Guide to skiing off-piste with Guides in Val d'Isere

 

I have no commercial connection with any person or company in this report. The report was written in good faith but may contain mistakes, these errors are entirely my fault and no one else should be held responsible. All factual information should be checked by the user.

An old fashioned apology for writing the guide

Its clear from many past threads on r.s.a. and r.s.r.e that Val d'Isere is one of the worlds top resorts. Personally (for adequately rational reasons ;-) I've never been very keen on it. However this year (1997) I've been forced to change my mind.

For the last three years my wife has organised small chalet parties. Her group has included a former Canadian Ski patrol member from Lake Louise (Cairine Logan). Naturally we've wanted to show off to Cairine Alpine resorts that are famous in North America and so far we've visited St. Antons, The Trois Vallées and this year (despite my personal prejudice) it was Val d'Isere. My wife and I normally ski mainly off-piste (see for example my guide to "The Trois Vallées: a guide to black difficult and off-piste skiing "). Despite being pretty good skiers (by British standards!) we habitually like to take the occasional private lesson. Avril McCarthy, a BASI instructor from Sheffield first suggested to us that if we were going to Val d'Isere we should take advantage of one of the small specialist ski schools. This posting results from following her advice.

Ski Schools and Guides in Val d'Isere

The 1996-97 brochure for Val d'Isere (external ski links) lists 15 ski schools as well as a number of privateers. While some of the larger schools (eg ESF, Snow Fun) provide a more traditional range of activities the smaller ones have tended to concentrate on specialised niches. Whilst in Val I skied with or talked to scores of skiers who had used the services of two of these companies: Top Ski and Alpine Experience. Both are aimed mainly at taking small groups of good skiers off-piste. I never heard a bad word spoken against either of them and virtually everyone strongly recommended them. I skied for 5 days out of my 13 with Alpine Experience and I unreservedly recommend them.

 

Alpine Experience

is a small co-operative of six instructors. Their staple is taking small groups (maximum 6) off-piste into deep snow. They act as guides but while they're guiding they also teach. Every one of them is a French qualified instructor though several of them also hold certificates from other countries: Chris Souillac for example, though native French also holds Austrian qualifications. While each of them has their own characteristic style they have developed a consensus teaching method so that one can move from one instructor to another without receiving confusing or contradictory advice. I should also mention at this point that they all have excellent English. I always think that its very important to be taught by someone who can express well the nuances of language because really skilful skiing requires subtlety as well as brute strength. Each has different skills and strengths and part of the fun is being able to ski with different members of the company. I skied with four of them and had the opportunity to watch the other two in action. I learned from all of them.

Wayne Watson (a Canadian from Lake Louise) is possibly the prettiest skier I've ever seen. He's also the one most interested in the basics of technique. He's the person you want to book for a private lesson for sorting out those little technical problems. He's also familiar to many Brits as he writes a regular column for one of our ski magazines. TeeJay (T.J.) Baird, originally from Australia is the man you want to ski with if you want to learn about snow. He'll teach you how to recognise the best snow, to know why its no good today, but also why the same snow be worth trying tomorrow. My own favourite was Pietro Barrigazzi (originally from Italy). Like Jean-Marc Pic and Olivier Carrere he's a fully qualified Mountain Guide as well as an instructor. I particularly liked the way we could discuss where the party might go rather than it being a case of "I'll lead, you follow" However I'd recommend any of the six and next time I go to Val I'll want to spend time with each of them. In any case it pays to be flexible because they try very hard to make up compatible parties that will enjoy skiing together.

The off-piste groups start with parties suitable for any competent piste skier wishing to sample deep snow for the first time and go right up to trips suitable for top experts. As I said at the start, I consider myself pretty good for a Brit (read my 3-V guide and make your own judgement). But several of the other clients were clearly better skiers than me (Duncan and Jumbo in particular come to mind). In fact the best clients were at least as good as many instructors I've encountered, but they still use Alpine Experience, partly to benefit from local knowledge, but also to take advantage of the added safety factor of making up a strong party.

One of the most impressive features of Alpine is how well they work together. I was particularly impressed by the way they co-operated both in planning and on the mountain. In the evening prior to deciding on a tricky route for the morning they'll discuss possibilities with clients, download the latest weather forecast, consult with each other and then make a decision on the trip. On the mountain the more basic groups tend to head for the same general area, once they get there the advantages are obvious. They exchange information with each other by radio so that the weaker groups benefit from the experience of the class that's just skied a particular slope. In the event of there being a significant emergency this system would no doubt much facilitate the rescue process.

 

Pricing

Now just a few details taken from the 1996-97 brochure. Alpine's mainstay is the four hour off-piste class with a maximum of six students (260FF each with a reduction if you book 5 or more trips). If your lucky enough to book in a group and turn out to be the only taker, the lesson goes ahead (you effectively get a one-on-one 4 hour private lesson!). In practice, at least providing you've got a respectable address, you pay retrospectively, they prefer payment in cash. They provide avalanche transceivers within the price and will arrange hire of other requirements for a particular trip (taxis, wide skis if preferred, lifting heal bindings and skins etc) at your expense. In fact my best trip with them was my first trip using a lifting heel and skins (a modest 300m climb to reach an untracked glacier snow field 11 days after the last snow).

I was also impressed that in practice 4 hours means 4 hours. We met at 08:45 and were on the first lift up the mountain at 09:00. We often had to race down the last stage to make the pre-arranged restaurant only a few minutes late for the 13:00 stop time. Usually they try to have an agreed lunch restaurant so that its usually possible to meet up with someone for the afternoon. Alpine Experience also do two hour "technique" classes in the afternoon. I think that they'll do these for any standard of skier. So if you have a friend or spouse stuck in a "normal" ski school class with 16 other beginners it might be worth checking if Alpine are running an easy class that week. (Even in January I met beginners with that class size in some of the other schools.) The afternoon fee is 150FF. They also do a few specials, for example I joined Pietro's Telemarking Group lesson for an afternoon. Alpine have an office in the evenings at Jean Sport which is on the main street 150 meters in the direction of Le Fornet from the Main (Tourist Office) Square on the South (Church) side of the road. (While I was there they had an arrangement for a 10% discount for clients purchases and rentals at Jean Sport.) They can be contacted at Tel: (0)4 79 06 28 81; Fax: (0)4 79 06 15 27. In peak season its safest to book in advance. They claim to be constructing a Web page but as far as I'm aware its not ready yet. One final bonus: if in the end things do not go according to plan, Pietro's wife (Sue Reed) is one of Val d'Isere's best known physiotherapists. While I used and recommend Alpine Experience I should make it clear that I skied and talked with numerous skiers who were equally enthusiastic about Top Ski. Indeed many of them regularly skied with both: on some occasions choosing one because it was organising a particular trip (eg a helicopter drop in Italy); or a full day trip down to les Arcs; or sometimes simply because the other one was heavily booked that day and didn't have a suitable vacancy. (I never saw them break the 6 person rule except when a single party had booked the guide.)

Historical Note:

Anyone who's been skiing as long as me will remember that almost all Alpine ski resorts used to have a one company monopoly teaching. In France usually the ESF. Back in 1976 Patrick and Jean Zimmer broke away from the ESF and attempted to form Top Ski. Because of resistance to this move they had to fight to survive in the courts. Eventually they won. The victory paved the way for competing ski schools throughout the European Union and has transformed ski teaching, nowhere more so than in Val d'Isere.

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

Updated 25th Jan 2003