Feature Geoffrey Riddle plunges into powder off-piste, couloir skiing in the Maurienne Valley.
As good as it gets off-piste
I had always wanted to ski a couloir - those narrow corridors of snow-covered rock that offer the ultimate rite of passage to all skiers and snowboarders who have ever slipped under the ropes. And yet, here I was, in my first couloir, standing as frozen as the waterfall beneath me that had carved out this secluded alleyway. Light powdery snow flowed from the edges of my skis down the tapered slope like the water would have done in summer. My skis were stuck due to the narrowness of the gulley, and the more I shuffled about, the more I scratched the snow away to expose further ice. Only minutes earlier our guide, the famous Bertrand "Zebulon" Roche, had called out that we were coming up to a "technical bit". You don't say.
For someone as proficient in the mountains as Zeb - he once held the record for being the youngest man to scale Everest - this couloir may have been "technical". For me though, it was terrifying. A real wake-up call, it was a sharp reminder of how stomach-churning, yet thrilling, skiing off-piste can be. Naturally, this fear was all in my head, and Zeb set about calmly talking me through what was required. "Relax," he said, in a manner that only ski mountain guides seem to manage. "Just take a deep breath and angle your skis down the slope." Relaxing is something that I generally equate to lying by a pool, not trying to negotiate an iced waterfall on skis, but I followed orders and scooted down at an uncomfortable speed and out to safety.
That was just the beginning of a day's backcountry skiing in the Maurienne Valley, which lies on the border of Italy in the south-east corner of France. Under crisp blue skies Zeb found us all manner of challenges that pushed us to the limit of our skiing abilities. We were an advanced bunch so we hiked up a spine of a mountain, criss-crossed bubbling streams, stopping only to scrape the chunks of ice off our skis, and zig-zagged through pine forests, all on a blanket of virgin powder snow.
Afterwards, one of our party, Andrew, couldn't contain himself. "That's about as good as it gets," he said, as we trooped back to Val Cenis, another ski resort 32km up the valley. Andrew's ski career has spanned 57 years, and he has travelled as far as Iran and Lebanon to slake his thirst for extreme skiing. "Why would anyone want to go to more famous places like Chamonix or Courchevel and not have the mountain to themselves? It doesn't get much better than that."
I had chosen Val Cenis as my base for this exploration, a less-well known resort that comprises three villages called Lanslebourg, Lanslevillard and Termignon. Lanslevillard is the prettiest of the three, with its tasteful, Alpine architecture and an 11th-century church that survives today despite the fact that the village was burned by the Germans in 1944. The surrounding area has been embedded in the history books for more than two millennia, largely because it guards the pass over Mont Cenis - one of the best routes through the Alps into Piedmont. Hannibal may have used the route for his landmark invasion of Rome in 218BC, while some of Europe's leading generals have also taken advantage of the pass throughout history. Constantine came through here in 312AD to fight Maxentius, and Charlemagne, Frederick the Great and Napoleon all famously passed through. Even the artist JMW Turner painted it, taking the time afforded him by his carriage breaking down to sketch what eventually became his celebrated oil painting: The Passage Of Mount Cenis.
I wasn't here to sift through the history books, however, and there is enough good sport here to delight any experienced intermediate skier. First, the mountain has a vertical drop of 1,340m, which means those in search of clocking up mileage can go up and down all day to their heart's content. It is fair to say that some of the red runs are quite challenging, too, and the steep red from the top of the Vieux Moulin gondola down into the village would be a black in most other resorts. The mountain also has extensive off-piste opportunities. We snuck off to the left-hand side of the Plan Cardinal chairlift, where light pillows of powdery joy were waiting there to be lacerated by our ski edges. The terrain featured forests, rock outcrops and gullies and that area alone was big enough to take up an entire day's skiing.
But Val Cenis is also an exceptional place to learn the sport. The resort's beginner runs flow into village level, and when you are ready to progress you can take on what is the area's best draw card. At 10km in length the appropriately named L'Escargot is Europe's longest green run. Beginners often struggle to nail down the thrill of skiing, simply because most green pistes are short and do not convey the feeling of travelling around a mountain. Not here.
From the top of the Ramasse chairlift, you start off at an almost insultingly flat camber, and proceed to glide at a wonderfully leisurely pace on your traverse of the whole mountain. If you start off in the morning and head towards Pointe d'Andagne it glistens in the early sun. Stuart, who was skiing with me in Valfréjus, gushed about the possibilities for beginners. "I often bring my family here," he said. "It is one of the rare opportunities when we all have a reason to get together. They learnt here, and it was easy for them because the resort makes it easy to progress. Once you've got L'Escargot under your belt, there's Traverse, the long, easy blue that winds through the forests."
Val Cenis is not a resort for those who love to sashay down the mountain with sunglasses and St Tropez screening their face from a warm sun, though. Virtually all the slopes are north facing which is excellent for keeping the snow in good condition. In March and April, the sun does get through in the afternoon and it's possible to enjoy the sun's rays on the terrace of La Fema, a restaurant that sits at the top of the Vieux Moulin gondola.
All in all, Val Cenis has 55 pistes - 10 of which are green, 18 are blue, 23 are red and five are black. When you link up its 125km of pistes to the 25km that are available in nearby Bonneval-Sur-Arc, you have a similar mileage of runs as more famous resorts such as Mayrhofen and Kitzbuhel in Austria, or even Meribel in France, if you exclude its Three Valley links. And that really is the heart of the matter. Val Cenis was empty when I visited. If you get bored of its pistes and limitless off-piste, you can simply get in a car and drive to any of the other resorts nearby such as Orelle, which links into the Three Valleys, the largest ski area in the world. So, if you still haven't booked your ski holiday for this year, think about following those in the know, and not the crowd.