Courchevel Premiere Neige 2001

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Courchevel panorama

Panoramic of the Northern Alps from the Saulire

It was the beginning of December and the French Alps were slowly cranking into life. Chamrousse, les Sept Laux, les Deux Alpes, l'Alpe d'Huez and Courchevel were all scheduled to open up at the weekend with Val Thorens, Val d'Isère and Tignes already up and running.

But from Chambery things did not look quite so good, it was warm and lashed down with rain all day. With nothing better to do I went up to the Col du Barioz in the Belledonne mountains. There is a small private ski station there and an excellent area for ski de fond. There was snow on the pistes and the ratrac had been out doing some preparation. I imagine they'd even managed some skiing the previous weekend but when I went for a closer look I sank to my ankles in the wet snow. It was apparently raining as high as 2000 meters that day. That evening we were standing outside the Shannon Pub in Grenoble drinking it was so warm, 12C at 11 pm. It didn't augur well for the weekend.

Saturday and a couple of phone calls confirmed that les Sept Laux and Chamrousse would not open due to the climatic conditions. The nice man at the Chamrousse tourist office tried to convince me to come anyway with "it is lovely for walking today!". l'Alpe d'Huez had opened but just the DMC, there was also a boarder meeting so the limited snow would have been quite busy. Instead I packed my touring skis and went up to the Collet d'Allevard.

Le Collet d'Allevard is a cool ski resort near to Chambéry. Although the pistes are limited (about 35km) it has a large out of bounds bowl which is interestingly steep and challenging and it has the largest floodlit ski area in Europe. The resort itself is at 1400 meters and there was no snow. I drove up to the top car park at 1600 meters. The pistes had snow on them but it was quite saturated, a guy was just coming down "Completement pourri", he moaned. I told him I thought of going to the top just to train a bit. "beh oui, eet eez not too bad at the top, zey have pisted nicely but I had to walk from right up zere". It didn't look like too much fun. I put my skins on and climbed to the summit at around 2100 meters. It was obvious that it had rained even at this altitude but the view from the top was fantastic, the final summits of the Belledonne range, les Grand Moulins and Miceau were a stark contrast of snow and rock. In my mind I traced the route I'd taken to the Grand Moulins before I'd been forced back by a sudden storm. Further away and the Mont Aiguille, the birth place of Alpinism, was a silhouette against the languid winter sun.

The descent was a bit marginal but not totally unpleasant as the snow had been nicely warmed but the conditions contrasted with a mid-November day many years before when we'd waded thigh deep through powder and watched the ski tourists carve great arcs in the snow.

On Sunday I went up to the Trois Vallees to take a look at Meribel, Mottaret and Courchevel which had just opened. The valley weather didn't seem that promising but at around 1000 meters the clouds cleared to reveal snowy peaks and beautiful sunshine. It is always worth giving the resort a call for the weather or checking on the web cam rather than festering in the valley. Courchevel had opened two lifts, the Verdons gondola and the Saulire cable car. This effectively gave a long red and a green. There were probably no more than 500 skiers in resort.

I like the start of season, everyone is keen and enthusiastic. The lift staff say hello and have a nice ski (bon glisse) and seem really pleased that people have made the effort to come. Given the limited terrain open I can see why. At the Saulire (2700 meters) it was 8 C and the zero isotherm was somewhere above 3000 m, spring like conditions. And indeed where the snow had caught the sun it was lovely to ski.

The resort posted 25cm of snow at 1850 and 50 cm at the summit. This seemed to be about right but remember at these levels it will still mean bare patches on rocky terrain. The resort had apparently been busy over the summer, bringing in a big machine to break up large rocks and spew out gravel, they'd then sewn the resulting pistes with grass genetically modified to survive the altitude. This binds the ground but apparently gives the mountains an unfamiliar green hue. The work should make the runs skiable with much lower snow depths, something we may all have to get used to in the future. Even so the pistes were icy and rocky in places, particularly on the Saulire at the summit. Not a day for new skis. It will take some cold weather and another dump of snow to make the skiing pleasant..

Amongst the skiers were Ski World reps doing their ski escort training and some elderly Brits taking advantage of rock bottom prices - although not as rock bottom as they thought as everything is priced in Euros causing much confusion.

Couloir Tournier

Looking up towards the Couloir Tournier

I mentioned Meribel-Mottaret, but surely they were closed? Well I couldn't go all that way without at least taking a look. So I skied down a bit of the Creux, wonderful spring snow at the top but crusty further down, then I skied down into Mottaret and Meribel on the Chamois.

What pleasure, skiing on nicely pisted slopes without a single other skier or the constant whirr of chair lifts. Surely this is heaven? At the summit of Mottaret and Meribel the snow was perfect on piste but difficult crust off, evidence of the recent rain.

I climbed back up to the Col de la Loze, the Loze pistes looked perfect but the blue Coqs was horribly bare and icy. Basically any piste that was too south facing was in poor condition but there was at least a base thanks to the good piste management .

It is not an impossible start to the 2001/2002 season but if you are skiing next weekend and have a choice look to Val Thorens or Tignes.

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