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

Part 2. Courchevel

If Courchevel were no longer linked to the other two valleys it would probably still claim to be one of the world's Top Three Ski-resorts. It is the prettiest valley with superb views of Mont Blanc and Belleville (the La Plagne mountain). Most of the skiing is in a gigantic north facing bowl that preserves snow on the steepest slopes, but there are extensive pistes facing all directions of the compass. It has the most varied range of skiing in the Trois Vallées with superb opportunities for every skier from total beginner to expert. Courchevel 1850 is the perfect resort for a mixed ability party.

Map of Courchevel. Links to more detailed description of a sector shown in blue text. The red crosses indicate pisteurs huts which are attended during normal working hours. Although there primary purpose is as emergency services (first aid, avalanche control etc.) the pisteurs are sometimes willing to advise on the advisability of specific off-piste routes, particularly with respect to avalanche risk. Red circles indicate lower or intermediate lift stations.

Couloirs in Courchevel
Loze, Praz-Juget and La Tania Vizelle Saulire and the Courchevel Couloirs Creux, Chanrossa and Col de Fruit Les Avals

Most of the more interesting runs for advanced skiers are located either in Les Creux (served by the Chanrossa and Creux Noirs chair lifts), Vizelle (served primarily by the Vizelles telecabines and the Suisses and Marmottes chairs, and Saulire (served by the Saulire télépherique). There is also extensive offpiste and tree skiing for advanced and intermediate skiers in the Les Avals to Courchevel 1600 sector and in Col de Loze down to Praz or La Tania.

The Couloirs

Couloirs in Courchevel

The Courchevel Couloirs can be seen from almost anywhere in Courchevel. They snake down to the right of the Saulire Télépherique (LUM: Looking Up Mountain), thin ribbons of snow separating the ribs of rock. Before attempting the Couloirs for the first time, ski down Combe de Saulire (red) and traverse left off the piste (LDM: Looking Down Mountain). One passes successively on the left the exit from: Panoramique (between the first two rock outcrops); Sous-pylons (right under the cable car); Emile Allais (the narrowest); Grand Couloir (the widest, and generally considered the easiest); and Croix de Verdons (the most difficult to access). By traversing high off the piste it is possible to get a feel of the snow conditions and watch two or three groups skiing (or falling) down the couloirs.

The bad news is that falls are frequent. The good news is that in normal snow conditions on the Courchevel side, they very rarely seem to cause injuries (other than to pride). I've seen many, many falls and many long slides. But I have literally never seen an emergency call-out in the couloirs. At this stage, if in doubt, err on the side of caution, this is serious skiing for the average recreational skier and once commited there is no easy way off. Also have a look at the slopes to your right (below the Vizelle top station). There are some good opportunities to test your technique, and there are also easier escape routes if you get into trouble (see Vizelle).

The Couloirs can only be easily approached by taking the 140 man Saulire Télépherique (cable car). 95% or more of the passengers turn left (LUM) on leaving the lift, the intrepid few advanced or expert skiers turn right. Only one couloir (Panoramique) lies to the left. This is short but interesting and undeservedly rarely skied. Pass the Pisteurs and Avalanche Controle Station then Restaurant Panoramique and ski straight ahead off the edge of the path at the point where it turns to the right. the first pitch is a simple open south-east facing slope where the snow may be more difficult than elsewhere on Saulire. At the foot turn sharp left ans ski down the narrow couloir between two outcrops of rock.

The remaining couloirs are approached via a 2-3m wide gently descending beaten track along the ridge between Courchevel (right) and Meribel (left). At the start of the path there is normally a blackboard giving guidance on snow conditions. (Usually a warning that the runs are only open to very good skiers.) Intermediate or weak advanced skiers should not attempt these runs except with a professional guide or instructor. If in doubt you can visit the pisteurs in the station on the other side of the cable car. They are usually helpful about giving advice. Before committing yourself to the path look left down the steep slope into the Meribel Valley. This is Couloir Tremplinn (or Couloir de Meribel), its more difficult than the Courchevel Couloirs but you may wish to attempt it later.

