II ski in the heart of the Haute Tarentaise, surrounded by some of the biggest and best known ski resorts in the world – to the west I can see the chairlifts of the huge Paradiski area (Les Arcs and La Plagne), to the south are Tignes and Val d’Isère, immediately to the north are the slopes of La Rosière, and beyond a high ridge to my left is the small ski resort of Sainte-Foy.
Yet, apart from my friend Hugh, there is not a soul to be seen nor a sound to be heard, other than the tinkling of a mountain stream under the snow. It’s because we are on ski touring in an unknown valley that starts from the Isère and despite the proximity of all these ski resorts and the thousands of skiers hurtling down their slopes, we have the impression of being at million kilometers of ski lifts. assisted skiing.
Ski touring is the perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of normal ski resorts, especially mid-term when you’re likely to spend as much time queuing as skiing. By putting on our touring skis, Hugh and I experience this corner of the Haute Tarentaise more or less as it would have been before the construction of all the resorts.
And over the past two years, the sport’s popularity has increased dramatically, largely due to the pandemic, when, with lifts and ski resorts closed or offering limited services for two seasons, it was often the only way for skiers might be accessing the mountains.
We go up between the pines and the firs, cool and shaded by the morning light, to finally emerge in the sun, crossing quietly a small hamlet deserted in winter (it will be busy again once the snow has melted. In places the snow , which shimmers in the dim winter sunlight, almost reaches the eaves of some of the buildings.As we climb, the trail becomes steeper and more winding, and we stop to enjoy the seen around a flask of coffee. Hugh’s preference is hot winebut we’ll save that for later…
The dominant feature of the landscape is the 3,779 meter Mont Pourri, which rises into a cloudless winter sky between Les Arcs and Tignes. Dramatic turquoise-blue glaciers tumble from its summit, while the lower slopes are dotted with mountain huts that allow ski tourers to stay one or more nights to explore the calm north-facing slopes.
To the right of Mont Pourri, I see the highest point of Les Arcs, the Aiguille Rouge, and its cable car station. It would be hard to imagine two different ski environments – Mont Pourri is as wild as it has been since the Ice Age (but with far less snow and ice), while the Aiguille Rouge is above a winter playground visited by hundreds of thousands of skiers each year. .
The easy tour Hugh and I are doing today can be enjoyed by just about any competent skier with a good knowledge of the mountain and avalanche safety. Our destination is the Refuge du Ruitor, in a high alpine valley close to the Italian border. We’ll stay there for the night and decide tomorrow where to go on our skis, but it won’t be anything too technical as we would need a mountain professional for that.
One such pro is Jocelyn “Floss” Cockle of Freeflo Ski, who is based in the hamlet of Le Planay below Les Arcs. Floss spent 11 years leading and coaching skiers in the Tarentaise mountains.
“It’s an amazing alpine environment with so many hidden secrets and little gems; I am still discovering new routes and there are enough here to last a lifetime,” she says. Floss’ preferred routes depend on weather, time of year, snowpack conditions and the abilities of his clients. “I particularly like staying at the Refuge de la Femma in the Vanoise National Park. It’s only a few ridges from Val d’Isere and Tignes, but a world apart in terms of peace and quiet – you may even see a bearded vulture on ski touring there, and the refuge has the advantage of having showers, unlike many.
“With good snow cover, the Tarentaise has many spectacular gorges where you can go on great ski tours. There is the possibility of skiing over the Italian border, easily accessible from La Rosière, but there are several other quieter routes.”
The trail Hugh and I follow provides a number of access points to Italy, where refuges such as Rifugio Mario Bezzi above Valgrisenche offer overnight accommodation under towering rock walls and glaciers.
As we stop for another break before entering the upper valley where Refuge du Ruitor is located, we decide that the next time we ascend here we will employ Floss or one of his colleagues to explore the one of the most difficult routes. But for now there is Hugh hot wine take care of …
Freeflo Ski offers a variety of ski touring courses from 537 € for five half-days for experienced skiers with off-piste experience with little or no ski touring. Clients provide their own ski touring equipment but avalanche safety equipment can be hired
Floss ski touring tips
Always match the weather and snow conditions to a route – accidents happen when you insist on skiing a particular route or peak, no matter what the conditions.
Make sure everyone in your party has the ability and fitness to tackle the route.
Make sure you have enough time to complete the route safely and have exit options.
Contact the refuge before your departure to check availability and snow conditions.