Valberg Off Piste

Ski-Areas > Southern Alps > Alpes Maritimes (06) > Valberg Valberg Off Piste

An Amuse Geule

When the PisteHors team were told that I was taking them off to Valberg the first response was “where?”. “Guess,” I suggested. Speculation ranged from a heliski trip in Alaska to a Swiss resort somewhere near Zurich. Faces dropped when I handed out 14 Euro Easyjet tickets to Nice. Nice? “like, South of France, babes in swimsuits, palm trees on the boardwalk, Nice?” Yes that’s the one, and we’ve hired a Mercedes too!

But first we had to get there, the most fraught, and to be honest, expensive part of the trip was bundling ski and film gear onto the RER out to Roissy. We’d screwed up royally on our last plane journey. Getting to Paris’ other airport, Orly in plenty of time to check in, only to find we should have been at Terminal 9 at Charlie, an hour's train ride across town at the best of times. This time there were to be no snafus. Roissy has a peculiar naming scheme for its terminals, 1, the oldest, a squat concrete building that looks like a flying saucer that has just landed from planet Ugly. 2, the swanky new architect designed buildings with sweeping curves and high ceilings and… 9? Wait a minute, what happened to 3 through 8? Well this anomaly has now been fixed and 9 is now 3.

This cattle shed is actually the easiest to get to, you get off the train at the TGV stop and it is a couple of minutes hike. No interminable bus waits as with T1. We checked our bags in, all ticketless with EasyJet and headed for the bar. Which was closed. Not to worry, the flight was pretty much on time and before we knew it we were landing in Nice.

EasyJet have located their car pick-up point a short bus trip away from the airport in the Arena hotel basement. At Nice you hop on the free airport navette and get off just before Parking 8. Car pickup took a couple of minutes and we were soon loading our gear into a pretty cool Mercedes 170 CDI. 300 km included for the princely sum of 60 Euros. We were told that they were not checking damage but the car had to be returned clean or we would have a surcharge. We found a car wash at the Total garage at Terminal 2.

Valberg and Mont Mounier

Valberg and Mont Mounier

We’d not booked a room so Geraldine phoned ahead to see what she could sort out. Not so easy, the Swiss Chalet was full, the Adrech hotel was worried that we would arrive too late. We promised to get there for 9pm and all was booked. 45 minutes after leaving the airport we pulled up outside the hotel. “I thought you were coming from Nice” the hotel manageress said. “We have, we just drove quickly”. Somewhat too quickly at times. Although equipped with a powerful, if somewhat bus-like, turbo diesel the lumbering, top heavy Mercedes was a handful in the Gorges du Cian on the way up to the resort. These dark red gorges are absolutely stunning but a major series of roadworks along with patches of ice had rendered them perilous. Around the hairpins into Beuil and we nearly had a head-on, my fault as I’d cut the bend a bit too far.

Beuil was deserted, not even a cat was out and about. We were worried that we wouldn’t eat that night in Valberg. “Not to worry”, the hotel told us, “the town will be buzzing, there’s even an Irish pub!”. This was a small exaggeration but there were certainly plenty of cafes and restaurants. Compared to the traditional farm houses of Beuil ,Valberg has something of a frontier town feel about it,. We ate extremely well in the Cote Jardin and the following night tried the Blanche Neige (Snow White), pub atmosphere and good mountain grub.

Next day we needed to hire a pair of skis and Richard Mache at Valberg sport had been suggested. The choice was more limited than in one of the big Savoie resorts, he gave us a pair of Salamon CrossMax 700s. They were a short, stubby carving type ski. They held the hard pistes well enough and blasted through crud but were perhaps a little stiff to be a great powder ski.

Talking of powder the last snowfall was on the 21st, over ten days ago, surely this would have been tracked out by the local riders? We headed over to the Barzes sector. This is the ‘back bowl’ area of the resort and also has a nice cruiser red and a black mogul piste. Under the grey skies the black was concrete hard and the rough hewn moguls, unpleasant. The area is served by long drag lifts of the knacker-cracker style. You grab a perch and wait for the slack to be taken up in the system, then ‘whoooa Nelly’ as the bucking bronco ride up the slope begins. Don’t ram the pole too far between you legs, unless you are a girl when this can provide one of skiing little pleasures!