Sous Pylons is the easiest couloir to find. There are various variations of entry and alternative exits. All are clearly visible from the cable car and can be reconnoitred during your ascent. Much of it is also visible from the upper station platform. The simplest entry is from the start of the of the ridge path. The most obvious alternative is at the other end of the path, but one can enter from several places in between. This may involve skiing through a cornice where there may be short drop off. The descent is tricky only if the couloir is icy. Sous Pylons looks the steepest, narrowest and most intimidating couloir but I always think that it is the easiest. At least you don't have to survive the path.


Entry to Grand Couloir from Croix de Verdons Entry to Grand Couloir from climb to Couloir Croix de Verdons

Grand Couloir is by convention the easiest Couloir and most people ski it first. Its status varies from time to time: piste, itinerary or off-piste. Ski along the path (this is actually the most frightening obstacle in the area) and look into a shallow bowl with unpleasantly uneven and awkward bumps. This is your last chance for a change of heart and an easy retreat. At the end of the path you enter a shallow bowl with enormous bumps. If you don't fancy these bumps you shouldn't be in the couloirs, you'll have to ignominiously swallow your pride, take off your skis and retreat back up the path. There are two possible entries to Grand Couloir. The most popular lies straight down the fall line of this upper bowl towards the lowest point of a shallow crest directly ahead. On arrival at the crest you look straight down a steepish slope towards Courchevel 1850. This is Grand Couloir. It may be slightly tricky getting started (particularly if snow boarders have cut up the entry) but the further you descend the easier it gets.


Entry to Grand Couloir

Entry to Grand Couloir, North Entry and the climb to Couloir Croix des Verdons, taken from the Vizelle Télécabine in passage

The two figures are peering over the edge of the entry to Grand Couloir. One can readily descend from anywhere between them and the pylon in the sunshine to the right of the picture (the pylon is part of the system for controlling avalanches in the couloirs). An alternative lower entry to Emile Allais is also shown just below the pylon with a black arrow, this route is probably less interesting than the couloir's upper entry. To reach the North Entry to Grand Couloir again ski down the bowl but finish to the left of the of the crest (red cross just to the left of the two figures) then traverse high, immediately under the prominent black rock (red arrow). This gives access to the North Entry of Grand Couloir which is narrower and slightly steeper than the main arm. Usually the snow is better in this arm and you get a longer, more direct and more dramatic run. I much prefer this North Entry to Grand Couloir. The same traverse is used to reach the short climb(two crosses and red arrow) up to Couloir Croix des Verdons. The cables running across the picture belong to the Saulire Télépherique.


North Entry from below

The descent from North Entry of Grand Couloir and Couloir Croix des Verdons

The slope to the bottom left of the picture is the lower part of the main descent from Grand Couloir. The picture on the Skiing Index page is Amata at about this spot. The couloir left of center is North Entry with the end of the entry traverse and the start of the climb to Couloir Croix des Verdons marked with the red cross. The narrow couloir to the right of centre is Couloir Croix des Verdons.


Emile Allais lies between Grand Couloir and Sous Pylons. This is the most difficult to find, but careful reconnoitring during the cable car ascent will help to pinpoint the two main entries. The first is just after the end of the path. Ski into the bowl keeping to the extreme right hand margin. Within a few meters you come to a dip in the terrain where you can see a gasex pipe above you to the right. This is usually the preferred entry. The second involves going further down the bowl almost to Grand Couloir but traversing along the right hand edge to reach the obvious entry. Technically Emile Allais it is probably the trickiest couloir, but because fewer people attempt it the snow is usually better than Grand Couloir or Sous Pylons. If you thought that Grand Couloir was fun rather than frightening you will definitely enjoy Emile Allais. If you came off Grand Couloir glad that it was over, don't attempt Emile Allais, Sous Pylons or Couloir Croix des Verdons.


