If you’re anything like me, you may have grown up skiing or boarding east coast North American mountains; which, quite frankly, do the job but are found wanting in terms of altitude, snow caliber, and basic atmosphere. We’ve all dreamed of those lofty mountains, meters of powder snow, adorable mountain villages nestled within a valley: you know, the images we have from our childhood fairy tales, like fairies, gremlins and unicorns. This unicorn isn’t fictitious though: it exists, in the Alps of eastern France.
In terms of reputation, few have NOT heard of Chamonix (and few are able to pronounce it correctly…). Chamonix – site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924 – located at the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland in the northern part of the Alps, includes the Mont Blanc, arguably one of the most well-known mountains in the world. The valley within the mountains, formed, like most of the Alps, by glaciers, measures 17 km, with several quaint villages interspersed. While the total population of the Chamonix town is almost 10,000 people, the number of visitors is immense, ranging from 60,000 to 100,000 per day depending on the season.
The territory is vast, with hundreds of kilometers of skiable terrain between 950 meters to 3300 meters above sea level. This altitude means that, though the average temperature ranges from a comfortable -7 to 7 degrees Celsius, the snow remains rather incomparable (both real and man-made). There are almost 20 kilometers of cross-country ski trails within the range, but lets face it, most of us would go to Chamonix to experience the ridiculous downhill opportunities (and the scenery, in all honesty). Chamonix is divided into six ski areas, three of which are considered the “family-friendly” beginner areas: Les Houches (950m to 1900m), Les Planards (1062m to 1242m) and La Vormaine (small domaine at approximately 1480m). The three more difficult areas include a snowpark, incomparable off-piste, and incredible Chamonix valley and Mont Blanc views: The Grands Montets (1235m to 3300m), Le Domaine de Balme (1453m to 2270m), and Brévent/Flégère (1030m to 2525m).
Val Thorens and Courcheval (Three Valley Range)
Val Thorens ski area includes an impressive 1430 meter drop (from 3230m to 1800m) which, when including all the mountains in the Three Valley range, comprises over 600 km of skiable terrain. Located in the Savoie, specifically in the Tarentaise Valley, the Val Thorens resort, located at an altitude of 2300m, is the highest ski resort in Europe. The ski season in Val Thorens is considerably long, from the end of November to the beginning of May (when you compare with our ski season in the northeast of the U.S… well, frankly, you can’t compare). When and if you ever get bored of simply skiing 1400 meters down the Alps (and I don’t see how you could), Val Thorens also offers much in ways of extra-curricular activities, namely an impressive snowpark, boardercross, a junior park for the kids, and toboggan track, and a world-reknowned slalom stadium.
Courcheval, another resort within the Three Valley range in the Tarentaise Valley, encloses 150 kilometers of skiable terrain with an impressive 119 official trails between 1300 and 2700 meters above sea level. Courcheval’s particular appeal are both its picturesque village and village-life, as well as its striking 66 kilometers of cross-country ski trails within the lower forest.
These mentioned areas are only a small part of the wonder that is European Alps skiing. It is crucial to remember that these areas boast something north easterners know not of: ridiculous off-piste possibilities. If you have ever skied out west in the Rockies, you may understand a bit of the wonder that is the vast open spaces of white powder as far as the eye can see. But as I understand it, even the Rockies have a hard time competing with their European counterparts in this area. Add this to the also incomparable views, nightlife, and culture, and I’m beginning to wonder why I’m still sitting in front of my computer instead of on a flight to the Savoie. If you’re ballsier than I am, go check out ski holidays in France for ideas and information on anything from your flight to the idyllic chalet like in your own personal fairytale.
Images: Copyright Dave Jean