A blog by Andy Lelean & Paddy Halliwell (published by Edge Magazine with their permission)
Wednesday & Thursday 13 & 14 March 2013
Le Tour de Vanoise was born out of a discussion I had, with one of the most knowledgeable and decent people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet in the mountains. In contrast to the oft encountered type of under experienced ski rep, Cha and his wife Holly (Ski Olympic, Graciosa, Plagne Centre) have made the mountains a fundamental part of their life for many many years, and along the way have built up an encyclopaedic knowledge of La Plagne and the surrounding area. This knowledge extends far beyond the usual, of lifts and pistes; to the mountains, flora, fauna and people of the Tarentaise, and they are always willing to pass some of this extended knowledge onto those with willing ears.
During a trip to Champagny one morning, standing at the top of the Verdons, I was struck by being able to clearly see another ski resort on the facing slopes across the valley, I enquired of Cha that evening as to what resort it was that I had seen, he told me it was Courchevel (rather embarrassing that, as I had done a season in Courchevel back in 92/3). This conversation developed into thoughts of a yet larger, extended ski area encompassing both Paradiski and Les Trois Vallees and speculation as to whether the local lift operators had considered joining Bozel to Champagny, along the same lines of the Vanoise Express link between La Plagne and Les Arcs.
Upon return to the UK, my thoughts on this enlarged ski area continued and with the wonder of Google Maps I could see that the journey from Courchevel 1300 Le Praz to Champagny was only about 14km. Yet more work with Google Maps and my vast archive of piste maps (safely stored in the front pocket of my boot bag), had me thinking about what was at the other end of Paradiski (and beyond). The answers to those two questions are Villaroger, (another 14km of road) and then Tignes Les Brevieres.
I have always been one of those people who had to visit every extremity of the piste map during a week’s skiing trip. Now an idea started to take shape in my mind of doing this on a new mammoth scale. Would it be possible to ski this new mega resort: Trois Vallees, Paradiski and Espace Killy? To give it a slogan: Val Thorens to Val D’Isere? Val to Val, (it’s actually Orelle to Val D’Isere, but that doesn’t have quite the same snappy ring to it, does it?).
Even better, would it be possible to do this in just one day?
For me, there is at least as much fun in planning a trip as there is in executing it, and certainly a lot more time playing on the computer. I had skied 95% of the required route for Val to Val in the previous 4 years of family half term ski trips and had gps tracker data to refer to for approximate timings of lifts and runs. Having crunched the data, the answer was far from clear cut, it was going to be very tight as to whether we would make that last lift before it closed at 16:30. “Marmotte” would be our target, back up to the top of Face de Bellevarde, for the final ski down to the finish line in Val D’Isere.
This will be a good point in the story to introduce my good friend Paddy, I have skied over 100 days with Paddy (season in Courchevel, remember) and embarked on several other “silly boys’ trips”, a classic of the genre being “What’s the Most Countries We Can Visit In 24 Hours?” (…..Google it). So with this epic ski trip forming in my mind I headed to Bristol in absolutely no doubt that I was about to sign up my first recruit for “Val to Val”. After the welcomes and having taken the top off a beer or two, I started to lay out piste maps on Paddy’s living room floor.
Firstly the Val Thorens Valley
followed by Courchevel,
next came La Plagne,
then Les Arcs
and finally Espace Killy
(it’s a pity they don’t do Tignes and Val D’Isere bigger on two sides like they do for La Plagne and Les Arcs). Proudly, I stood back, looked at Paddy with a mischievous twinkle in my eye and a corner of my mouth turned up wryly and asked “Do you think we can ski all that?”
He replied “Sure, …..easily, ……of course we can, . . . . in how many days?”
And from me, the killer retort “Just the one day, ………well,……. actually,……… about 8 hours”
After taking a further 3 seconds to thoroughly assess the expedition in all its depth and complexity, he said he loved it, and he was in.
