areas are not really connected. It is a working town and centre for lots of different activities, not just for skiing.

Les Houches is at one end of the valley, while Vallorcine is at the other. In between these are the lifts for Brevent-Flegere, Grands Montets, and Balme. The glacial valley walls are so steep that you need to climb up by gondola first to get up to the ski areas, and there are not really any accessible runs back down into Chamonix village except for experts.

Grands Montets
Altitude - 1,252 - 3,275m
Lifts - 9
Snow depth - 120cms @ 2,000m (01/01/2014)

The long run of sunny days had continued but taken its toll. By 23rd December 2013, there was very little snow below 2,000m altitude at the ski stations in the northern French Alps except on runs with snowmaking. Even then, we had to be on the lookout for rocks, and the warm temperatures had made the lower slopes solid.
Grands Montets 23/12/13

At Chamonix, a dusting of snow on the morning of the 23rd December freshened up the slopes at Grands Montets, which had the best skiing in the valley.

Although it was probably a bit early in the season for us to appreciate it, you could see the potential of this place, up above the village of Argentiere, with long steep runs and lots of off-piste above 2,000m. Even down on the lower runs among the trees there was some fun skiing with the first fresh (albeit only 10cms or so) snow of our trip!

Back in Servoz and checking the weather forecasts, everything was about to change. A massive low pressure system, a superstorm, covering half of Europe was forecast to bring snow across the Alps.

Altitude - 1,050 - 2,350m
Lifts - 88
Snow depth - 20cms@1151m; 90cms@2014m (01/01/2014)

Snow Arrives in Chamonix 26/12/13
Finally the long-awaited snows arrived like a big, white, blanketing Christmas present. On Christmas Eve the southern French Alps and western Italian Alps got a nice dump of 20-40cms. Elsewhere the temperature dropped and the snow arrived for the rest on Christmas Day.

At Chamonix, we received around 30-50cms in the ski areas and 10-15cms in the valley towns. While this new snow only partially covered all the rocks, it did make the pistes a lot better to ski.

During the storm, we skied at Saint-Gervais and Megeve where the visibility was better because of the beautiful forests that sprawl across the hills here.

Megeve has a massive lift system that has linked a whole group of small areas in the lower valleys down from Chamonix. There are an incredible variety of runs, and some very picturesque villages, which were now blanketed in white where all had been green alpine pasture a few days earlier.

There was some good, soft powder snow early on (off Mont Joux, for example), but it was too early for the resorts to open new runs so things were still a bit limited. The long runs off the Princesse gondola were great fun, and we had to stick to tree-lined runs across Megeve for the best skiing in the poor visibility.

Balme 27/12/13
Altitude - 1,264 - 2,250m
Lifts - 10
Snow depth - 50cms

Back at Chamonix, after the storm cleared we spent a great morning skiing up at Balme, which is right up near the border with Switzerland.

This open and rolling ski area is less rocky and steep than the ski areas further down the valley, but Balme still has stunning views back down to Chamonix.

There were lots of great freshies to be had from the Tete de Balme, where the lift runs along the border with Switzerland. There are big wide areas here where you can ski off-piste. There are also some nice gentle blue runs for beginners and cruisy reds.

All up, Balme is a good, fun place that is a bit more accessible for intermediates than Grands Montets.

Altitude - 1,894 - 2,525m
Lifts - 15
Snow depth - 50cms (27/12/13)

Chamonix from Le Brevent 27/12/13
The new snow had also opened up the linked ski areas of Le Brevent and La Flegere.

These two ski areas are accessed from Chamonix's town centre and make up some of the steepest parts of the valley.

This is advanced skiing, and with only half a metre of snow there were still many rocks around, limiting off-piste opportunities.

Nevertheless, it is a must-do when in Chamonix! From the top gondola station at Le Brevent you can see across the whole valley to the Aigulle du Midi, the Montenvers rack railway,the glaciers and Mont Blanc.

It is a view that sums up and encompasses all that is great about Chamonix.

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