Skiing in the Vanoise
A Tour on the Wild Side
By Mark Chadwick
It’s blowing hard; the gondola that we’re riding in is bouncing in the wind. We’re not even halfway through the Trois Valley’s monstrous ski area trying to access the Col de Gèbroulaz at 3400. If we reach the Col we’re lining ourselves up for 1400m of sublime backcountry turns in breath taking scenery, having ridden the lift system all morning and only skinned for 150m.
It’s not going to happen though; I’ve just called into the lift station in Val Thorens and they’ve closed the upper lifts that give access to our start point.
We’re gutted, this is not how we were hoping day one would turn out, but this is touring and ‘being flexible’ is our mantra!
The Roc de la Pèche Hut at the end of day one is the icing on the cake at the start of the tour and there’s no way we’re missing out on this five-star mountain hut sensory overload.
A quick change of plan, a blast back down the slopes of the Trois Valleys and a short van drive.
We now find ourselves transported from the hustle and bustle of the 3 Valleys to the peace and quiet of skinning through pine trees split by sunshine, passing alpine summer residences locked up in their winter coats, drawing ever closer to the welcome haven that is the Roc de la Pèche hut.
Not to give too much away but this is the hut of all mountain huts if you like your comforts in a wild and beautiful mountain setting. The accommodation, food and gâteaux de maison are worth the journey alone and I’ve not even mentioned the Moroccan hot tub and the sauna….
We awake early and share breakfast with the only other three guests in the hut. Yes, this is still peak touring season and yes the snow is still good but the Vanoise holds on to a remote ‘out the way’ feel and pace. This in itself makes for a must-experience venue if you’re looking for a tour on the wild side.
We top out on the Col d’ Aussois at just under 2900m, having skinned from the hut at 1900m. To say it was an easy skin would be unfair, the start certainly got the team working hard both skinning then boot packing out of the steep sided valley. Once up into the hills proper the flowing skinning line journeys through real alpine mountain terrain. Snow-smoothed riverbeds, hummocks and dips lead into a grand cwm that marks our final assent to the col.
We take our time swapping from skinning to ski mode, as the weather is perfect. Plenty of photos are snapped here, with a mountain backdrop reaching as far as Mont Blanc.
The excitement builds, as we know this is the start of today’s sweet turns.
We push off and are soon rewarded with south facing perfect spring snow. Confidence builds as the legs warm up and soon we’re all whooping it up dropping into a new alpine land, as yet unseen.
We break at a small, unmanned hut that has a couple of French families staying, mums, dads and kids. You can’t help but think “Lucky kids, what a good start to life!”
We’re treated to a local caricature in the form of a not so sly Mr Renard (a fox!). He’s more than happy to pose for some prize photos and possibly a few tidbits.
All that’s left is a couple of hundred metres of gentle skinning and we reach the rustic, charming Refuge de la Dent Parrachée and all of its welcome refreshments!
We’ve just arrived on the north side of the Col de Labby at 3324m after a steadily building skinning assent. Starting off nice and steady from the Refuge de la Dent Parrachée but finishing off with a precariously exposed traverse, which got the team concentrating.
We’re looking into a thick white wall of cloudy nothingness, this is going to be a serious ski with an essential traverse right to access our descent into the valley. Right on queue a French team appear out of the gloom having skinned up from our intended target.
Armed with map, compass, GPS, altimeter and now a skin track to follow down, it’s game-on. The visibility might be poor but the snow’s anything but: cold, fresh and north facing slopes allow for hero turns as we begin our 1000m descent. As we drop height the visibility improves allowing more flowing, wider, faster turns as the terrain opens up to us along with the views.
Yet another top-notch, quiet hut awaits our arrival with fine food and captivating views.
It’s been forecasted and the forecast has been spot on; it’s snowed again and a decent amount.
We pack our kit post-breakfast and ready ourselves for a big day of skinning and skiing. Almost straight out of the blocks leaving the hut we have a critical route finding decision to make. The shorter more direct route requires a short but steep climb above the hut. With all this fresh snow its just too risky and avalanche prone. We’re going the longer way round.
Today’s a big day for the team, it’s a 1200m ascent to start with in fresh snow conditions climbing up to an altitude of 3553m. I’m working hard out in front breaking trail and avoiding avalanche prone terrain; this is serious but the ground allows us to link safe slopes, angles and aspects. We steadily lay an ascending skin trail through an untouched mountain landscape of fresh snow.
With our first down starting from the high point of the tour, the Dome de Chasseforêt at 3553m, the snow’s unfortunately been laid down on a strong wind. It’s not ideal for making turns and the team deal well with the variation in snow conditions.
It’s time for another up; the morale has taken a dip and there’s nothing left to do but have a break, eat some food, drink something then get on with it for another few hours.
The team’s feeling the physical effect of the last few days; we need to be careful here, as we don’t want any injuries.
We drop in, the snow is shaded by the towering cliffs, the wind’s not done its damage at this altitude. Game on. The snow’s awesome, we’re dropping height making fresh powder turns on a reliable base. Tired legs and lethargy are forgotten, adrenaline and dopamine kicks in and the smiles are contagious.
This is what it’s all about: working hard on the ups and relishing the joy of the downs.
We drink a beer and recap our big day. All that’s left today is to eat good food and enjoy a well-earned nights sleep.
We gather on a windy Col de la Grande Casse, it’s been the shortest climb of the tour but the steepest skinning with varying success from the team. We’re here now and its down, down, down all the way.
We have an option to ski and skin all the way to Tignes, which would be another big day. We go with the majority vote, which is Champagny, and it’s all down from here.
We push off under the intimidating North Face of the Grande Casse, there are some faint ski tracks faint just visible on the face. Awe and wonder sweep the group as they gaze up at this incredible ski line.
We ski deep powder turns in complex terrain, turning to spring snow in steep broad couloirs as we drop height. It’s raining slightly as we arrive deep down in the valley leading us out. The air is thicker and the feeling of being finished is near.
‘Combat du ski’ seems like an apt description for this final section; variable is the word and all of our efforts are undignified! It’s over though now, we’re on the snow covered summer road, and we point our skis down and let the valley sides whistle past.
We’re done, the team’s sitting in a café in Champagny, drinks in hand and sun on our faces. With memories to keep forever, from a ski tour that is still remote and wild, in a world that seems ever busier and crowded. The quiet, remote-yet-accessible mountain paradise that is the Vanoise National Park has all the nature, flora, mountain grandeur and skiing to keep everyone satisfied.
For more details about this course, running 15th April 2017, visit the course page.