Amata about to set off down Couloir Croix de Verdons

Couloir Croix des Verdon is a clear escalation of challenge. On my last visit all of the variations listed so far were listed as pistes or itinerères. (Rules change from year to year so check with the Tourist Office when you get out there). However there are further opportunities for the more adventurous. Set off as if heading for the North Entry to Grand Couloir. Continue traversing left across the top of the upper branch to the foot of a snow field. You can't go too far or you'll finish up traversing on rock. Normally you won't be the first skiers there (the pisteurs and lift attendants have an unfair advantage) so you should be able to follow their tracks. In any case, take off your skis and set off straight up the fall-line, either kick steps or follow the existing footprints. The climb looks vertical but is actually quite comfortable and short (about 50m vertical). At the top is a very narrow snow ridge, definitely insufficient room for a picnic, indeed it is usually only comfortable for one person to put on skis at a time. The pictures Entry to Grand Couloir from climb to Couloir Croix de Verdons and Amata about to set of down Couloir Croix de Verdons. are both taken from this ridge, looking in opposite directions. The reward is the longest couloir and the best snow, sufficiently steep and narrow to look terrifying from above and below, but actually gratifyingly easy after the steep climb.


Couloirs in Courchevel

Southernmost Saulire couloirs from Télépherique station

Per Ardua ad Astra, if you want to venture further you'll need to work harder. Croix de Verdon is just the start. The possibilities of climbing up the ridge and descending on the Courchevel side continue.The next obvious slope is shown by the red arrow in Southernmost Saulire couloirs from Télépherique station. However my personal experience ends here. Further progress clearly means more arduous climbing. If in the slightest doubt, hire a guide.


Couloir Tremplin I have already mentioned. It descends on the Meribel side of Saulire. One can reconnoitre Tremplin from the bottom by traversing right of the Saulire-Meribel piste. The piste is technically no more difficult than some on the Courchevel side. BUT:

  1. A slip near the top is potentially more dangerous, the gully is narrow in places and there are a few awkwardly placed rocks;
  2. It also, it receives sun in the afternoon and on old snow tends to be icy in the morning;
  3. There is a lot of broken rock scree at the top and it can be tricky to find a way through if you value your skis.

Tremplin becomes unskiable long before the north facing Courchevel couloirs. After fresh snow one can enter Tremplin straight from the Saulire cable car. This rapidly deteriorates exposing loose rocks under the snow. It then becomes necessary to traverse in from successively lower levels off the path leading to Grand Couloir. Take it gently at the top, you have to watch for rocks and think out the turns. I said earlier that I have never seen injuries on the Couchevel side. Tremplin is significantly more dangerous.

I should mention Death Couloir because you will hear people talking about it. Forget it. This is a very unofficial route on the Meribel side and should not be attempted. It may be possible with a professional guide (unlikely). You would be in big (and expensive) trouble if you got into difficulty on it. You risk losing your pass if your caught skiing it. If your this macho try working off your excess testosterone on the off-piste climbs on the Courchevel side instead.

 

Part 2B. Les Creux, Chanrossa and the Aiguille de Fruit

Easily the highest mountain at the Courchevel end of the Trois Vallées the Aiguille de Fruit provides splendid off-piste skiing on its lower slopes. While the Couloirs provide dramatic skiing, those preferring isolation may prefer the Aiguille de Fruit. This is a lonelier world. There is always someone passing by in the Couloirs to help pick up the pieces, but if something goes wrong on the Col de Fruit you are unlikely to be so lucky. Be cautious, and be sure that someone knows where you have gone.

