Best Off-piste Resorts in France
As snow conditions continue to improve in the French Alps, we take a look at the best destinations for powder and for parks. This guide is for those of you who are hankering for the half pipe, pining for snowy tree runs or craving careering down spectacular powder bowls. Before we start we are obliged to mention: Off-piste skiing can be dangerous and should never be attempted without any avalanche safety experience. If planning to ski off-piste, make sure you have trustworthy and knowledgeable peers in your group; take a mountain guide who knows the area, and ensure you are kitted up with avalanche safety. That’s the boring (but completely necessary) bit out the way...now on to the good stuff...
Val d’Isere fairs pretty well in terms of being an all-rounder for freestyle and freeriding. Part of the vast Espace Killy region it offers many powder bowls which are accessible from just off the piste. For this reason much of this powder can be tracked by ski and snowboarders of varying abilities by the time you've breakfasted and made your way up the hill – so get out early for fresh tracks, especially if you’ve woken up to fresh snow.
For the less experienced snow sports enthusiasts, Val d’Isere is the place for accessible powder and a park and pipe that doesn’t look too daunting. It is situated on the Bellevarde and is easy to access, taking the Olympique gondola (or the Funicular if in La Daille). Pop down a couple of pistes and make for the Snowpark ski lift or Mont Blanc chairlift. Their motto here is to make the park available to all those who wish to use it.
- Off piste – 8/10
- Park & pipe – 7/10
Val d'Isere snow park
Tignes has often been described as a bit of a moonscape so if you like weaving your way around trees off-piste this may not be the place for you. However, the lack of trees means there’s a huge amount of off-piste terrain to be explored. There’s something for everyone from bits of powder between the pistes, to hair-raising couloirs and cliff drops. On a sunny day the valley in which Tignes sits is stunning. The altitude means, even a couple of days after fresh snow, the snow condition is still good, light and wintry.
Tignes was for a number of years the home of the X-games andit therefore became of a bit of a freestyle mecca boarders and skiers alike. The absence of a more advanced park in resort is therefore a little surprising. The Swatch Park is for less experienced freestyle skiers and snowboarders, although it is fun for an afternoon practicing switch and some more tricky manoeuvres for the more advanced; it has some small 2-5m kickers and the ‘Shoot my Ride’ feature films you, offering a download of the video from the Swatch website.
- Off-piste – 9/10
- Park & pipe – 6/10
Tignes off piste
The high altitude ski area of Avoriaz has a varied range of off-piste, from piste-side powder for dipping in and out of, to some harder-to-reach areas for the more advanced ski and snowboarders. If you are unsure of the snow conditions or of your off-piste ability, head to one of the four Snowcross Zones; these are un-groomed but secured runs. Here all the sensations of free powder skiing are offered in perfect safety with the slopes having been made avalanche safe and any dangerous areas are fenced off. Surveyed by ski patrollers the four marked routes are indicated on the signposts:
- The Frontalière at the top of the Mossettes chairlift (1,150 meters long), a wide route down the mountain’s flanks.
- The Combe des Marmottes (2,080 meters long), a playground that’s easy to get to, via the Fornet chairlift,
- The mythical Crozats run (3,122 meters long), a big wild comb which starts from the Hauts Forts and joins the world cup downhill run down to Prodains, from where you can return to Avoriaz by Express des Prodains cable car.
- The Pschott consists of several successive natural canyons. This Snowcross is more technical than its neighboring Snowcross La Marmotte.
- The Brochaux (1,340 meters long), a natural bumpy run under the Brochaux chairlift.
For the best conditions get to these areas early after snow fall before they get too tracked.
For some freestyle fun head to Secteur Chavanette, a large un-pisted area characterised by multiple canyons, natural half pipes, cliff drops and kickers. Despite the easy access to this natural park it does take some time to become tracked during the day, which is a bonus if you fancy something different after lunch!
Avoriaz was the leader in terrain parks, building the first one in France in 1993. It still leads the way with 5 parks and a super pipe, which are all very well maintained. The expert park has some fantastic rails and kickers, you can also buy a park pass and spend your days perfecting your freestyle skiing or snowboarding. Head to www.snowparkavoriaz.com for more information on Avoriaz’ snow parks.
- Off-piste – 8/10
- Freestyle & pipe – 9/10
Avoriaz off piste
Chamonix is often thought of as a pretty hard-core destination for off-piste skiing and snowboarding, which involves hiking for the more advanced riders. This is the case for the most part, it’s a little rough around the edges but the off-piste and back-country skiing is spectacular. The best known route, probably in the world, is the Vallee Blanche, an unmarked, unmaintained, unpatrolled off-piste run from a literally, head-spinning 3842 metres back to Chamonix, if the snow has fallen low enough, at 1100m. Since most of this run is on a glacier (known as the Mer de Glace - Sea of Ice) which is forever moving and creating crevasses. Be aware that if you are planning to do this world-famous route from the Aiguille du Midi, hiring a High Mountain Guide (preferably from the local Mountain Guide office as they know the glacier inside-out) is an absolute must. These guys ski the glacier regularly and know the safest route to take through the ice-falls and around the fracturing ice. The 'run' is extremely long, incredibly scenic, and a packed lunch should be taken. After an hour to acclimatise to altitude, your guide will rope you together for the dangerous arret descent on foot. Use a whole day to fully enjoy what is likely to be (unless you are made of money) a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Within the Chamonix Valley there are four main ski ares. Argentiere and Le Tour, at the top of the valley cater specifically for park lovers. as well as a number of natural half pipes and gullies in Chamonix for advanced freestyle skiers and snowboarders, there are several snow parks including one of the largest snow parks in Europe: the freestyle zone at Le Tour.This is situated at 2000m, and benefits from great snow conditions with routes graded from blue through to black and the most advanced routes meeting FIS competition standard. Perhaps most tempting is watching the action (and occasional wipe-out) from the sound system equipped Cool Zone.
At Argentiere, the new sports area of Les Grands Montets has two boardercross tracks and is sponsored by BMW with videos to record your run.
- Off-piste – 8/10 better for advanced
- Freestyle & pipe – 9.5/10
Chamonix off piste
The large altitude range of Alpe d’Huez provides something for everyone. Varied terrain including wide open powder fields are begging to be blown away in the morning then why not drop further down and ski the trees in the afternoon? Whilst the resort has a reputation for freestyle riding, the off-piste area is vast and often remains untracked after a big dump of snow. Sunny south-facing slopes mean this area is a joy on a clear day.
A challenge to be mentioned in any blog including Alpe d'Huez is the world’s longest, pisted, vertical descent? A whopping 2300m of leg-burning fun! Locals call this the 'Champagne Run', as you'll deserve a glass of it if you can get down without stopping (average time is 40 minutes!)
There are two snow parks in Alpe d'Huez, one in Montfrais and a larger one beside the beginner runs above 1800, most easily accessed from the DMC 1st station. Although this park is larger in size it is very beginner friendly with a number of small features providing a gentle introduction to park riding. Difficulty levels are indicated by the colour of the sign entering the park: four levels from right to left – beginner (green), easy (blue), intermediate (red) and expert (black).
- Off-piste – 7/10
- Freestyle & pipe – 7/10
Alpe d'Huez snow park