Caveat Reader: Prose style is transcribed stream of consciousness based on recall and light notes on the trail map. Off-piste routes are best guess-timates based on instructor recall and own recall. Also, we skied so much, 6+ hours on the snow every day for Seven days straight that I cannot recall many on-piste runs and some off-piste, an entire morning is lost in the endorphin haze! Lifts will be identified and the cognoscenti can look them up, best way to peg location on the maps above, and in the link.Day 1 is the longest description as it was Day 1, after that focus will be on off-piste pretty much with only mention of notable on-piste. Any nomenclature errors are attributed to endorphins, fatigue and information overload as too much terrain covered with no let-down.
CAVEAT OFF-PISTE: Skiing story is about an expert 12 year old and told by his intermediate Dad, so it's not the uber-hard death-defying kind, though the Dad felt he was defying death a few times, and even 12 year old was tense enough in places. It was adrenaline-junkie stuff at our respective levels.
The place is just huge, as a New York Times reporter in 2002, noted Vail is about 5,200 acres, and I know Whistler-Blackcomb is 8,171 acres or so, and quote “The huge ski area at Val d'Isère -- more than 20,000 acres ...A neighboring ski area, Tignes, connects to Val d'Isère by lifts and gondolas. The combined area, referred to as Espace Killy, adds another 22,000 acres of skiable terrain. “ I had speculated that the area was 4x the size of WB to my son, but was off my a factor of one. (I know, I know WB is controlled in-bounds, and most of Europe is not controlled off-piste unless it influences on-piste, we heard the thumps of ordinance going off on the mountains every day!)
Day 0 Friday: Arrived Geneve Aeroport April 3 morning, drove to Tignes Val Claret. Picuresque drive, pictures below, Dam, the view above Annecy, and the views of Paradiski and Trois Vallees too.
The Arch on the border - we are in Gaul now, left the Suisse behind
The Rock above Annecy en route to L'Espace Killy. Hang/Para Glider-o-rama going on around here, it's a French thing, they can't stop talking about it, and in Val D'Isere/Tignes you see motorized hang gliders puttering in the skies above, along with Rescue Choppers flying in and out, helping the cliff-ed out (we saw a rescue happen above Tignes Val Claret, 5 skiers on a cliff-top, chopper managed to land on I presume plateaued outcrop, loaded we heard 3 of the 5 and left, 2 remaining skiers skied down. One learns quickly - the sound of the chopper not usually a good thing, means someone is in trouble, and one of hope, that they are being rescued.
Passing Paradiski high above - that is Les Arcs, still en route
L'Espace Killy espied dead ahead!
The Dam - cross it and Tignes Les Brevieres J'ai arrivee..
Our destination is Tignes Val Claret to the rustic, small family hotel, the Hotel de la Vanoise, half board, and did we luck out! This turned out to be the start of good karma all the way. The Hotel is owned and managed by very attentive relaxed hosts, Sebastian, Caroline (hubby-wife) Paul (bro), own it and run it and Deena (Paul’s significant other) is there as part of the staff, one family, of ski-teers ! Paul reportedly is amongst the top free-skiers in L’Espace Killy. (He is a veteran of Whistler-Blackcomb too). They do everything themselves, manage, clean, look after the guests, and do have a chef who is a class act with kids. Cool room, small for some (picture below) but is it a skiers room! Comfy firm beds, clever shelving wooden platform over heater for placing wet ski apparel and gear to dry, tons of shelves, above headboard, closets galore, spacious balcony,glorious view. Our room:
British National Alpine Championship for U16-18-21’s going on right outside of our balcony gallery as we arrive, and the view is perfect and really up close & personal, as we are slightly above the middle of the course in terms of line of sight so can see the turns being made from directly above the skier (perpendicularly above), and some of them were a sight to see, and the last part of that very long course is steep. Course starts way above the bend behind the visible red fencing. The crowds below are the spectators but we had the best view ! They had no idea.
Next, Ski lockers in front, and boot room with hooks, all pretty convenient, though the boot room is inside, the boot rack is not heated, fyi. Hotel is classified 2* as per the owners, I don’t sweat that stuff, but the creature comforts were perfect for a son-father sojourn, and there were large families there with kids, a la many generations in tow. They have a nice bar, with good wine (I don't drink wine and 12 year old can only taste it with his mom perhaps..), and the whiskey favored by owners were a smattering of single malts, frankly which I cannot stand but as he put it so graciously - he is a snob on that subject..we laughed, I bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker, alas it was Red as no Black (Which is what I will exclusively drink unless in a desert or on a mountain!) and kept it at the bar! Nice bar, mellow, child friendly, cozy, and there is a nice living room too where kids can go and hang out and these folks have some video games and all set up..though my son laughed (and he is a snob on this subject..) "they only have PS2, it's good stuff but really old !" Go figure. Shower pressure terrific for anyone wondering as Europeans are notorious for low shower pressure !-) And this was the third floor.
