Part 2A. Saulire and the Courchevel Couloirs


Couloirs in Courchevel

Southernmost Saulire couloirs from Télépherique station

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 Couloir Croix des 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 and ski down the narrow couloir between the two little rock outcrops.

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.




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

Updated 3 May 2004