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

Part 3. Meribel

The Meribel valley has extensive off-piste skiing opportunities for all levels of ability. Perhaps least well served are the advanced-experts insofar as the most sustained and out of the way runs are served by lifts in the two adjacent valleys. In practice this is unlikely to be a handicap because the great majority of skiers will have purchased a Trois Vallées lift pass. There is also one important warning. The South-Eastern Valley (from Mottaret towards Aiguille de Fruit) is a Nature Reserve. With two precisely defined exceptions it is absolutely forbidden (formellement interdit) to ski within the boundaries of the reserve. The pisteurs keep this terrain under careful observation and unauthorised entry will usually result in interception, and at the minimum, confiscation of your lift pass. This ban is taken very seriously.

Tougnette

I start with Tougnette because :

  1. it is the obvious area for those starting a romance with off-piste skiing;
  2. it is usually the first area to open following a decent snow fall.

The area is extensive, safe and its easy to traverse off the more difficult slopes. The better skiers will have moved on to more difficult areas after their first run. Its therefore perfect for the less experienced to practice all but the most difficult grades of off-piste skiing. Absolute beginners at deep snow should quickly book a lesson. Those with some technique but no confidence should head for the middle station, take the Arpasson teleski and then try any of the beginners slopes of Grive, Tetras or Escargot. Even average intermediates will be able to enjoy the fresh snow lying on pistes which were perfectly groomed as the snow began to fall. Later you will be able to venture onto the snow lying to either side of the piste and onto the Charferie Teleski. Lower down the mountain there are also ample opportunities for deep snow skiing both in open terrain and between the trees. Often there is still untracked snow here days after the last fall. For the more adventurous there are also long routes down to Meribel Les Allues, and on the other side of the ridge to St Martin de Belleville. The latter deteriorates quite rapidly if the weather stays fine and should be attempted within two or three days of the last snowfall. All of these routes are suitable for the self-reliant skier of moderate ability who wants to explore. The more cautious may prefer to book a guide or take advantage of the new snow by joining a three day deep snow clinic.

There are few opportunities in this area for the advanced/expert skier. The area to the Meribel side of Cretes running down to the middle station provides plenty of varied off-piste runs. The routes, problems and pit-falls are all obvious from a cursory examination from the telecabine and do not deserve a detailed description. On the whole, the gradients are steeper towards the south , but there is nothing that is particularly severe.

 

Col de la Loze/Burgin

The opposite side of the valley is similar to Tougnette but lacks both the difficult and easy extremes. This is a good safe area for those with basic technique. They can safely practice their skills both at skiing and planning a route without exposing themselves to risk. The area includes moderately steep sections, broken terrain and tree skiing.

A special warning about La Mur (the Wall). In France the name La Mur is usually given to very steep slopes. These can be quite short (as in the famous steep drop off the glacier at Tignes) or long (as in the infamous 350m descent killer piste at the Portes du Soleil). In Meribel the name is atypically given to a jump lying to the side of Marmotte (Marmot). The jump is clearly off-piste. Those attempting it do so „at own riskū. The jump is a fairly unpleasant near vertical 6m wall (hence La Mur) at the foot of a moderate slope. It can have a very steep, or even undercut lip. The landing area is a bit too flat for comfort and can be quite uneven due to the „gravesū of previous fallers. As it is off-piste with good visibility on the run in there are normally few problems from crossing skiers. For the good skier it poses no problems. In bad snow conditions, over-ambitious intermediate-advanced skiers risk serious injury. I know to my cost and still bear the scars from 20 years ago. All your friends will coax you to try it. If in doubt, donžt. If you do, take it easy.

Saulire

From Saulire there are three significant areas.

One can descend anywhere from the traverse linking Saulire with Burgin. These slopes are south-west facing and the snow rapidly deteriorates, so be cautious. Half-way down, the slope is cut by a gentle path from the middle station of Pas du Lac to Burgin so that you can always traverse off to the right. Below the path the slope tends to funnel you into a steep sided bowl ending in a stream bed at the Meribel-Mottaret road. The very steep right hand slope (looking down the hill) is usually one of the first areas in the valley to avalanche so treat this area with extra caution. Regulars to Meribel will know the area well. For most of the season the danger area is marked by the brown scar of exposed earth, but of course this is hidden after fresh snow. At the foot of the slope you will normally have to take of your skis to cross the road before joining La Truite (The Trout).

The other two descents are much more interesting but are approached via lifts in Courchevel. For completeness I will cover them again here.

The descent to Mottaret at the southern extreme of the slope is approached from the Creux Noir (Black Bowl) chair lift in Courchevel. If you turn right at the top of the chair there is the choice of a difficult red piste back down to Creux, or you ski off the other side of the ridge down towards Mottaret. The start of the Mottaret run is clearly signposted (when open). Remember not to stray to your left into the National Park (clearly indicated by boundary posts.

The final route is the Couloir Tremplin (Springboard Gully), now apparently renamed Tournier. 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:

Tremplin becomes unskiable long before the north facing Courchevel couloirs. After fresh snow one can enter Tremplin straight from the Saulire cable car. This upper entry 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.

