The slopes of the French resort Les Deux Alpes offer all manner of off-season thrills, writes Alf Alderson.
Skiing into summer at the French resort Les Deux Alpes
The slopes of the French resort Les Deux Alpes offer all manner of off-season thrills, writes Alf Alderson
It's like being in the path of an avalanche. Hundreds of metres above me, a few small, dark specks appear on the top of the glacier, moving in my general direction. The specks pick up speed as they set off down the glacier, more and more similar shapes appearing behind them, until what soon reveals itself as a mass of wheels, metal and brightly dressed humans is hurtling downhill at breakneck speed.
This is the Mountain of Hell mountain-bike race in Les Deux Alpes, and it pretty much sums up summer in this not-so-quiet corner of the French Alps. Skiers are ushered off to the side of this particular ski run down the Glacier de Mantel as more than 600 mountain bikers slip and slide their way downhill on one of the craziest races in an already crazy sport.
I go up onto the glacier to ski, but being aware that the Mountain of Hell is taking place that same morning, I decide to watch the start (it would be impossible not to be aware of it, considering the hordes of mountain bikers on the Jandri Express ski lift from the centre of town). The race plummets 2,500 vertical metres and 25 kilometres downhill from the glacier onto bare rock, through alpine pastures and forest, across mountain streams and over frightening drop offs (and one year, into a bar in town, around the pool table and back out) before a winner emerges.
The winner will likely be a professional rider, but amateurs and recreational riders can enter the race too, and it's from among their numbers that most of the carnage that's also part of the race takes place. I'm not wrong. Pile-up after pile-up occurs on the first bend, where the riders are on a mix of ice and snow, to loud cheers from the spectators. The air is filled with the acrid aroma of rapidly wearing brake pads, as competitors do their best to negotiate the bend without colliding with anyone or anything, but within a minute of the race starting, a handful were out with damaged bikes, bodies or both.
When the mayhem finally passes, I get to do what I've come here for in the first place: ski. Les Deux Alpes has one of the largest summer ski areas in Europe on the glacier that sits above the town. Set between an altitude of 3,200 and 3,600 metres, it offers welcome respite from the summer heat down in the valley, along with some of the most spectacular mountain views in the Alps - the jagged peaks of the Écrins National Park thrust up into deep-blue skies in the foreground, while to the north, the Mont Blanc massif is ever present.
It's a popular training venue with ski teams from France, Italy and Spain, and several racecourses dot the glacier, along with a terrain park and half-pipe where teenagers in baggy pants and singlets can be seen flying through the sky.
Naturally, the amount of skiing you can do is far less than in winter, and your day has a different schedule to it. The lifts open at 7am, a couple of hours earlier than in the regular ski season, which can provide a glorious start to the day as you ascend the mountain in cool morning air with the sun just peeking over the top of the higher peaks.
They then close earlier, at 1pm, as by now the snow will have transformed from hard and icy at dawn to overly wet and slushy; the trick is to catch it just as it starts to defrost around mid-morning, when you can enjoy beautiful, smooth descents.
But there's no danger of having nothing with which to fill your time when the lifts stop running. Besides skiing and mountain biking, Les Deux Alps also offers energetic visitors paragliding, white-water rafting, via ferrata, hiking, bungee jumping and a skate park, to name just a few activities. Or you can just go and lie in the sun beside the large, open-air public pool.
I'd teamed up to ski with a friend, James Cove, editor of the ski website Planetski.eu, and as we ride up on the Signal chairlift after our first descent I ask him what he thought was the big attraction of summer skiing - as someone who skis all winter for a living, I'd assumed he'd rather be at the beach at this time of year.
"I think it's the novelty factor for a lot of skiers," he replied. "There's something special about skiing when you're not weighed down with all the kit you'd have on in winter - it gives you a sense of freedom to be able to blast down the slopes in a T-shirt rather than four layers of insulated clothing.
"And I also think there's a more relaxed attitude in summer. No one is chasing fresh powder or freshly groomed pistes, it's all just a bit of fun - you come here not for a ski holiday as such but to do a bit of skiing along with a few other activities."
Cove is right about that. After a few hours of slicing through the rapidly softening snow, we stop for lunch at Le 3200 restaurant at the base of the glacier, where, despite the altitude, it feels as hot as a beach on the Côte d'Azur, we then decide that we've been inspired enough by the high jinks of the Mountain of Hell to try a bit of mountain biking ourselves.
Back down in town, we rent spangly new Rocky Mountain full-suspension bikes worth more than €3,000 (Dh14,639), along with full-face helmets and body armour, and hit the trails with bike instructor and guide Benjamin Vibert of the École VTT 2 Alpes. We're not allowed to ride on the glacier - that's for race competitors only - but that isn't a problem since Les Deux Alpes has more than 100km of hand-built trails accessed by eight ski lifts and offering up to 2,300 vertical metres of downhill; the longest trail is 17km in length.
The riding is, in a word, superb. I've been mountain biking since the 1980s and have ridden "VTT" (vélos tout terrain) all over the world, and the trails here are easily the best and most enjoyable that I've encountered.
The easier green and blue trails wend their way along the contours of the mountain and seem to go on forever, allowing you to get into a grin-inducing flow that lasts until your hands finally seize up from gripping bars and brakes, and you come to a halt with a loud holler of approval.
The steeper red and black trails take a more direct route to the valley floor, so concentration, technique and a measure of gutsiness are required to ride them without a spill, but they still result in the same whoop of pure, adrenalin-induced joy when completed. And often during the descent as well.
Riding with a guide is a first for both Cove and I, and apart from the advantage of having Vibert lead us down the best trails for our ability, we also get some useful tips. I assumed that I knew pretty much all there is to know about riding a bike, but Vibert offers advice on how to ride fast around the bermed corners - "Check your speed before the bend, lean into the turn and make a smooth change of direction just like you do when skiing" - along with tips on how to "feather" the brakes while descending at speed, how to absorb bumps and drops offs with your arms and legs (as well as the bikes' expensive suspension set-ups) and how to shift your weight back and forth to maintain your centre of balance on the bike.
There are easily enough runs to keep anyone from beginner to expert deliriously happy for a week or more, although if you really want to make the most of all the ways of going downhill fast at Les Deux Alpes, you'll need an entire summer here.
IF YOU GO
The flight A direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Geneva with Etihad (www.etihad.com) takes six and a half hours and costs from Dh3,700 return including taxes; Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Lyon from Dh3,885 return including taxes
The pass A six-day summer ski and mountain bike pass for Les Deux Alpes (www.les2alpes.com) costs €180 (Dh878), and gives one free entry to the resort’s pool, ice rink, toboggan runs, tennis courts and golf courses, as well as the mountain-biking trails at Alpe d’Huez, Serre Chevalier, Puy-Saint-Vincent and Montgenèvre
The equipment Ski and boot rental costs €11-€22 (Dh54-Dh107) a day at Magic Sport (www.magicsport.fr). Bike rental with École VTT 2 Alpes (www.ecole-vtt-2alpes-mcf.com) costs €83 (Dh405) per half day, and includes bike, equipment, lessons and lift pass
The hotels The four-star Chalet Mounier (www.chalet-mounier.com) is Les Deux Alpes’ most upmarket hotel, with 44 bedrooms decorated in alpine style. From €150 (Dh731) per night for doubles with breakfast. The three-star Côte Brune (www.hotel-cotebrune.com) has 18 attractive bedrooms from €90 (Dh439) per night for a double room with breakfast
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