An Unforgettable Family Skiing Holiday
Skiing in a single descent from the top of a mountain down to the bottom of a resort, in a natural yet totally safe environment, can be a wonderful, fun experience for the whole family (or a group of friends). For example, the Sarenne trail at L’Alpe d’Huez is known to be the longest in the Alps. Below are the keys to other examples of very special runs.
L’Alpe d’Huez, the star resort in the Oisans range (Isère)
Situated at an altitude of almost 1,800m (6,000 ft), the resort of L’Alpe d’Huez boats a vast network of chair lifts and gondola lifts across a gentle, south-facing slope. It’s an ideal place to gather and share the fun of easy, comfortable trails in full sunshine. For a truly magical moment, however, you have to board the vertiginous cable-car that goes to the summit of Pic du Lac Blanc at 3,323m (11,000 ft). There you will enjoy the terrific spectacle of a 3-star vista – followed by terrific unbroken 16km downhill descent on the record-breaking Sarenne trail. An hour and a half is usually required for this descent. Although rated a ‘black’ (very difficult) trail, Sarenne is monitored and well-signposted and can be managed by skiers who are comfortable on a ‘blue’ (intermediate) slope as long as they are careful. Families should ski at their own pace, taking their time. This can be done on the southeastern slopes below the Crêtes de l’Herpie, which represents another side of the resort: the ski lifts and crowds have vanished, the landscape remains totally natural – which is a good reason to stop for a lunch break along the trail.
Unless, of course, you decide to ski over to the hut at the Col de Sarenne 2,000m (6,500 ft), where there is a superb, isolated chalet completely renovated in handsome, and above all, ecological materials. The trail then wends its way down to a narrow little valley as far as a bridge called Pont du Gua, which can be hardly recognizable beneath the thick layer of snow. The trail finally ends, at an altitude of 1,500m (5,000 ft), halfway between L’Alpe d’Huez and Auris-en-Oisan, the next-door resort directly connected by a chair lift. The descent concludes with a gentle passage once reserved for off-trail skiers but developed and groomed back in 1976.
Meanwhile, a ‘nocturnal descent’, organised by the resort operator (SATA), offers an even more original experience. Bold skiers take the cable car on a night with a full moon, with no other lighting than an individual headlamp. Ski monitors accompany and provide security for the outing, which costs € 65 per person and only takes place if weather conditions permit. The price includes an enjoyable meal, just prior to the descent, in the GUC chalet at the summit of Pic du Lac Blanc. Reservations must be made with SATA to join this ‘moonlight’ descent of the Sarenne trail. Tel: 33 (0) 4 76 80 30 30.
Other famous skiing trails, sometimes more difficult
• Grand Massif: The Cascades Trail
In the Grand Massif ski resort, the 12km Cascades trail takes you from the summit of the Flaine slopes to the village of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval 5,500 feet lower down. It is a charming, quiet trail rated ‘blue’ and ‘red’ (intermediate to difficult) that deliberately turns its back on the lift-dotted slopes. Although maintained and signposted, it remains aloof from the other trails, beginning at the Crête des Grandes Platières with a view of Mont Blanc, passing by the Lac de Gers (hidden under the snowfields) where a friendly chalet beckons you to pause for sustenance. The trail then continues among the trees, opposite a magnificent landscape dominated by Mont Buet and the cliffs of the Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval, plus the source of the ‘frosty’ torrent of Le Giffre. There is no sound of machinery, no madding crowd, just the wonderful air of the mountain wilderness – but without the anxiety of off-piste skiing. The trail ends in the hamlet of Salvagny (administratively part of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval), where another friendly chalet awaits with cups of tea or hot chocolate until the free shuttle bus comes to take skiers to Samoens and the gondola lift back to Flaine. The outing can thus last a whole day, and is worth the price of a lift pass even if you don’t feel you have used a lot of lifts.
• Tignes: Vallon de la Sache
If you’re willing to overlook the almost endless possibilities of the Grande Motte glacier and the connection to Val d’Isère (the Killy ski centre), then you can escape Tignes by taking the chair lift to Aiguille Percée 2,748m (9,000 feet) and skiing down a ‘red’ and ‘black’ trail (difficult to very difficult) as far as Tignes-les-Brévières, a village below the resort near the large dam situated at 1,550m (5,000 feet).