The best for last, you get your gear, boot up, gear up indoors, and then walk out through the bar, 6-10 short steps down click in, and you are in front of the ski school gathering right there, the Tufs lift (from there ski down to Val D’Isere basically or come back to Tignes), you can ski down to the Bollin (beginners lift), Freisse (Val D’Isere ski or back to Tignes ski), Grande Motte Funicular or Les Lanches Lift upto the Grand Motte area, and Tichot (to Aiguille Percee side)lifts. The mountain is outside your door, click in, and head out! This was unbelievable, better ski-in/ski-out access to the entire area than we have experienced anywhere else (and the list is no joke on that dimension: Oberlech, Deer Valley, Whistler-Blackcomb, Alta, Solitude, Sunshine Village). In front of ESF offices in the square mentioned above (Hotel is off to the right not visible on screen)
This is the town square of Tignes Val Claret, nice town, yes modern buildings but all soul to me, with that terrain, the soul is stirred and one's goose is cooked! The old quaint Alpine houses are in Tignes Les Brevieres, Les Boisses, Le Lavachet, Le Fornet, La Daille, and of course Val D'Isere.
Stores nearby, superb food :
- La Pignata is a foodie’s delight, a chef’s heaven, Francois and Laura there were hilarious, accommodating and suggested culinary delights at lunch for this 'lone' dark 'Americaine' ! The veal, there was a fish, and then there was the lamb, each one was a killer at lunch, and I normally am not a big eater at lunch. Le Chameleon was good country fare, I stuck with the Foie Gras, it's kind of habit-forming (inside tip if you like American Steak, you will not really enjoy the French version, American steak is one thing that is far superior to French Steak...just an objective FYI, only the Japanese can compete with Americans on the steak front!). Grizzly’s barbecue was sumptuous as was the price tag, though their lamb chops, you three big suckers, one could not stop at eating one even in company..had to take down all three! And these folks provide service with charm, good Gallic cheer and even when looking serious can get them to crack a smile, you know the French, try hard to look reserved and all that. Have to cut through that bull-sh*t sometimes.
- The pharmacy, the grocery store (Sherpa) and of course all sorts of ski gear stores are within a 3-4 minute walk from the hotel, and an easy walk, no climbing Everest to get stuff, just a Alpine stroll on levelish ground undulating.
- Lady at the Pharmacy who had never heard of "Ben-Gay" found a miracle anti-inflammatory patch for Dad's almost broken pair of knees, they worked wonders. Got a nice supply back stateside. She did look up Ben-Gay, and sagely informed me, unavailable in France!
- Bars, nightclubs everywhere, in Val Claret, man more in Val D’Isere, Tignes Le Lac but note, lots of underage and very inebriated loud brits out and about - to each their own - just an fyi after 0200hrs that is! French seemed more wild in daylight and on mountain at La Folie Douce! Techno dance party every afternoon, and boy was I tempted but that would take away from ski time and hanging out with American Ace! So no go for this old guy this time. Maybe go with young gun when he is older if he is willing to be seen in public there with his old man (they did a jig with the music on the slopes watching the heaving masses inside! Alas did not get that on film !)
- GEAR: At the Ski One-Twinner where we rented our skis, it is a short walk (1-2 minutes) from theHotel Vanoise Bar, plus Vanoise guests get (25%) off rental gear, and the owners, his family, the staffers are uber-helpful, accommodating, and all the women working there are really good looking ! I know I know but hey..just saying..Johan was really accommodating for junior's multiple ski needs, and Dad's problems, Arthur and the owner too, turned around skis in an hour or two in the evening, wax and sharpen, even with other store traffic. And if edges did not feel sharp enough, they took them in the back and brought back Sushi knives for blades! What a cheerful helpful crew, better than anywhere else I have been, bar none! Gallic hospitality or Savoie hospitality was most endearing and warm. Good quality gear too, high quality skis, from Stocklis, Heads, Dynastar, Fischers, Rossy’s and all kinds of funky, big powder skis, GS skis. Funny thing is I noticed a lot of European tourist skiers on narrow skis on this terrain, skis which suit our East Coast conditions but every and I mean every instructor and patroller I saw was on a minimum of 95mm waist width (I did not check all ,a visual impression) but all Fat skis. Go figure that one.There are many other ski rental outfits there for all sorts of gear needs especially for off-piste/backcountry avalanche terrain skiing and ski touring, Ski Set, Ski 2000, Montaigne etc. Note renting my skis and poles and son's skis and poles (helping get his pole guards on their poles, they were his guards) cost in total all in EUR 227 for 7 days with unlimited replacements and so on.