 

Mont de la Challe

There are useful patches of snow on both east and west sides of Mont de la Challe. These are suitable mainly for advanced skiers improving the range of slopes on which they feel comfortable. They are also extensively used by the ski schools for teaching the less advanced off-piste classes. Nothing here is particularly difficult nor particularly exciting. The piste immediately adjacent to the Roc de Tougne lift used to be an excellent medium black bumps field. These days the lift company grooms far too much of the slope to make an easier descent via Lagopede (Ptarmigan). This has come close to spoiling a good black run without producing a particularly memorable red one. The other side of the lift is marked on the maps as a red itinerary and therefore presumably considered particularly suitable for those wishing to practice off piste. The restaurant at the foot of the Roc de Tougnette lift, Arpasson, is my favourite mountain restaurant in the Meribel Valley.

 

Roc des Trois Marches

The Meribel side of Roc des Trois Marches (Rock of Three Steps) provides interesting and challenging skiing for good advanced and expert skiers, arguably the best in the valley. There is a conveniently located pisteurs/avalanche control hut at the summit and they are usually happy to advise on suitable routes and possible dangers. The main piste here, Bouquetin (Mountain Goat), is a good guide to the level of skiing that you can expect. Bouquetin is a genuine black. Never groomed, never easy, never suitable for non-advanced skiers. It can be reconnoitered in detail from the Plattiers Trois Telecabine. From this vantage point the most obvious feature of Bouquetin is the vertical cliff to the left of the piste (looking up the mountain). In practice this never comes into play whilst skiing the piste and there is no danger. However its always there in the mind which adds sufficient tension to make the piste a challenge. The entry to Bouquetin starts immediately under the lift cables to the right hand side of the Mouflon (Mountain Sheep). Cut through the cornice (or down a very small drop off) and start straight down the fall line. The start is divided by a ridge of rock into two gullies, the right hand one is easier but carries one closer to the dangerous cliff. Once past the gullies the slope generally carries one away from the cliff so there is no further danger. Bouquetinžs only drawback is its relatively short length, only 300 m vertical descent.

If you find Bouquetin enjoyable rather than challenging and have also skied the Courchevel gullies (to establish your skiing credentials) you should call in at the pisteurs hut and enquire about the gullies to the right hand side (looking down the hill) of the Platiere lift. These start off as three difficult steep gullies leading to interesting broken terrain that drops down 400-500 m towards the path from Platiere to Plain des Mains.

The easiest route sets off in roughly the same line as the Allouette (The Lark) piste but gradually diverge towards your left so as to ski round the shoulder of the ridge that runs back towards Bouquetin. As the valley comes into view keep traversing left, the further you go the longer and steeper the descent on your right will become.

A little more difficult is the route just to the right of the Platiere cables (LDM). It drops down a narrow gully past the gasex anti-avalanche device. As you emerge from the gully the valley bottom comes into view and you can pick your own route over the broken terrain.

I have not skied the third route but the pisteurs tell me (and distant viewing of the terrain confirms) it is the most difficult. The entry lies midway between the other two routes directly in line with the Plain des Mains lift. It is narrow and steep but not life threatening.

 

Cote Brune

The Cote Brune is a complete contrast to the intimidating broken gullies of Trois Marches. This is a bare, steep, east facing slope ideal for those whose who dream of producing perfect pretty sets of linked turns. Although accessible from Roc de Trois Marches, it is probably better to approach it for the first time from Mont de la Chambre. Before doing so check at the pisteurs hut at Roc des Trois Marches that the cornice is safe, then take the Cote Brune lift up to Mont de la Chambre. The Cote Brune slope lies parallel to the lift to your right. From the lift you can see the entire slope and the three access points are immediately obvious.

From Mont de la Chambre first ski into the obvious bowl lying between Les Pylones and Venturon. The bowl itself usually has good snow but the runs are short. If the snow in the bowl is too difficult for you, you can always ski back to the Venturon avoiding the longer slopes of the Cote Brune. Otherwise exit the bowl as high as you can on the left hand edge. You are now on the southern end of the main Cote Brune traverse and can descend down towards the Venturon piste at virtually any point along the traverse. Do not be concerned about the shallow depression between you and the Venturon piste, there is a gentle slope on it that makes the trek out to the lift easy. Do not ski too far along the traverse, you will spoil the snow in the centre of the slope that is best accessed from higher up on the Les Menuires side (see next).

To reach the central entry point take the lifts to Roc des Trois Marches and ski down the Allemand piste to La Becca teleski. At the top of the lift take off your skis and climb straight ahead to the cornice. Ski through the cornice. If your early enough and lucky enough the snow will be untouched all the way to the valley floor some 500m below you.

The lazy skier who does not fancy the climb to the cornice can turn off the Allemand piste at the obvious col just below Roc des Trois Marches. This is the northern third entry point to the Cote Brune. A right hand traverse brings you out onto the sunlit eastern slopes. Weaker skiers will usually find the snow at its easiest on the less steep gradients of the earlier part of this traverse. It is possible to cover the entire slope from the southern and northern entry points but this rather wastes the snow on the central entry.

Finally on the Cote Brune, there is a very enjoyable easy off-piste itinerary under the Cote Brune chair. This is neither steep nor difficult and provides a suitable opportunity for those just getting into off-piste skiing to practice their skills. The safety of the Venturon is always only a short traverse away if the snow becomes too difficult.

 

Retour Val Thorens

The return from Val Thorens to Mottaret from the Mont de Peclet was at one time considered a classic alpine itinerary. It's normally skied as part of the circuit of the Trois Vallées so I have dealt with it under the Val Thorens skiing.

 

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

Updated 25th Jan 2003