• Val d’Isère: Face de Bellevarde
At the resort of Val d’Isère, the steep and winding trail called Face de Bellevarde is not only ‘black’ (very difficult) but legendary, having hosted the downhill event at the 1992 Olympic Games and the World Championships in 2009. The trail shoots down the northeast face from the Roc de Bellevarde to the heart of the famous resort 1,000m (3,200 feet) below. You are taken there by an underground funicular, so you bypass another racing slope, the OK (Oreiller-Killy), which hosts the Criterium de la Première Neige.
• Meribel: Piste du Vallon
A series of chair and gondola lifts take skiers to the highest trail of the three-valley realm (Courchevel, Meribel, Val Thorens), namely the Cime du Vallon at nearly 3,300m (11,000 ft). From there the trails follow one another downward until you reach the charming resorts of Mottaret and Meribal, between 1,750 and 1,450 m (5,700 and 4,700 ft).
• Val Thorens: Versant d’Orelle
Europe’s highest ski resort, Val Thorens at 2,300m (7,500 ft) is part of the 3 Vallées realm (along with Courchevel and Meribel), and is known for many ambitious trails. But you can also leave it in the lurch by taking the cable-car to Cime de Caron at 3,230m (10,600 ft) and then ‘fleeing’ to the southern slope on the Maurienne side, via the Rosael trail - which bottoms out at 2,300m (7,500 feet).
• Grand Serre-Chevalier: From L’Yret to Vallon de Tabuc
An intrepid chair lift climbs to Pointe de L’Yret 2,830m (9,300 feet), which overlooks the very long crest high above the ski slopes of Serre-Chevalier. A ‘red’ (difficult) trail leads to the Col de l’Eychauda, followed by a traverse to the Vallon de Tabuc, then down a trail winding through a forest of larch trees to Monêtier-les-Bains at 1,500m (5,000 ft). Whew!
• Les Arcs: From Aiguille Rouge to Villaroger
A cable-car goes all the way to the needle called Aiguille Rouge, some 3,226m (10,500 ft) high. Experienced skiers can then follow ‘red’ and ‘black’ trails (difficult to very difficult) through Droset and Plan des Violettes down to the remote hamlet of Villaroger 1,300m (4,200 feet), far from the bustling complex of Les Arcs. Certainly, it's a pleasant excursion.
• Grand Montets: From Needle to Village
Grand Montets is a hybrid ski resort, up the valley from Chamonix, featuring signposted but ungroomed trails. It has become an internationally known centre for challenging descents. Experienced skiers are notably offered a ‘black’ (very difficult) trail called ‘Point de Vue’, which starts at the cable-car exit 3,275m (10,750 ft) and runs along the edge of the Argentière glacier for over 4km. The run then continues on a ‘red’ (difficult) trail called ‘La Pierre à Ric’ for 3km between the chalets at Lognan 1,972m (6,450 ft) and the village of Argentière 1,250m (4,000 ft). Really top quality.
• Massif du Sancy: Roving between Mont-Dore and Super-Besse
Two ski resorts in Auvergne have woven a web of trails around the summit of the extinct volcano of Le Sancy. A ‘blue’ (intermediate) trail called ‘Chemin du Ronde’ stretches for over 3.5km on the Super-Besse side, while another ‘blue’ trail (‘Pan de la Grange’) extends over 4km on the Mont-Dore side. Finally, two major centres of off-trail (or ‘off-piste’) skiing:
• The valleys of La Meije
The Ecrins-Oisans massif boasts slopes of powdery snow with differences in altitude of up to 2,100m (6,800 ft), offering some truly great but highly technical off-trail skiing. It can be reached by cable-car or from the ‘top’ of the 2 Alpes resort at 3,600m (11,800 ft).
• Chamonix-Mont Blanc: La Vallée Blanche
The ultimate in glacier skiing (either accompanied by a mountain guide or independently, assuming personal responsibility). Chamonix’s legendary cable-car takes skiers to the Aiguille du Midi at 3,848m (12,600 ft) from whence they ski back to the centre of town - when snow conditions permit - at 1,050m (3,400 ft). The descent is open to all, but is ungroomed and unmaintained, hence requires ski-mountaineering skills. Spectacular, but potentially dangerous.