Oh, I forgot this is supposed to be about skiing ! Oops ..The mountain conditions first blush: Snowing through the night, Grand Motte upper Gondola is kaput, it appears damaged seriously when all 200+ tons of rime ice dropped off the cable length simultaneously in the spring of 2014, which created a tremendous trampoline effect on the cars themselves and they went for a joyride towards outer space I was told and came back down, and gravity hit them hard! No injuries reported thankfully. They managed to jerry-rig the contraption using clips, safety pins, knots and ties to get it going again (I jest !) for this season. Alas, in the days just before we arrived, got hit with 250kmph+ winds up top, sent the cars caroming into the building walls housing them, collided with station housing walls and pylons, so bye bye Grand Motte. Frankly it looked glorious, high, pristine, but I can imagine the snow was glacial ice up there with that kind of wind. Did get up to top of the Funicular just below the Grand Motte, so about 3100 metres, last 1200 or so feet missed but hey, did not have time to breathe, that is how relentless our skiing was as I will try to convey in the prose below.
Ski Day 1 Saturday: Dad maybe slept for 90 minutes through the night, jet-lag the likely culprit, son slept on the plane for a few hours (flight was deserted) and then pretty well, through the night. Snowing through the night, very low visibility, to whiteout conditions at daybreak. Son (interchangeably the 12 year old, the American boy below) and I met with L’Espace Killy veteran guide/instructor Serge. Well, first he gave us our avalanche beacons and then Dad got his avalanche bag (first time) and therein we knew we were in big mountain country (gulp), and needless to say you couldn’t see more than 5 to 10 feet perhaps. Then we were off on the Tufs lift up and then began cruising into Val D’Isere. Grand Motte and all sides enshrouded in thick clouds as the snow continued. But a sort of divine thing began to happen, wherever we arrived, like the curtains parting of a signature theatrical performance, the grande dame of Nature, parted the clouds above us or close enough and Sun shone through where we were so to speak, more often than should be happenstance, hallelujah and I am not even Christian (though my boy technically could be..).Though the full glory of the vistas were not visible of course, that shroud rarely lifted, and the snow was continuous varying in intensity. We were headed East. to the top of the glacier in Val D’Isere, a direct round trip of 40+ kms, on the shortest path to-fro Val Claret village base, we were told, on skis and lifts (We did nothing direct as we were going to find out shortly) The end point was the top of the Pissaillas Glacier tow rope (Montet), the ‘other’ glacier of L’Espace Killy, almost as high as the Grand Motte, but not as glorious/towering/imposing as the Grand Motte. This is where most of the summer skiing happens we understood.
It was ankle deep to knee deep powder on-piste ! And dry, champagne Utah powder, fluffy and made it easy to ski as Dad was feeling considerably intimidated, especially as could see little beyond the orange piste markers and the ropes here and there. And I knew there were cliffs and drop-offs everywhere. We dipped into Val D’Isere, got on the Marmottes lift, and headed to the top of Rocher Bellevarde (the Rock of Bellevarde). We skied a bit and Serge takes us to the top of the Face de Bellevarde, figured that out when we arrived there, as I saw the Black marker and knew something slightly ominous might be in store; and we had barely warmed up, skiing quasi-blind! Now this is where the Olympic downhill occurred in 1992, and the son of our lovely host in Lech at the Montana, Patrick Ortlieb won his Olympic Downhill Gold. Our first impression was it’s really,really steep, but it’s on-piste so cool, but it disappears into the mist, so the length in of itself was intimidating to Dad, but a lot of powder so made it safer and then got on Joseray, a veer-off red run, as that was trackless powder, looked pristine, problem was the moguls under the powder knocked the old man’s pole handles into his noggin’ a few times as one could not see much of the terrain or features, whiteouts do that to you, was quite hard to negotiate, powder and all. A side pic of the entry to FACE, Val D'Isere below it :
We got on the Solaise express char, skied around the Glacier chair and then got on the famed Leissieres Chair - it did not fail in its mission of scaring the heck out of Dad and this time the American boy too, the damn thing goes up, over this knife edge ridge and drops straight down! Now in the old days, they didn’t have safety bars on that lift, and Serge narrated the white-knuckled fear on the visages of those who were on it, first time or for the umpteenth time, and we were tense, with bars, and this time, didn't see it coming or realize how frightening it is, till we went over the top! It’s an experience in itself! The video when it’s ready, will include that ride, in whiteout and bluebird conditions. Teens supposedly jump off at the top to ski down one side to the start of the chair (the Western face of the ridge chair climbs over, Paul co-owner of the Vanoise has done that 'illegal' jump, Sorry Paul, legend had to be told, but you are nuts!). Climbed high up to the Pissaillas glacier top via this dual track T-bar, only one track functioning, next to the Col blue, then the Cascade chair and finally the Montet T-bar. Open sesame - clouds parted allowing us to rip down the glacier runs, reds and blues, good GS terrain in powder !
