A guide to difficult, black and offpiste skiing in Val d'Isere

This guide is very preliminary, this is an early draft. However I've had my arm severely twisted and so here it is. I hope to improve it later. As usual additions and corrections very welcome. David John Summers (the principle arm twister) has sent me some useful additions to this guide which can be found here (Comments on Val from other skiers).

Fornet

The Fornet sector can be reached either by taking the Train Rouge Bus up to the Fornet Telepherique or by the Leissier or Tunnel (3000) Lifts from Solaise. The former is by far the quickest route. There is also an attractive hybrid route that I recommend. Take the lift up Solaise then head for the foot of the Datcha Lift. From here take the Germain Mattis (signposted Mattis) which starts life as a path . There are obvious off-piste opportunities off to the left but unless you know the area well its best to stay close to the Matisse piste which is clearly signposted just before the path starts going uphill. The slope quite quickly becomes wooded round the piste and though only red it can provide attractive skiing in poor visibility. At the bottom its necessary to cross the Isere at the bridge at Laisinant so as to catch the Train Rouge. If in doubt and you've left the piste; head for the houses. The bus stops at the car park by the bridge.

Fornet is usually one of the less busy sectors so the ascent of the first stage is usually quick. From the bottom station and on the way up its worth examining the route lying immediately under the cables. Forêt (Black) is a genuine black rarely suitable for skiers of less than good advanced ability. In poor (or perhaps even average) snow conditions its a desperate scratchy run: frequently icy, littered with old stumps, narrow and tortuous. Its easy to miss the way, and once committed there's no escape routes. If your not sure about it, give it a miss. However, with fresh snow falling and poor visibility it can be a delightful tree run. Be careful, although the sign posting is more frequent than average on a black run, many of the markers are well hidden and you don't want to miss the way. Incidentally if Foret is icy and unattractive, the blue alternative is often little better. In poor conditions take the Telepherique down or return via Solaise. There's a decent restaurant (Signal) just outside the top station.

From the cable car you can progress further up the mountain either by two drag lifts (Signal or Pyramid) or by the Vallon de l'Iseran Telecabine. Pyramid gives access to the slopes on the West side of the valley. There can be interesting relatively safe off piste here, and its easy to traverse back to an easy blue if conditions are not to your liking. Signal is primarily there to give access to Vallon, long fairly steep off-piste runs on the north facing slopes overlooking Fornet. Its usually only open if these runs are considered "safe". If in doubt, the Fornet avalanche control hut lies in the basement of the Telecabine station just opposite the start of the drag lifts. I haven't skied Vallon so I can't advise on its difficulty or desirability.

Immediately following even small amounts of fresh snow there will normally be attractive skiing on the Glacier de Pissailas. Its a glacier and it's high (3000m) so the quality of the snow base on top of the ice usually stays good even when everywhere else in Val is icy and perfectly horrid. With a little soft new snow it can be delightful. For novice off-piste skiers its ideal with relatively even gradients. So long as you stay between the bounds of the Rocher piste (on the left LUM) and the Cascade Lift (on the right), your about as safe as your going to be anywhere in Val d'Isere. However, stray outside those limits and you face unexpected cliffs, crevasses and the possibilities of avalanches off the rock walls to the South and East. Val d'Isere is a tricky place.

For those with a little more experience there is a wide open gently sloping area with excellent off-piste opportunities to the west of the Cascade lift called the Pays Desert. If your considering skiing there its best to carry out a careful reconnaissance from the top station of the Vallons Telecabine before heading for the Cascade chair. Note in particular the line of steep cliffs running parallel to the chairlift. These are best avoided by traversing right (LUM) off the Montet T bar at the top of the Pisaillas glacier. The longest runs are reached by travelling slightly uphill at the start and there will probably already be a clearly visible traverse line. Note also that while there is a poma lift that returns you from the bottom of the Pays Desert back to the Cascade lift, the poma does not start very low. The longest runs involve not only an uphill traverse at the start but a gentle but long climb back to the poma at the end. Finally note that while the area looks innocuous its very high, very wide, very isolated and you can't easily retreat off it. If you get into trouble its going to take a long time to seek help. Don't set off late in the day, or in poor visibility or when the slopes are deserted.

Pers

Some of the best powder skiing in Europe is to be found in the North facing Bowl below the Aiguille de Pers. The skiing is not difficult, if pisted it would probably be rated red, perhaps even blue, but it is both isolated and extensive. Don't set out in poor weather conditions or late in the day, if you have a minor accident you may be in serious trouble. Its also important to check that the return via the Gorge de Malpasset is skiable before committing. I write this in Val d'Isere in a week when the Gorge is clearly not passable. Yesterday evening the Pisteurs had to rescue over 50 people by helicopter, an expensive end to the day.

