A guide to black, off-piste and difficult skiing in the Trois Vallées

Part 4. The Belleville Valley

The Belleville Valley (Val Thorens, Les Menuires and St Martin) is in general less popular amongst advanced skiers. However, aside from opportunities in the valley, there are a number of long touring routes ending outside the valley that require organisation of transport. The Tourist Office or ski-schools can advise on appropriate guides. There are many significant runs that the advanced-expert skier visiting the Three Valleys for a limited period should not miss.

 

Les Menuires

There is an enormous area of easy, gently sloping off-piste skiing on the west facing slopes above Les Menuires. This is suitable for the relatively inexperienced. They will encounter ski-school classes making use of local knowledge to find good snow well after the last snow fall. The advanced-expert skier will find little of interest in this area except for two black runs off Mont de la Chambre: Les Pylons and Leo Lacroix. Both are just genuinely black, but are of interest only on steep ungroomed sections near the top. These develop into enjoyable, but fairly short, bumps fields. The La Becca lift also gives access to the Cote Brune off-piste in the Meribel Valley

 

La Masse

Skiers of all standards from intermediates up should enjoy a visit to La Masse. To get there ski down the Les Menuires home slopes into the square formed by the buildings. In the far right-hand corner ski across the bridge over the main road then turn sharp left. A wide path leads to the main La Masse lift. Whatever you do, before leaving La Masse, be sure to: 1) visit the top station to admire the superb views. The restaurant here has all the charm of a bus station cafeteria so instead, 2) stop off at the middle station restaurant for a meal, a beer, or coffee. The restaurant is cut deep into the rock of La Masse and should not be missed.

There is nothing that is particularly severe on La Masse. In normal snow conditions advanced-expert skiers will find the runs interesting rather than challenging. The best is perhaps the Lac Noir area which provides varied easy gully skiing. There are numerous variations so that the weak advanced skier will be able to pick out a relatively easy route while the expert will find sufficient small drop-offs, steep walls and narrow gullies to maintain interest. The broken terrain is sufficiently interesting to tempt you to return and do it again.

Aside from the main runs on La Masse there are two long itineraries that in good visibility can be attempted without significant difficulty. Les Yvoses starts from the top of Lac Noir and returns to Les Menuires via Le Bettex chair (check on the indicator board at the foot of Masse I that the chair is running as you set off up La Masse). Lou starts from the top of La Masse and drops down into the valley between La Masse and Cime de Caron. The only significant difficulty is crossing the stream before coming out at the Plan de l'Eau lift. Here one can choose either to go up the lift into the Val Thorens skiing or to return to Les Menuires via a rather flat path. For my taste, if your in the Three Valleys for only 6 days you may wish to combine La Masse with a trip to Cime de Caron. If your there for longer it deserves a day to itself.

There are also much longer and more exciting itineraries starting at La Masse. These require local knowledge and transport arrangements. Enquire at the tourist office or ski school for information about guides.

 

Cime de Caron

Cime de Caron at approx. 3200m provides the highest skiing in the Trois VallÈes. If one is staying at Meribel or Courchevel it is difficult to do justice to the skiing at Cime de Caron in a single day. Those fortunate to be staying for two weeks should budget their time to include at least two visits. From the top, there are only two pistes, one black, Combe de Caron: one red, Medienne de Caron. Both are straightforward and of average difficulty for their grading. The slopes are mainly north facing and so the snow stays good. If you have time ski either of these pistes before trying one of the two itineraries. Weak advanced skiers may then wish to attempt the relatively easy itinerary dropping down into the Vallee du Lou. This is straightforward and brings one back to Cime de Caron (via Boismint), or down to Les Menuires. The other itinerary Plan Bouche is currently marked on my piste map as a red itinerary. In my view it would be more suitably marked as black. When gently bumped with good snow conditions it is suitable for weak advanced skiers. Otherwise it is only suitable for advanced-experts. The slope is usually one of the last to be opened and because it faces predominantly south-west the snow usually looks beautiful but is frequently both deep and heavy. It requires technique, strength and fitness to ski it with enjoyment. Once there is crud and/or bumps it again becomes much easier. Good skiers will appreciate the run at its best by skiing left just below the summit restaurant (this variant definitely promotes the difficulty to black). There廣 usually a slightly tricky passage through the cornice but after that one has the best of the run. At the bottom, one can ascend again only to the Col de Rosael. From here there廣 a short but tiring walk up a cutting through the ridge. Straight ahead lies an interesting little head wall. It looks quite steep but nothing special. Its the only place where I影e seen an instructor obviously struggle and then fall, followed by a chortling colleague who suffered an identical fate. A third instructor led all three classes off on a traverse to the left where presumably they found an easier way down. The pitch is quite steep, but its also quite short and has a safe run-out at the bottom. This whole area is a wonderful deep snow off-piste area for three to four days after snow. Its high, north facing, a bit out of the way and often one of the last bits of snow to get tracked. It seems to be particularly popular with snowboarders. Whichever direction one takes here one can eventually head for the foot of a lift.