With one exception the skiing lies in the gigantic Creux Bowl stretching from Vizelle in the east to Chanrossa in the West. Reconnoitre the terrain first looking across and down from Vizelle. Next ski down the easy red Creux (q.v.) stopping to look up at the ridge on your right. Finally go up the Chanrossa chair where you get further views into the bowl. Initially the bowl does not look promising. First, its obvious that there are avalanches down the Aiguille de Fruit. However, there's a pisteurs hut at the top of the lift at Col de Chanrossa. They of course flag if the area is open or closed, they also tend to get the first shot on the traverse. I usually like to call in any way to check on snow conditions. They can tell you if its fluffy, heavy or crust. They also know that your out there if you do have problems. Second, there are no open slopes with even gradients and beautiful sets of linked turns. That's part of the charm of the skiing. The area is full of complicated tricky bits of snow that will test any skier and there's usually still untracked snow three or four days after the last fall. Third, the bowl looks like a trap with long hikes out from the bottom. There will be a bit of walking at times at the bottom but this usually leads to gentle down slopes that bring you back out at the Creux chair complex. The lift company usually bash a piste into the bowl to assist easy exits.

One should start the skiing by going up the Chanrossa Chair. The lift company seems to have difficulty making up its mind about Chanrossa. Many years ago the whole of Chanrossa was clearly off-piste. Later they blasted an easy red to the left of the cable car (LDM) and marked a steep black bumps piste further to the right. Recently they have improved the red run (J. Pachod) and marked a black run further to the left. Advanced and expert skiers have not been forgotten. The area under and to the right of the Pylons is now a glorious off-pisted bumps field with a vertical fall of about 400m. The area is normally fenced off to discourage casual interest, but when snow conditions are adequate the pisteurs leave a narrow gap to permit entry. Choose your route carefully and this can be very steep and exciting. However it receives sun all afternoon and can also be icy and dangerous in the mornings. Treat it with caution. If you get on to the bumps and decide that you can't cope with them you are better to keep traversing to your right where the slope gradually gets less steep and where it nis often possible to find patches of deep snow. The Chanrossa bumps can be technically very difficult and the slope is steep enough to be potentially as dangerous (or even lethal) as The Wall in Avoriaz or the off-piste bumps at Mont Fort, Verbier. Treat them with respect.

The more extensive deep snow skiing is to the left of the piste (LDM). From the top of the chair turn right and ski off the left hand edge of the piste onto an obvious traverse. This traverse is avalanche prone but if dangerous the entrance will be very obviously closed. If in doubt enquire at the pisteurs hut at the top of the lift. The traverse sweeps round for about 1.5 km on the north face of the Crete de Chanrossa towards the Aiguille de Fruit. Gradients off the traverse vary significantly from place to place so that you can choose something that suits your ability. Nowhere is it very steep and it tends to become easier towards the very far end. The slopes are predominantly north facing and surprisingly lightly skied.

There are also runs on the east side of the Chanrossa ridge (see Courchevel 1600).

The more difficult skiing in the Creux Bowl is approached from the Creux Noir chair lift. If you turn right at the top of the chair there is the choice of a short but relatively difficult red piste back down to Creux (Roches Grises), or you ski off the other side of the ridge down towards Mottaret. The start of the Mottaret run is clearly signposted (when open).

Most of the off-piste skiing is to the left of the chair (LUM). It is possible to walk (there's no need to take off one's skis) along the ridge for about 1.5 km. One can descend almost anywhere on the left hand side. There are various small precipices, and the gradient varies sharply from place to place. So its best to plan an approximate line of descent during your earlier reconnoitre. On the whole the gradients are steeper and the descent more satisfying the further one proceeds along the ridge. Finally one arrives at a rock face at the Col de Fruit, from this point it is possible to ski very close to the tracks from the longest traverse off Chanrossa.