The entry to this off-piste is visible from anywhere on or below the Pisaillas Glacier and is clearly marked on current local piste maps. LUM (Looking Up Mountain) the Col de Pers lies at the extreme left hand edge of the skiable bowl, usually visible as clean snow between a rock wall on the left and a gently sloping moraine on the right. The col is accessed via a long flat traverse line which starts on the Pisaillas Glacier. The pisteurs are very efficient and (very keen on fresh powder), so its most likely that even following fresh snow the traverse line will be very obvious. It lies just below the bare rock of the ridge, if the snow hasn't been broken, do the decent thing and let the man that may have to rescue you have the first tracks. In any case one of the jobs of the pisteurs is to check whether the Gorge de Malpasset is passable. This is the route back to Fornet and Val d'Isere and you should check whether its skiable before setting off. The lift company usually puts up a sign at the top of the Cascade Lift indicating if the Gorge is open (but not necessarily if its closed) but you can always enquire from the lift attendants or at the Pisteurs hut by the side of the Pissailas piste. Assuming that its open ski across the Pisaillas Glacier from the top of any of the lifts) The Traverse is not difficult but it does suffer from small avalanches coming off Pers, so be careful. Don't get too perturbed by the quality of the snow. The slope faces due west and conditions over the ridge on the upper part of the north facing Pers glacier will be at least as good. At the Col de Pers there's an open area where you can wait in the sun for your party to regroup after the Traverse. There are usually people hanging around here (saying their prayers etc. whilst debating whether they're brave enough to continue). Have no fear, if you pick the subsequent route carefully, the short drop-off immediately in front of you is technically probably the most difficult part of the run. There's normally a general warning here about the dangers of off-piste. Unless there's a clear notice that the area or the Gorge de Malpasset is closed (fermée) or forbidden (interdit) your OK to duck under the rope. I know that in some resorts this action could lead to confiscation of lift pass but in Val d'Isere its normal to mark off-piste entries with a rope and its OK to continue unless there are additional warnings. There's usually a cornice. The best route is straight ahead where the slope is steepest. It may look frightening but its very short and there's a safe gentle run-out after 20m. Alternatively traverse down left, the usual ski school route, this is easier, but not for your skis, it is the end of a moraine and there are rocks. Lots of people do worry here, but be brave, it really is the most difficult stretch of the whole area (with one exception later, which you can avoid). If you really find it intimidating its easy from here to retreat back to the bottom of the Pisaillas lift.

Once down the drop-off there are three choices. The most obvious route is straight ahead down the fall line into the Lechoir. Its the steepest route and probably the most fun, but:

  1. it is the first to be skied out by the ski-schools
  2. it has a nasty sting in its tail if your not careful.

Alternatively traverse right for about 750m (you may be fed-up with traversing, but at least this time its on the other leg) until you come to another cornice (or a short, steep drop-off), with a rocky outcrop (the Roches des Lechoirs to your left. From here one can ski through the cornice onto the Glacier de Pers and then descend to the left following the fall line.

The final alternative is to continue the traverse across the Glacier de Pers and into the Vallée de Prariond. Your probably relieved to know that its not possible to traverse right any further, the way ahead is blocked by the impressive outcrop of the Roche Noire, turn left and ski down the fall line.

