How Last Weekend's Snowfall Turned an Alpine Drought Into Ski Nirvana

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by Cat Weakley, The Daily Telegraph, January 20, 2017

Last Sunday night I went through the Val d’Isère/Tignes piste map with local mountain guide Jerôme Barry of Top Ski, tracing the off-piste runs our group covered over the weekend. It was a total of 10, officially, though Friday and Saturday’s 60cm snowfall meant that almost every pitch between runs, every traverse held fresh white powder. And every piste, too, was a softly-packed or fluff-coated pleasure.

Our tally stretched from one end of the ski area to the other, varying from the short plunge through the snow-clagged trees of Le Liève Blanc above Le Fornet at the far side of Val d'Isère, to the near 1,000m vertical descent of the Vallon de la Sache on the outer extremities of Tignes .

Just a week ago doing runs like this was beyond the dreams of skiers and snowboarders. A snow drought of 50 days and counting meant that visitors to some many resorts in the Alps were sliding on ribbon-like pistes of man-made snow through a rocky, grassy landscape rather than powdery off-piste snow. And headlines were trumpeting the possibility of snow machines being turned off leading to a worsening picture. But then the drought broke .

Val d’Isère’s village is set at a lofty 1,850m and gives access to slopes reaching to over 3,600m on the Tignes side. It has also benefited from enough snowfall this season, plus cold temperatures during the drought, to mean that conditions were solid enough to provide a good holiday experience. All this, plus the possibility of days out with a mountain guide organised through Le Chardon Mountain Lodges where we were staying, meant that we were confident the good times would roll even before the snow started falling.

Best ski resorts for powder

But as we landed at Geneva on Friday 13th after a 6.15am on-time flight from snowy London (possibly the luckiest bad-luck Friday ever), snow was already coming down. It continued all the way up to the resort, and was still thick and fast as we pulled up outside Le Chardon – one of the company’s five luxury ski-in/ski-out lodges set away from the main village at 1,900m.

As we drove through the village I thought our luck may have turned – all lifts seemed to be closed, and eddies of snow swirled around the car showing it was windy as well as snowy. Not to be deterred, a quick turnaround on arrival meant we were heading to the Pure Ski shop to pick up powder skis and off-piste safety kit by 2pm and on the trail of an open lift, even if just on a nursery slope. “Do you want the good news or the bad news,” said Chardon general manager Jamie Rennie? Well both, and now! He told us the Le Fornet cable car to mid mountain just had opened – but that there were 35 minute queues.

Would I want it like this all the time? No. Every season’s anticipation, hope, gloom at missing snow that came a few days before, and even the worry that the snow will never come, are all part of the joy of snow sports.

The queues were in fact nowhere near that, and on that first afternoon we managed four laps, spurning the long blue piste down to dive into the steep trees lining it. By the end of a third run of powder face shots, tree dodging and the occasional washing machine fall, my legs were shot on this my first ski day of the season. But with the lift still running at 4.15pm and no sign of a queue, the cake, tea and comfy sit down back at Chardon had to wait.

Snow continued to fall for most of Saturday, and this time Jerôme was in charge of the itinerary. Thankfully. While there was fresh everywhere, we also needed to know where was safest, where was likely to be untracked - and the quickest way to get there avoiding any queues.

With 40cm of fresh having fallen on Friday, piste patrol was out bombing snow above to create avalanches above the slopes to make them safe from early morning (is there a more exciting sound to wake up to in a ski resort? It even beats the soft knock of a Chardon chalet host bringing tea). Our plan had been to ski tour – walk uphill using climbing skins on our skis – or enlist the help of a helicopter.

But no need for that. Just using the lifts offered up white gold, if in varied visibility as the clouds enveloped then occasionally lifted. The trees below Val d’Isère’s newly revamped Solaise area and Le Fornet provided ample shelter, and the chance to make fresh tracks through widely spaced trees. Twice we ended by pushing our way through woods out alongside the flowing Isère river.

Sunday, after another 20cm fell on Saturday, dawned to the heart-thumping sight of a bluebird sky over sparkling white peaks. We watched the early sunlight slipping down the mountain towards the snow from the breakfast table, could see how the ski tracks from our final run down to the chalet’s deck had been filled in, and knew that today could be the day of all days.

Awesome powder turns this weekend in @valdisere - the best weekend of the season so far? @catweakley thinks so! ❄️❄️❄️❄️❄️❄️ #skiing #snowsports #snowboarding #valdisere #powderday #bluebird

A video posted by Telegraph Ski and Snowboard (@telegraphskisnowboard) on Jan 17, 2017 at 7:16am PST

Jerôme led us quick sharp to the Tignes side of the map, smartly avoiding the bigger lifts where there might be queues. We cruised under bowls where a series of slab avalanches had taken out big layers of snow - there were certainly places to avoid. At the top of the Grattalu lift, skier after snowboarder after skier was following a hike path to access the Chardonnet off piste. “No need,” said Jerôme, leading us around the corner and into an open, untracked stash, and onwards, through the day, cutting traverses, guiding us through narrow slots, leading the push out from yet another awesome, empty slope. Our group of seven painted closely packed perfect track lines on naked white slopes time after time, the grins rarely leaving our faces as we basked, incredulous, in our luck.

The feeling of fresh snow under ski or board, whether it’s squeaky, freshly groomed piste, or a flood of light powder swishing around, the luck and the joy of being in the right place at the right time, of it all coming together, this is what we always hope for. Last weekend, it happened for me and the feeling couldn’t be dimmed by getting home at 1am on Sunday on a delayed flight, and is here with me right now, embedded in my aching muscles.

Would I want it like this all the time? No. Every season’s anticipation, hope, gloom at missing snow that came a few days before, and even the worry that the snow will never come, are all part of the joy of snow sports. Because, inevitably, a weekend like this will come, and I want to feel the ecstasy of it every time anew.

A week staying with Le Chardon Mountain Lodges, including fine dining, open bar and chauffeur, starts from £1,395 per person. Chalets are available sole occupancy, and on a shared basis for certain weeks/short breaks. There is currently a 20 per cent discount offered on remaining 2016/17 sole occupancy chalets. A day of guided off piste/ski touring with all equipment including off-piste skis, skins, transceiver, shovel, probe and avalanche airbag costs €187.50 per person based on a group of four. A heli assisted version costs €280 per person based on group of four.


This article was written by Cat Weakley and travel writer from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.