For skiers, there must have been worse places to face a Covid-lockdown than the French Alps. When tourists suddenly departed in droves, locals had the mountains entirely to themselves – with particularly good late-season snowfall.
There was just one problem: with all cable cars and chair lifts shut, skiers needed to find another way to actually use the slopes.
“All we did was ski touring,” says French-British ESF instructor, Luc Smith. “Everyone did it”.
Also known as Alpine touring or skinning, it’s a way to climb and traverse the mountainsides on skis – using specifically designed boots and ski bindings that allow the heel of the boot to come out the ski but not the toe. ‘Skins’ are also stuck to the underside of each ski, made from mohair or a mix of mohair and synthetics, that prevent the skis from sliding downhill as you walk.
Luc points to the dizzying heights of the Grand Pic de Belledonne – near where we are in Vaujany, Isère, eastside of the Alpe d’Huez skiing region – the highest mountain he summited by ski touring during lockdown, before skiing down.
I’m trying it for the first time and have to admit I’m slightly apprehensive when handed a plastic shovel to put in my backpack, as well as a tracking device to tie around my waist (skiers heading off-piste are obliged to carry an avalanche kit). Nerves aside and skins on, my intrepid group of ski-tour first-timers head off-piste at Montfrais.
At least on the flat, it’s easy to get to grips with. The trick is not to lift the ski off the snow, however natural it feels to do so when walking, and glide instead.
Soon, we’re away from the pistes, without a skier or snowboarder in sight, with only the fir and spruce trees and undulating mountainsides for company. My skis glide through fresh powder (snowfall was 10 days ago but no one’s been here). The white edges of Grand Galbert mountain sit against the bluest of blue skies, and there’s silence.
In that moment, I get it. Being this immersed in the natural beauty of the Alps in winter, and the feeling of having it all to yourself, is worth leaving the chairlifts behind for (even if the kit feels a little overcomplicated for a long-time, piste-loving skier).
We cross a half-frozen stream where trout swim under the ice, and as our ascent gets steeper ‘kick turns’ (lifting the higher ski and turning 180 degrees before following with the second) is the most effective use of time and energy, without losing any elevation.
After around 250 metres of climbing and a couple of hours, the panoramic view back into the valley we’ve just ascended is extra satisfying – like we’ve really earned it. And finally, I can point my skis downhill and catch some speed.
This, of course, was skiing much as it was before there were chairlifts (albeit a less high-tech version) and today the activity is enjoying a resurgence in popularity – and not only with adventurous, backcountry skiers with avalanche kits looking for unmarked terrain. Some simply ascend the edge of the pistes (usually sporting short sleeves and red faces) because it’s a great way to burn further calories on the slopes.
Wild ski tours
Vaujany – a small mountain village within easy reach from Geneva airport – is excellent for wild ski touring opportunities, says Luc. Being less developed than its more famous neighbour Alpe d’Huez, where much of the mountainside has been developed for slopes, it boosts access to a lot of totally wild terrain.
“What I really like is that people don’t know about it,” Luc adds. The north-facing aspect means snow sticks around longer. Visitors are mostly French, adding to it’s local, authentic feel – and yes, the 53km of skiing on the Vaujany and Oz en Oisans side (featuring plenty of easy options for beginners and families) do seem incredibly quiet, even for January.
An Alpe d’Huez grand domaine ski pass will give you access to total of 250km of skiing, or 100 slopes in total – including the longest black run in Europe, La Sarenne (16km).
One of the youngest ski resorts in the Alps, it’s hard to believe that not long ago, no skiers graced these mountains at all. It was the completion of Grand’Maison Dam in 1987 – at the time, the largest hydroelectric dam in France – that pumped investment and jobs into the rural mountain village known for potato and wheat farming, where only 200 people then lived.
“In 30 years, we went from the Middle Ages to the 21st century,” explains the town’s mayor, Yves Genevois, who’s lived here his whole life. Vaujany is now known as one of the most affluent towns in the Alps.
The first gondola also opened in 1987 and 84 lifts followed, giving skiers direct access from the town at 1,250m to high-altitude skiing – 2,800 metres at the top.
Crucially though, the resort itself retains much of that small-town feel. Many of the old traditional buildings have been restored as chalets and hotels, and eager not to sacrifice any authenticity, developers took inspiration from the classic architecture of the large gable barns.
The town is powered by renewable energy and a small amount of nuclear. Further development here is promised to be limited. Instead, they’re choosing to protect the local area, and wildlife, which is plentiful.
Summer and winter
With so much still-wild terrain, it’s a popular area for hikers – both in summer and winter, when of course you need special equipment to navigate the snow.
I join the ‘grandfather of snowshoeing’, mountain guide Alain Hilion, and his border collie Polka, to explore the terrain on foot. Known as raquettes in France, a plastic base attaches to walking boots with crampons underfoot to grip the snow, and it’s a great alternative to ski touring for exploring off-piste.
We venture off the slope and into pine forest, Polka careering back and forth, past wild cherry trees (locals pick the fruit and steep them in alcohol for six months, Alain says), and catch views of the valley unseen via the groomed pistes.
Footprints of white hares pockmark the fresh powder, and I’m told foxes and wolves prowl these parts in winter too, while marmots pop up in spring. We’re lucky to spot four chamois, a goat-antelope species, on the adjacent mountain face. It feels like a taste of real mountain wilderness here above Vaujany, that you won’t get at most ski resorts.
The setting sun peeks through tree branches on our way back to town and pink and yellow sky stretches between the two mountainsides. After all that off-piste exertion, a glass of herbal liqueur génépy and a meal of local trout or truffle ravioli at the cosy Chalet Gourmand restaurant is a fitting end to the day.
Is ski touring the way to see the French mountains like a local?
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