There is actually a fourth option here. Instead of skiing down the fall line its possible to turn right and start climbing up to the col between the Roche Noir and Aiguille de Pers. This is a classic Ski Randonee route best attempted with a guide and will be covered in a later section.
Although I've described the descent from the Col de Pers as three separate routes, the north face is actually an open bowl with relatively easy, trouble free (though interesting) terrain. The natural routes are down the three stream beds coming off Pers but its possible to ski across the gentle intervening ridges at several points during the descent. Problems arise only at the foot of the slope which is guarded by a line of rocky outcrops. It is neither difficult nor dangerous to thread one's way through, provided weather conditions are reasonable. In poor visibility it can be difficult so stay out of Pers unless your confidant of the weather. The easiest way through is at the extreme right (LDM) in the Prariond Valley so if in doubt work your way over in this direction. Those descending by the most direct route (Lechoir) should be particularly careful. The Lechoir (in summer) descends the last part of the slope in a dramatic waterfall. Unwary skiers are likely to present a similarly dramatic skierfall. The trouble spot is fairly obvious from above. Just before you get there traverse right (LDM) onto the shoulder that overlooks the waterfall. If you get too low and find yourself looking over the lip the safest option is to take off your skis and climb up to the same shoulder. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES TRAVERSE LEFT (LDM). That's just going to get you into worse trouble. The waterfall itself is neither particularly fearsome nor particularly dangerous. Its just a bit unexpected, a bit intimidating, and occasionally, a bit littered with bodies. If you decide to ski it, the best approach is ski tips to your right, side slip to the brink, schuss the last two or three feet so that your skis take some air and land in a right traverse in the snow to the side of the ice. There's lots of space for a controlled check and turn. Having got here, wait a little while for the people behind who don't take such a rational (or foolhardy depending on point of view) approach, you may be needed to help pick up skis etc. Depending on snow conditions the Lechoir Falls are a similar problem to the better known gully below Le Mur (the Wall) in Tignes. Perhaps technically a little more difficult, but almost certainly a little less dangerous. Below the fall the brave are rewarded with a superb natural half pipe. The timid can work their way up to the shoulder described above. From the shoulder looking down onto the fall you can see the lower part as well as the cornice to the right (LDM) that provides an entry a little lower than the waterfall. You get to the cornice by skiing down from the shoulder slightly to the right but then cutting back left as soon as you can so as to traverse across just below the rocks. This brings you to the cornice with an easy drop-off into the half-pipe or else stay high and descend down towards the valley bottom parallel with the pipe. Both routes arrive at the same point. Parties that skied down on the Pers Glacier or in the Vallee de Prariond will have passed through the rocks and traversed to their left so that they too will arrive at the same meeting place. From here continue the traverse, keeping fairly high until you are forced down to stream level at the entrance to the Gorge de Malpasset. Before entering the Gorge have a look around, there are frequently chamois to be seen on the sunny slopes on the other side of the valley. Also note that there is no way through the cliffs between the Lechoir and the Gorge entrance. It is possible to traverse off Pers by skiing to the left (LDM) high up and then traversing round above the Gorge but this seems to me a relatively un-interesting trip. The Gorge itself is great fun, but take it carefully and slowly your first time. Its a continuous snow bridge over the Isere, except that occasionally its only relatively continuous. If your not careful you'll get a cold wet bath, you'll also discover that news of your ablutions likely to proceed you back to Val. Its astonishing how entertaining other people find one's private misery. The Gorge ends in a 1.5 Km path which requires some poling but on which only the snowboarders have to walk :-) Be circumspect, this path is an official route for pedestrians who should be treated with respect. There are several spots where one can rest in bright sunshine, indeed its a common picnicking spot. The path ends at the bus stop at Le Fornet.

Solaise

Introduction in preparation

Cugnai

Cugnai is one of my favourite runs in the Alps. If pisted, it would probably rate as a medium black, left to develop naturally it is a superb run in virtually any snow conditions. In places it is fairly steep, (around 35°). One therefore needs to be both confidant and competent as a piste skier before attempting the descent. Fortunately the entry is fairly intimidating and acts as a reasonable screen for the timid.

The entry is at the top of the Cugnai chair. Straight ahead, a few meters from the set down point is a roped off lip. Even if you have no intention of skiing it, stop a moment and have a look over the edge. Cugnai is a steep north-west facing bowl with a dramatic view right down into the valley 950 meters below. Like most Val d'Isere off-piste the entry is often roped off. Unless there are the usual specific warnings on a board (fermée or interdit) or avalanche markers it is OK to continue. Duck under the rope. The only entry is at the left edge of the lip (to the right is a rocky outcrop). There's one of those awkward little entries to a traverse with a well worn steep roller coaster. The main difficulty is not the snow, or the slope, but fellow skiers hanging round indecisively in the kind of awkward snow plough that elsewhere they havenžt used since their second day on skis. Within a day after fresh snow the traverse continues round across the entire width of the bowl until it reaches the rock outcrop at the southern boundary. The reason for this is that early in the year there is a permanent shadow cast by the rocky ridge that descends from the Pointe de l'Arselle. Effectively out at the southern (left hand LDM) its a north facing slope and the snow holds its quality better. The slope is at its least steep in the middle of the traverse so weaker skiers may prefer to descend from there. Conversely, if you prefer steeper slopes choose a fall line route at the very start of the traverse (this is almost south facing, so in the morning following a sunny day it can be fairly unpleasant). Whichever route one chooses down the opening bowl one finishes up on the wide flat ledge visible from the top of the bowl and about 50m lower. Mixed parties can regroup here. There are now two obvious variants. (In theory one could also traverse right (LDM) onto the south west facing slope, I haven't skied that slope, it doesn't look very attractive, and because of the aspect the snow must deteriorate quite rapidly.). Most skiers follow the route taken by the stream (just to right of centre LDM). This route is obvious (just follow the fall line) but it soon turns into little more than a piste (though a very nice piste). The better variant is to traverse left (keeping in the shade) and then drop down the fall-line parallel with the line following the stream. Here lies better snow and a choice of gradients that locally can vary between 30-40 degrees. Its also possible at one point to cut left (LDM) through an obvious gap in the left-hand ridge. Traverse until reaching an obvious snow field dotted with large rocks and then descend, generally in the fall line but now with the Arselles ridge on your right. This gives a third variant (Fond des Fours). All three variants rejoin at the foot of the main slope. The descent to this point is about 700m vertical in 1.7 Km, on average steeper than 1:3 or 30 degrees.