Ideally those pushed for time should try to ascend the Fond 2 Telesiege. At the top climb up the ridge. On the other side of the ridge is one of the best open snow off-piste slopes in the Three Valleys. Its probably only suitable for advanced/experts, because at the bottom there's a tricky cliff. If your lucky to find the snow good and untracked you'll never forget this run. Snow conditions can be very variable. Like the Plan Bouchet Itinerary this slope tends to be opened late. It can therefore be soggy and difficult. However, often it forms a stable thick wind packed crust where you can carve delicate turns in the surface without going through. My 50 Kilo wife would make Legolas jealous (Tolkien: Lord of the Rings, The Ring goes South). She skis this snow like an elven princess. In January, please, please ski somewhere else, there廣 only space for about twenty tracks and you should leave some for her. At the foot of this slope one arrives at a short but shear precipice. I'm not into rock drop-offs so can廠 advice. Instead traverse right or left. To the left the terrain falls away allowing a relatively easy way through, to the right there廣 a slightly trickier narrow arrete. Below the precipice ski off to the right where you can rejoin the piste down to the Plan Bouchet.

Good intermediates and weak advanced skiers should walk up and look down this piste. In a few weeks skiing this could be you. However there is no need to feel left out now. There is a wonderful run off the Chaviere Glacier that comes down the same valley and which is perfect for you. You will need a guide, so if your tempted check with the ski school or tourist office who will be able to advise.

There are two restaurants here that are a must. I usually try to get to Cime de Caron as early as I can then stop off in the Chalet Caron near the bottom station of the lower stage of the Caron lift for coffee or snacks. At this time if your lucky you'll even get a seat by the log fire! In fine weather I later head for the terrace of the Chalet Refuge de Plan Bouche. This is a very attractive spot for a late lunch if there's warm afternoon sunshine. In cold weather I would probably return to the Chalet Caron.

Slower skiers staying in Meribel or Courchevel may wish to consider an interesting strategy for making the most of the Cime de Caron area. The local Tourist Office will assist you in booking an overnight bunk in the Chalet Refuge de Plan Bouche. You will need to carry a sleeping bag and a toothbrush but will be able to buy an evening meal and breakfast in the restaurant. This would allow you to make the most of your time in Val Thorens.

 

Val Thorens

Val Thorens used to have some of the best skiing in the Three Valleys. In those days it was the quietest resort in the area and usually had the best snow. The snow is still there, but these days the resort is much, much more crowded. I regret that I don廠 have much to say about the skiing here.

Running down to the resort from either side of the Aiguille de Peclet are two courtesy blacks, Beranger and La Moraine. Neither are particularly difficult. Beranger is accessed from the Funitel de Peclet (a not to be missed machine apparently stolen from Darth Varder just prior to the destruction of the Death Star). This could be a very exciting fast piste if prepared as a downhill. Unfortunately the capacity of the Funitel turns it into a slow slalom (round the bodies of struggling intermediates). Boy racers should consider getting up early to catch the first lift in the morning. In my foolish youth I used to do this, its where I learned to curve the racing line. Running parallel with the bottom of Beranger and served by its own chair lies a very attractive bumps field, Cascades. This is a genuine hot dogging field with the bumps pointing down the fall line. Frequent skiing by the very best bumps skiers have turned the moguls into a nightmare for the rest of us. Still one keeps going back, that elusive rhythm is somehow almost there... and one last run might just catch it for ever.

The best off-piste skiing is off the back of the glaciers on Peclet. These give access to seriously long runs. Starting on glaciers with difficult crevasses they are dangerous and certainly need a guide. My recommendation would be the route down the Glacier du Borgne.

The final run in the guide is the famous Retour Val-Thorens. At one time this long (14 Km) black itinerary was the most famous and most sought after run in the Trois Vallées. Now it has been demoted to the status of a red piste. It is still long and is most frequently skied late in the afternoon after a tiring round trip from Courchevel or Meribel to Cime de Caron and Val Thorens. It is therefore still not to be taken lightly by intermediate or weak advanced skiers. Do not leave it till late to leave Val Thorens. The upper stages of the twin Trois Vallées lifts are a notorious bottleneck and you can queue here long enough to make the descent a race against time. Avoid this by setting off home early. Those from Courchevel are in the greatest danger they still have to catch the Bruyeres Gondola in Mottaret. Be warned that the lift company does not always clear the queue before closing the lift. It is common to be refused passage here after closing time and this will involve a very long bus trip down to Moutiers then back to Courchevel or an expensive but quicker taxi ride.

 

Copyright©Dennis Summerbell, 2003, (Link to full copyright notice)

Updated 25th Jan 2003