Vallon du Riou

Vallon du Riou

From the top of the Pra Brûle you can traverse back across the lift onto the slopes under the Tête de Colombiere. Care should be taken, particularly when the avalanche risk is high as slabs can form on these slopes and the gorge to the right of the lift presents a nasty trap.

The Raton is the first diesel powered lift that I’d seen. I spoke to the Perchman about this. There is a large reservoir above the hut that houses the motor and this is stocked at the start of the season. There is a wide track that winds up from Beuil but I had a hard time imaging a tanker making it up here. Maybe they have a Ratrac that can carry fuel?

From the top of the Raton a couple of options present themselves. You can turn left, track between the pistes across a large slope that takes you towards the Faucons and the Col du Raton. Here you can follow the narrow Vallon du Riou down to Barzes. It looks impossibly narrow from the top but there are just a couple of tight spots. Again be careful as the funnel nature of the valley would punish anyone unlucky to be caught in an avalanche.

Off Piste in the Barzes Sector

Off Piste in the Barzes Sector

Directly in front of the Raton is a wide plateau followed by a small hill. You can either traverse right around it or climb to the summit for a view of the Mt Mounier in one direction and the Mediterranean Sea in the other. The summit leads to a wide, gentle slope down to the Bois de Tailler. Tracking over to the forest on the right will find fresh powder many days after the last snowfall but try to come back left onto the ridge as the trees thicken to avoid a walk as you exit the woods at the bottom. From here you ski back onto the Mouflon piste and take the Dreccia II chair.

Slopes down to the Bois de Tailler

Slopes down to the Bois de Tailler

Finally from the top of the Dreccia you can ski down to Barzes through the Ravin de Champ Gan. The wide open slopes to the left of the Barzes chair lead down into the forest. Try not to descend too far to the right of the chair or you will leave yourself a walk at the end. Normally a traverse around to the right as the chair enters the woods will bring you out onto the slopes above Barzes without having to ski too much dense forest. In winter the top part of this run can get quite crusty under the action of the wind and sun, keep close to any trees to find remaining powder. At around 450 meters of vertical this is the longest off-piste in the resort.

The Tete des Eguilles sector provides a number of possibilities for between the trees skiing. From the summit you can cut right from the Tony Piste. More interesting is to take the same piste and cut under the chair lift around Pylon 8, here the woods are wide enough to be easy to ski and the powder will be untouched (well until too many people find this web page!). Both these areas are quite steep, a more gentle introduction to tree skiing is to follow the Centaurées green, where the Framboisses red hooks to the right you can ski across to a small hill. From here there are various routes down to the Combe Ste Marie blue between the widely spaced trees. Watch out for low branches and hidden tree stumps.

In Valberg itself the Tete du Sapet provides some short, but sweet, forest skiing. From where the Genêts and Chardons piste split ski to the left of the drag lift until the forest opens to offer a pleasant slope towards the base of the Sapet chair. You can also track left from higher up the Chardon’s piste to cross under the chair and ski down to the Vallée Blanche. We even found some small cliffs to jump over, if you like that kind of thing. At the bottom of the slopes is the Sud Creperie, a sunny spot to stop and watch the skiers and enjoy a nice and excellent value meal.

From the Croix du Sapet you can ski either to the right or left of the Campanules, although the sunnier and less tree covered slopes to the right get tracked much sooner. It is also possible to ski off the back between the Clot du Maty and the Chemin des Lapins.

Valberg doesn’t provide the vertical of the big Savoyard ski resorts but in bad weather the extensive tree line skiing would be wonderful. The locals seem to stick to the pistes, or between pistes without exploring very far. The resort offers, as far as we could discover, three real lift served off piste itineraries. It might even be possible to ski to the Barzes lifts from the Tete du Sapet, although this might leave a short walk at the end, we didn’t try it but let us know if you do. For anyone prepared to fit climbing skins the horizon is surrounded with virgin peaks just a short walk away. It should be remembered that everything we have described is off piste and unsecured. Even though the area does not have a reputation for avalanches the usual rule of Tranceiver, Shovel and Probe applies and if in doubt, consult a professional in the resort. Four hours with an ESF instructor is a very reasonable 116 Euros.

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