From here there's a gentle ski out on the left bank of the stream, cross the stream at the obvious point just before reaching the main valley floor. Its not desperate if you miss the correct crossing place because if you keep on down the left bank you come out on the ski de fond piste which has its own bridge over the stream. (You should try to avoid using this, at the very last its impolite.) On the way down you'll see other skiers that have crossed the stream and are traversing on the south facing slope. Ignore them, it doesn't produce a better route to the Manchet Lift and its hideously avalanche (well, this IS Val d'Isere).

Bellevarde

Coming someday.

Tour de Charvet

In good snow conditions the Tour de Charvet is one of the easiest routes described in this guide. Its much beloved by some of the ski schools, who, immediately following fresh snow, use it as a great adventure for classes with limited experience of off-piste skiing. However its not without problems and shouldn't be taken lightly even if the teenagers at the next table have been raving all evening about the fabulous off-piste they did with there ski school class. The top part of the run faces due south. In bright sunshine its the first significant snow to thaw and if it re-freezes overnight Tour de Charvet will be nightmarish even for expert skiers. In these conditions its important to ski it late enough for the snow to have softened in the sun.

The route starts straight ahead from the top of the Grand-Pre lift. Head straight down the slope across gently rolling terrain towards the massive vertical slab of Rocher du Mont Roup which lies due South. The simplest route is to aim for the lowest point in the ridge ahead where the terrain disappears into a deep valley. You can seek fresh snow to either side safely as long as you stay within this bowl. [Under no circumstances should you follow tracks along the traverse line heading off to the east (left LDM) that disappears over a saddle between the Rocher du Charvet and the much smaller hill to its south. That leads to tricky and potentially dangerous slopes that should only be attempted with a guide.] The early gentle slope ends at a lip where the slope becomes much steeper (in places over 30ö). From here you can look down into a steep sided valley running east. Parts of the valley lies in the shade of Rocher des Fours. Its worth pausing here (its a sunny spot and a splendid view) but also you can preview your choice of routes down the valley. There are three possibilities; in the gorge (only if there's lots of snow) or on either side of it, all will meet at the bottom. Its possible to ski into and out of the Gorge at various points so no decision is irrevocable but it may be worth watching from your vantage point how others are coping. You can descend this steeper slope from almost anywhere. Weaker skiers will want to traverse right (LDM) to take advantage of less steep slopes up the valley. At the foot of the slope head down the valley. If there's sufficient snow to fill the bottom of the gorge I prefer this route. Its fun but take it slowly. Otherwise I prefer the right bank which provides broken terrain littered with large immovable objects. The left bank is simply a boring traverse (unless your favourite skiing is slaloming members of ski school classes). Its rarely possible to ski the entire length of the gorge. My best effort required removal of my skis twice (though I did see one superb skier pass one of the obstacles without apparently damaging his skis). Towards the bottom of the gorge the sides become steeper and deeper and there is a fairly impressive cascade. Its probably best to ski out of the gorge just above the cascade. Below the cascade all three routes are forced to join a well beaten path in the gorge. It needs a little care but isn't difficult. From here follow the obvious path along the left bank of the stream until you come out into the much wider valley near the start of the Manchet Express lift. Take great care along this path, its avalanche prone. As you emerge from the narrow Charvet Valley into the much wider Cabalourdane Valley there is a widening of the path just before a tight hairpin bend. I presume that this is generally considered a safe stopping place, at least ski schools classes normally regroup here. Its worth stopping for the view. Val d'Isere lies in the distance to the north. The precipitous slopes of Rocher du Charvet lie on your left (from here it should be obvious why I recommended skiing there only with a guide). The magnificent Cugnai valley lies to your right. If you were deliberately seeking out the more difficult lines of descent on Tour de Charvet you'll find Cugnai even more enjoyable. The ski schools do not stop at this point only for the view. The next 200m are probably the most dangerous part of the Tour de Charvet itinerary. The path looks innocuous but its a notorious avalanche blackspot (I learned afterwards that a boy had been killed there just two days before my own first descent). The ski schools are pausing to make sure that the class takes the path widely spaced and without stopping.

The route to the Manchet lift lies across the bridge. Its possible to ski home down the valley (on the right bank LDM) but its a long slow pole. Your best advised to return to Val d'Isere via Solaise.

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

Updated 25th Jan 2003