There was significant further planning to be undertaken, and I recruited the vast knowledge base of www.snowheads.com and it’s genius membership. I started a new thread proposing the concept of our “Val to Val” trip and started to receive some very helpful suggestions. A major hurdle was how would we get from Val D’Isere to Orelle in the first place, so as to be able to even start the journey back, in the winter with Col D’Iseran closed by snow this is a drive of 162 Km. We threw around ideas of buses, trains, extra day’s of lift passes, all of which seemed to have two major flaws: losing a valuable day of skiing and high cost. Then an inspirational post on Snowheads.com from “T Bar” which was to both solve the problem and provide the most special day of skiing we have ever had. “Why don’t you ski from the glacier above Le Fornet, through the back country into Bonneval-Sur-Arc and take the bus down to Orelle?” A little research to confirm this route, and the trip had a new name, it was no longer “Val to Val” it was now “Le Tour De Vanoise”, in the course of 2 days we were to attempt to circumnavigate the entire Vanoise National Park.
10th March 2013 – Chalet Hotel Chamois D’Or – Val D’Isere (Ski Val)
“Paddy, Andre, Simon: can I please represent “Le Tour De Vanoise” for your critical appraisal. I don’t know if it is possible, but I am very keen to give it a go”.
So, my room-mates for the week, granted me an audience and allowed me to present the concept once more, this time also armed with an IGN map of the route from the Val D’Isere glacier down to Bonneval. There were valid questions and critical reservations, through it all I couldn’t tell if they were just humouring me. We all agreed that the deciding factor was that we would need perfect conditions if we were to head so far off the beaten track down to Bonneval. The following morning broke with cloud and snow, as did the one after that. The forecast for the remainder of the week was equally poor and I consoled myself with the fact that if it weren’t to be this year, then maybe the next, or the next…
I was sharing a twin room with Paddy for the week (Andre and Simon had the adjoining bunks of our family suite), on the first night Paddy told me that he didn’t want to have the curtains closed as he liked to wake naturally in the morning and gaze out at the mountain. On the morning of 13th March, I woke about 15 minutes before Paddy, and contrary to the forecast, to clear skies. Once he had roused and taken in the ‘meteo de la fenetre’, I asked a question to which I was sure the answer would be curt, “No”.
“So, shall we go to Bonneval?”. There was indeed, a simple one word reply, “Okay”. If ever one word had carried so much weight and implication!
We dressed and headed to breakfast, uncertain if it would be the last meal we would ever eat. Simon and Andre decided that they didn’t fancy it and would make the most of the perfect day in Espace Killy. We finally headed out at about 11:00 a.m. having done as much planning as we could (a severe test of my grade C O-level French); booking a room in Orelle, noting taxi numbers and most frustratingly of all, attempting to book 2 seats on the 16:15 bus from Bonneval to Modane. You can book this online, but not within 48 hours of the journey, as they have to print the tickets in Albertville and post them to Bonneval for you to collect before boarding the bus (the 21st century hasn’t quite yet made it to the Maurienne valley). So with a slight worry as to whether we would be looking at a very expensive 50km taxi, we headed to Le Fornet. We had tried to pack as light as we could for 2 days away, but with jumper, goggles, hat, transceiver, shovel, probe, water, chocolate, walkie talkie radios, phone, phone charger, digital camera, Go Pro, toothbrush, change of pants and socks, toothpaste and a pair of walking boots; my day pack was bursting at the seams and heavier than I had ever skied with before.
We left the Montets T-bar at the top of the Val D’Isere glacier and joined dozens of other skiers heading into Pays Desert, we knew that at some point or another each of the others would finish their traverse, turn right, seek out the virgin powder and ultimately head for the drag lift back to Val D’Isere.
Today, we would NOT be turning right.
Sure enough the tracks gradually became fewer until there remained just one single solitary track, apparently several days old, almost snowed over but still discernable. We know they say you shouldn’t put any trust in following a track, but it was slightly comforting that someone else had been this way before. The feeling of being so far out, in apparently unending fields of perfect untouched snow was a new sensation, somewhat like swimming way off from the beach, far out to sea.
Beyond the safety of the shark nets.
We put what avalanche awareness we have into practice, only going one at a time across the steeper pitches, avoiding gulleys and dips, re-joining each other in what we regarded to be safe areas. There was much reviewing of the IGN map, correlating its features to what we could see before us, so as to ensure we picked a good route through the craggy outcrops. The skiing in that first section was perfection, shin deep powder on a flatteringly gentle incline, allowing us to link dozens of immaculate turns. A little lower down the conditions changed, with an inch of hard wind blown crust sitting over the endless deep powder beneath. Skiing this was difficult as it was all too easy to break through the crust, fail to react in time and take a tumble (as I soon did). This resulted in an exhausting 10 minute crawl back up through the powder to retrieve a ski. To make things harder still there were areas where more fresh snow had been drifted on top of the crust, this meant that within a single turn we would have to cope with skiing in powder, on the crust and having broken through the crust (nightmare).
