The Secrets of the Off-Piste Skiing Paradise in the French Alps That You've Never Heard Of

by Cat Weakley and deputy head of ski, The Telegraph, December 27, 2017

Over a col from the mega resorts of the Tarentaise is a cluster of smaller destinations in the lesser-known Maurienne valley, linked by a lift pass, a bus – and some awesome freeriding. Even in mid-April ...

My legs feel shaky and it takes a while for my breathing to slow down as we gather on the ridge. It’s partly from the effort – 100m of boot packing upwards, skis tied to backpack, feet falling through hard crust into the soft snow underneath. But it’s also the clamour of emotion released by the ring of peaks around us at well over 3,000m, the exposure of the tiny patch of snow we’re standing on, and the dizzying roll of the edge over which we’re about to ski. We’re above the tiny ski resort of Bonneval Sur Arc in the Maurienne valley, it’s 1pm, and it’s taken a while to get here.

We’d set off the day before from the hubbub of London St Pancras. Catching the Eurostar, changing station in Paris, powering though the flats of central France – a riot of bright green and yellow fields under blue April skies – to Chambèry.

So far so hectic. But then, for the final leg, to Modane, the pace of life slows with the pace of the train. This peaceful rural town gives easy access to a handful of ski resorts lining a valley that’s within a ski of Val d’Isère, but feels a million miles away. Despite the views now being of snowy peaks,

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the committee of old gents sitting on the bench outside the station said, “Mais... où?” if we asked them the way there.

Not that we’re going to that Val. Our base is Val Cenis, half an hour’s drive from Modane and the largest of the Haute Maurienne resorts, with three village bases, 125km of varied pistes, modern lifts and knockout lake views.

While there are some recently-built lodgings here, the villages are more notable for their shapely-towered churches, odd shops selling kitchen essentials, and flat-fronted, shuttered grey houses with carefully tended gardens – on view as there’s no snow on the streets.

It doesn’t bother us - 60cm of snow fell two weeks ago, the valley benefitting from a weather phenomenon called Retour de l’Est that can leave the Maurienne wallowing in snow when resorts like Courchevel and Tignes in the neighbouring – much better known – Tarentaise valley can only look on jealously.

And because the height of top lifts at the resorts – from Bonneval, an hour from Modane and just over the Col d’Iseran from Val d’Isère, to Valfréjus nearest the town – is between 2,500 and 3,000m, the snow tends to stick around.

Another joy of visiting the Haute Maurienne is that five resorts are covered by one lift pass, the Eski-mo. Part of our mission is to take full advantage of its possibilities. The other is to hunt down the pockets of dry cold powder that surely lurk among those high peaks, even well into spring.

As well as slope access, the Eski-mo includes free buses between the resorts, but as our group of five is ski touring with Sylvain Rechu, a mountain guide from local outfit Offpist Maurienne, we have the luxury of a van.

Not that it feels like a luxury when I haul myself out of bed early to check off skis, skins, crampons, safety kit, before we tear along the valley to the day’s resort. First lift is priority, for the best chance of skiable off piste after our uphill endeavours.

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This article was written by Cat Weakley and deputy head of ski from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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