There is one last run to describe. (I've left the best until last). Though one can in principle ski anywhere on the Courchevel side of the ridge (the Creux Bowl), the other side of the ridge is the Parc National de Vanoise, an alpine wild life reserve. It is absolutely forbidden (ABSOLUEMENT FORMELLEMENT INTERDIT) to ski anywhere in the park. If you ignore this and get caught (which is fairly likely) they will confiscate your lift pass and may also refer you to the local authorities. There is one exception tothis ban. Keep traversing along the ridge to the Col de Fruit. Keep your eyes open to the right because the domain is rich in alpine wild-life. Eventually you reach a final saddle before the ridge ends in a vertical face. On the right is a magnificent snow field directly under the west face of the Aiguille de Fruit. It is permitted to ski this field, you can ski straight down or traverse south before descending. You may not traverse to the right. Be careful though, although magnificent this slope is:

  1. South Facing
  2. Avalanche prone

At the bottom of the snow field lies the Allues brook. Cross the brook as soon as is practicable and ski over gently sloping lightly wooded meadows to the Ski de Fond above Mottaret. Alas you now face a 20 minute walk along the Ski de Fond Piste before you arrive at the lift. This trip takes a good half day. Its probably advisable to take a picnic or at least a snack. There are several places at which you will feel like stopping for a rest. There is nothing technically difficult about this route, it is easier than much of the skiing into the Creux bowl. But the distance and the isolation suggest that beginners at off-piste touring might be wise to seek a guide or ski school instructor to lead the trip. Apart from the walk along the ski de fond this is one of the nicest runs in the Alps.

 

Part 2C. Vizelle

Vizelle is a much underestimated area. In any other resort it would be featured as the showpiece. In Courchevel it is a forgotten area on the way to somewhere “more interesting”. It has no less than four significant black pistes (each over 500m vertical descent) and two interesting reds. Between these lie extensive off-piste terrain with steep north, south, east and west facing slopes. Two of these are of particular interest. The better of these is Suisse. Suisse taken direct under the lift is an exciting testing run with several very steep stretches. Technically it is probably much more difficult than the Couloirs. The challenge is somewhat spoilt by the ease with which one can retreat from the difficult parts of the slope back to the prepared piste. However this does make it a very good area for people wishing to extend themselves physically without the associated danger of isolation. As the fresh snow deteriorates the area turns into an excellent bumps field with big, varied moguls. It is usually very quiet.The other is Couloirs des Belges. It was posted for decades as a red run and in normal snow conditions was arguably the trickiest red run in the alps. narrow, relatively steep and fiercely mogulled it can be a test even for decent advanced skiers. It is very short, but also provides a good trial for the longer couloirs which one can see immediately opposite. Finally on Vizelle I should mention a patch off off-piste snow lying between the Vizelle top telecabine station and the Combe de Saulire piste. It is accessed from a path blasted to enable weak intermediate skiers an easy way to bypass the steepest part of Combe de Saulire. It is nothing very special but the steepness of gradient and the feel of the snow approximate to that found in the couloirs. It is also very easy to escape off it by traversing left. It is therefore the ideal place for someone fancying the couloirs to test whether their technique is up to the challenge.

 

Part 2D. Les Avals to 1600

There is little of interest for the advanced skier in 1600, this area is more a playground for beginners and intermediates. There are some off-piste runs on the eastern slopes of the Chanrossa ridge. These provide long runs back to Courchevel 1600. They are probably of more interest to advanced intermediates. They provide a wonderful introduction to this type of off-piste skiing and are best attempted with a ski-instructor or guide. Enquire at the Tourist Offices to see if any trips are planned. There is also good tree skiing for all in bad weather.

 

Part 2E.

Col de Lozes to Le Praz and La Tania

There was always good off-piste skiing on the slopes of the valley to the north-east of Loze. The opening of the Tania resort and the new Telecabine, and the provision of the Col de Loze lift from Meribel have much extended the available area. It is particularly suited to those just starting to enjoy off-piste skiing or to the less adventurous advanced skier. The slopes are north facing and relatively little skied so its possible to find good snow well after other areas are skied out. The off-piste is easily accessible, rarely far from the piste and retreat is easy if the conditions are not to your liking. Much of the area is lightly wooded so it can also be an attractive venue in poor visibility.

 

 

Copyright©Dennis Summerbell, 2004, (Link to full copyright notice)

Updated 3 May 2004