All too soon we were down through this steeper section and had spotted a bridge on the road down from Col D’Iseran, this was a useful landmark and reassured us that we were on the right route. It was also here that we saw a small herd of Chamois, obviously nervous of our presence they took off across the snow at an impressive speed. I remain intrigued as to how they avoid sinking into the soft snow with such apparently small feet. This was only the second time ever that I had seen Chamois, the first was 4 days before in Gorge de Malpasset (quite a week). From Pont de l’Ouilette it seemed that all that remained was a simple long steady traverse down into Bonneval, and so it was, apart from the south facing heavy spring snow conditions causing us yet more avalanche anxiety. At one point we came across a previous avalanche debris field, which we had to climb up onto and across. It was over a metre high, about 20 meters wide and contained blocks of ice of a metre cubed. It would have taken a week to dig someone out of that.
As we descended further we could see the floor of the Maurienne valley and rounding an outcrop of rock, the first few buildings of Bonneval came into view. This produced a little cheer from me, we were nearly down, the dangerous and unknown portion of the trip had been safely achieved. This emotion proved to be a little premature as we still had to negotiate a route through the fields and fences of Bonneval, before finally arriving in a lady’s back garden, she came out onto her balcony to point us a way around her house to the road, we got the feeling we weren’t the first explorers to have arrived in her back garden, (I wonder if that was made clear to her in the estate agent notes when she purchased the property – “occasional winter visitors from hors piste”). The snow conditions for this last section were yet again tricky, with most of the structure seemingly having melted from within, causing us to often fall through the surface up to our knees, but we made it through and celebrated with a very British handshake.
It was about 14:00 and lunch beckoned, but before that we wanted to ensure we had seats booked for the bus to Modane and so visited the Office de Tourisme. The staff enquired as to whether we had arrived from Val D’Isere and they were impressed when we confirmed that we had, just the reaction we were after. We changed from ski boots into walking boots and retired to the local pizzeria for lunch and several serieux. After lunch we squeezed onto the 52 seater bus with the driver and one other passenger for a beautifully scenic run down the Maurienne Valley to Modane. We passed through several ski resorts all of which appeared to be remaining authentically French and avoiding the influx of Brits, Dutch and Scandies which so dominate in the Tarentaise (I’m guilty too). The bus terminates next to the taxi rank at the train station in Modane and we were soon checking into our room in Orelle, at the bottom of the 4th valley of the 3 valleys (yes, I know). Just two small headaches here: no hot water for a bath and the restaurant was closed that night, as 420 Polish residents were having a salsa lesson! We negotiated a massive plate of chips each, which we ate at the bar in our salopettes and ski socks, washed down by a bit too much vin rouge de Savoie (a dinner of champions).
We were keen to get cracking the next morning and wondered whether we might be able to get up the mountain early with the first pisteurs, having walked down to the lift station by 08:30, there was nothing doing and we had to wait until 09:00 on the dot. We successfully and easily arranged our free 3 Vallees lift pass under the Espace Olympique scheme and were on the very first bubble up. The conditions looked poor, with light snow falling and heavy cloud hanging over the valley sides. I had been woken several times during the night by strong winds and I was trepidatious as to what we would find up at 3,000m before the descent into Val Thorens.
On leaving that initial bubble from Orelle we were disappointed to see that the subsequent chair wasn’t running, the lift operator beckoned us in through the turnstiles to stand and await a chair, and after a 5 minute wait a pisteur appeared down the run and acknowledged that all was well. So the lift was started and up we went. As we rose higher up into the cloud, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, I would estimate that it was minus 20 with about minus 10 of windchill. Paddy was on the windward side and later expressed in terms that can’t be recounted here, that he was “really, rather jolly chilly on the way up”. In fact, that he thought he might not make it to the top alive and that “I felt my face was going to fall off”. Eventually we did arrive at the top and on leaving the lift station had to climb up onto a 2 feet deep drift of fresh snow . It took us 5 minutes to get 5 metres, visibility was 20 metres, it was 20 below and we had a very long way to go – things were far from being all rosy in the garden.