Conditions at the top: This Visibility was a gift from the Sun God and Cloud Angels, and awesome for this day!
Enjoying perfect snow conditions. Only downside, no long-range views, and some of the beautiful bowls were no-go zones, they get steep in a hurry and downright dangerous in poor visibility, and high avalanche risk. We began our return to Tignes Val Claret, Leissieres Chair again. Skied the blues around down from the Glacier chair. One thing, there are T-bars, Pomas and Tow ropes at some interesting spots, on the Pissaillas Glacier, on top Solaise etc. We got our first taste of these in pretty inclement conditions. What is eerie is one cannot see what is over the side on totally unfamiliar terrain...Our journey back was relaxed, though it always seemed that Serge and American 12 year old were between 400 m to a 1000, ahead of old man. Exhibit A of the GAP:(Good thing they did not leave old guy behind! Always bring your ski buddy off the mountain is the motto if I recall correctly and we do practice it)
Anyway, lunch at Tignes Val Claret at the Chameleon, recommend their home made Foie Gras pate on toast, delicious, filling and it is the ski instructor hangout. I switched skis as the Elans were hopeless ,from the moment I got them I regretted it and then 12 year old almost broke both of his dad’s knees (I kid you not , and that would have pleased his mother mightily!); that was the last straw, and that unintentional accident happened getting off a chair in zero visibility, Dad’s one ski got hooked to the binding of young lad, and he pulled one way, and there went the right knee, and left knee was stuck on the other side, so both knees were buckling inwards literally almost parallel to the ground or so I felt that was the resting place broken apart from shins below, Dad almost passed out from the pain..but fell forward as son’s ski released my ski..and long story short...severe trauma to both knees but not rubbery, just mightily inflamed so skied on through gritted teeth and a prayer on one’s lips. We had 7 days, cannot stop now, and this was day 1. Got Dynastar Cham 87’s at lunch, and never looked back, boy are those skis perfection on a big mountain, used them throughout thereafter even at tail end on spring frozen hard pack on last day. They are a powerhouse, smooth, gliding machine, very rockered and wide shovels, perfect...
Then began our after lunch sojourn. Skied to the Tichot lift - there is a drag rope near it on the flats. Lifted off towards Brevieres (heading West now) in howling wind and snow, got better on other side of Pierced Needle (western side), or the Aiguille Percee, from there skied to lowest part of L'Espace Killy, Tignes Les Brevieres and then returned via Tignes le lac . Powder everywhere, visibility real tough high. Funny thing, throughout the Saturday, slopes were lightly populated (Pissailes saw more traffic as did transit hub Toviere top), because of the weather and Saturday is changeover day for hotel guests. Flat light was an issue and it snowed all day. Anyway, we skied all the way down to Tignes Le Boisses swung west down to Tignes Les Brevieres, and then headed back to Val Claret. Dam pic is above of 12 year old, and father-son pic is below with the Dam behind us. It fills up and is an active Hydroelectric power generation facility
We skied the most we have ever skied in one day in our ski lives, and last third Dad did in severe dual knee pain. Skied a shade over 7 hours and covered immense vertical and mileage, probably almost 90-100kms (56-63miles) was Serge’s estimate in terms of round-trip distance, on ground and lift permutations and circuits, distance around 140km or so.
Note this is the longest 1 day description ever probably - the REST WILL BE BRIEF and the VIDEO has to wait till I get to the machine (my IMac! and IMovie)
Edited by dustyfog - 4/18/15 at 12:35pm