Fortunately I had been in Val Thorens for February half term with my family just 3 week previously and had reconnoitered these routes, so in spite of the terrible conditions I knew exactly where we were going. It was one of those runs where visibility is so bad that you can only see one set of piste poles and have to decide on one side or the other. We reminded ourselves that the poles on the right have orange tops and headed down the right.
We were alone at 3,000m, in a white out, at 09:30 a.m. and skiing virgin un-bashed knee deep powder, on the piste…….on the piste! (on reflection, the pisteur that had come down earlier had decided that this was fine to open to the public, makes me wonder what it would have taken for him to say “non” – luckily for us it was “oui”).
As we crept down the hill visibility improved slightly, even to the point where we could see both sides of the piste! We rolled into Val Thorens, took Plein Sud, followed by Bouquetin and headed back up into the clouds (oh goody!). There was more heavy going down to the bottom of the Mont Valon telecabine and a high point of the trip was skiing thigh deep powder down Ours into Mottaret. For those who might not know it, Ours is normally an almost flat, boring, snow covered road, today it was a hard slog of pole pushing rewarded with thigh deep powder on the steeper sections, the powder was so light it was like it was barely even there, this was officially the deepest snow I had ever skied – the superlatives just kept on coming.
Pas Du Lac 1 & 2 had us up to Saulire and we were heading into the last valley of this section. During the lift we made some calls to see if we could coordinate a taxi to meet us at Courchevel 1300 Le Praz . Ryan from www.snowlinx.com confirmed he could come and get us and pulled up exactly as we walked off the piste at Le Praz. He enquired what we were up to and sensing our urgency, we said let’s get the skis in the back, get on the road and we’ll tell you all about it. A mere 20 minutes later and Ryan had us pulled up outside the lift station in Champagny (any closer and we would have been in the lift (thanks a million Ryan)).
We ran to the lift office and requested that we would like our free day pass for Paradiski under the Espace Olympique scheme, on giving us our pass the lady explained that we should take our Espace Killy pass out of our pocket to avoid confusing the systems. I corrected her that we actually had to take our 3 Valleys pass out, as we had already skied all the way from Orelle this morning (it was 11:50 a.m.). She looked suitably incredulous and said that she wasn’t going to ever come skiing with us.
A familiar pattern soon took shape, as we headed up into the cloud and yet more diabolical visibility. To put this into perspective when we got to the top of the Eterlou drag lift we couldn’t see the chair that we needed to get, a later inspection on Google maps satellite view, showed that it was just 20m away,. . . and we couldn’t find it. We ended up skiing back to where we had started and opted to take Borseliers III, well we would have taken it, if it hadn’t been closed for 1 hour whilst the liftie went for lunch!!!!! So, we were left with an unplanned diversion down into Plagne Centre. We offered a nod of appreciation to Cha and Holly at Graciosa as we scattered the lunch time punters before us through Plagne Centre. Onto Bergerie, hence to Arpette, the rope tow and thence the Vanoise Express across to Les Arcs (flying across the valley 380m high).
This represented another significant milestone and arguably the halfway mark. I was shattered, and made a strange sight, sprawled out on the floor wolfing down chocolate and decanting water from large to small bottles. The water was starting to freeze in the bottles, Paddy’s camelbak pipe had long since frozen solid.
The ski down to TransArc was uneventful, once in the lift we again got on the phone to arrange a taxi to collect us from Villaroger for the short hop to Tignes Les Brevieres. However this time we failed, as the numbers we had either weren’t taxis or they were already busy on airport transfers. I was really starting to struggle physically by this stage and couldn’t face the mental stress of trying to sort this out now (especially as I was having to do it all with my diabolical French). So we agreed to just get down to Villaroger and hope to sort it out from there, obviously this wasn’t the best bit of planning ever, but it did make the problem go away for a while.
The Lanchettes lift out of Arcs 2000 has to be slowest lift I have ever been on – deeply frustrating when you are exhausted and in a hurry. On the long ski down to Villaroger, I became aware that both Paddy and I had settled into a steady medium pace skiing style, with one very clear attribute – efficiency. We were using the bare minimum amount of energy to get down each pitch, using long wide turns and keeping the pace down meant that we could preserve dwindling reserves of energy for the final push.
We arrived at the end of the piste in Villaroger and were disappointed to find very little infrastructure. Most importantly, no lines of taxis waiting to whisk us away! The lift office was closed and so we hit Google once more in an attempt to locate a lift. Whilst sat doing that a lady came out of the lift office having just closed up, she kindly reopened the office and gave us some taxi cards. One of which we had already tried and the other was also busy, but he gave us another number to try and we were in business. 20 minutes later our ride pulled into the car park and we were on our way once more, having lost 30 valuable minutes going nowhere. It soon became apparent that there was already 41 euros on the meter before we had even got in, our driver explained that this was because he had come from Bourg St Maurice (hmmmmm, not sure if that is standard practice, but we weren’t in a position to argue). To his credit, he drove like a man possessed and after only 17 minutes he had dropped us right next to the bubble in Tignes Les Brevieres and relieved us of 75 euros!
So nearly home. Just 4 more lifts. With renewed vigour we raced down into Tignes Les Lac and took the Aeroski up to Toviere. At the very least this meant that we would get to La Daille (which is sort of Val D’Isere, isn’t it?). We had 45 minutes in hand and steadily made our way down to Marmotte – the last of the 19 lifts we had taken that day. I have never skied down Le Face de Bellvarde so slowly and in so much pain, in fact we ducked out at the first opportunity and took the red Joseray instead. Luckily for us this allowed us to ski right to the door of Chamois d’Or.
There was no finishing tape, no banners welcoming us home, no TV news crews, no medals, no cheering crowds, no champagne, but we were back and we had done it.
Le Ski Tour De Vanoise Route
Le Ski Tour de la Vanoise Data
7 hours 30 minutes
119 Km = 74 miles
10,500 m of vertical (Everest summit to base camp x3)
6,500 calories burned
3 Ski domains
4 very sore legs
Detailed Timings from GPS Track
09:00 – Orelle
09:30 – Top of 4th Valley
09:48 – Val Thorens, bottom of Plein Sud
10:06 – Top of Col De La Chambre
10:41 – Mottaret
10:57 – Top of Pas Du Lac 2 – Saulire
11:25 – Le Praz
11:51 – Champagny
12:00 – Top of Champagny Cable Car
12:23 – Top of Verdons Sud
12:31 – Plagne Centre (bottom of Bergerie)
12:40 – Plagne Bellecote – bottom of Arpette
13:02 – Arrive Vanoise Express
13:12 – Depart Vanoise Express
13:26 – Bottom of TransArc
13:43 – Top of TransArc
13:56 – Arc 2000, bottom of Lanchette
14:28 – Arrive Villaroger (wait for Taxi)
15:01 – Depart Villaroger
15:19 – Tignes Les Breviers
15:42 – Top of Aiguille Rouge
15:50 – Bottom of Aeroski (I hate this lift, it is so uncomfortable, delighted that it is being replaced)
16:05 – Bottom of Marmotte
16:30 – Val D’Isere – bottom of Le Face de Bellevarde
- Lifts to top of Val D’Isere Glacier – FREE- (already had 6 day Val D’isere pass)
- Bus, Bonneval to Modane Gare (left at 16:15 took about 1hr15) – 10.15 euros
- Taxi Modane Gare to Orelle – 25 euros
- Apartment in Orelle residence – 106 euros
- Three Valleys lift pass – FREE – under Espace Olympique scheme
- Taxi Courchevel 1300 Le Praz to Champagny – 50 euros, (huge thanks to Ryan from Snowlinks – http://www.snowlinx.com)
- Paradiski lift pass – FREE – under Espace Olympique scheme
- Taxi Villaroger to Tignes Les Brevieres – 75 euros
- Ski lifts from Tignes to Val d’Isere – FREE – already had 6 day Val D’isere pass
Total = 276 euros, split 2 ways = 138€ each
Not too bad, for 2 amazing days of skiing
What I’d do differently next time
- Take a bigger rucksack with proper waist support (very sore back & shoulders)
- Stay at a hotel in Modane and get a taxi to Orelle in the morning (much bigger nicer town, there’s nothing at Orelle)
- Try harder to book the taxis in advance (wasted 30 mins at Villaroger)
- Possibly ski down Bozel (subject to reconnoitering and sufficient snow cover)