Courchevel Premiere Neige 2002

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As is tradition the PisteHors team set off for their Premiere Neige weekend. A week later this year and six weeks later than planned due to the non-opening of Val Thorens on the 1st of November. After meeting up at the Gare de St Quentin we left Paris at 6pm on Friday. Traffic was the usual heavy mix of commuters and people heading out of Paris for the weekend and it took the best part of an hour to reach the peage. After that it was a clear run on the motorway to Bellegarde near Annecy.

At around midnight we decided to stop the night in Albertville, snow chains were needed for our new car and the Geant store by the motorway was probably the best place to get them before the mountains. We checked into the Roma hotel, rooms 60 €/night. Next day, much to the surprise of the hotel staff, we were up and gone at just after 8am, we joined the queue of infirm looking pensioners outside the hypermarket for the 8.30am opening, and almost got crushed under the Ben-Huresque stampede of shopping trolleys and zimmer frames. Geant is enormous and it took us quite some time to find the "auto" section. Chains were 30 €, which is not too bad. We also stocked up on sun cream, drinks and biscuits as well as fresh batteries for the avalanche transceivers. Next stop was McDonalds for a McBrunch. The McD's on the Annecy road opens early unlike the one at Geant. I personally wasn't planning on stopping for lunch although I'm not a great fan of American junk food. Still a McBrunch at 5 € gives you a fresh Pan au Chocolat, Croissant, Muffin and a couple of pancakes plus coffee and orange juice.

The weather forecast for the weekend had been for grey overcast skies and rain and so it had seemed on Friday night, but I've often seen this forecast only to penetrate a mer de nuages (sea of clouds) driving up to resort. As we left Albertville the sun started to break through at the head of the valley and snowy peaks were glimpsed through the cloud. We'd expected a clear run but the Moutiers tunnel is closed for work and a contra-flow is in place causing a slight jam. I hope they finish this work by the start of the ski season proper or there will be major problems.

Courchevel 1650

Snow at Courchevel 1650

At la Praz (Courchevel 1300) there was already quite a bit of snow and the trees were covered. It would probably be possible to ski this low, at least on hire skis! Courchevel 1850 was busier than we expected and we were lucky to find a space in the underground car park (free for the Premiere Neige week). A quick tour of the hotels confirmed Courchevel's image of the Cannes of the Alpes. A three star hotel on the pistes was around 300 € per night. We managed to find a 2 star for 120 € with breakfast but these prices certainly make your eyes pop! One family we heard of were paying 5000 Euros just for the week, and they seemed more interested in using the health club than going skiing.

The hotel Potiniere is just by the Croisette, but not so near the roundabout that you have constant traffic noise. You can ski to within 30 seconds of the front door. The rooms are fairly large, we had three singles but there are doubles, with en-suite, lots of hot water, a large wardrobe and shared balcony overlooking the town and mountains. At least on the third floor. There is a nice restaurant and bar. In the basement are individual ski lockers and boot drying machine. The owner was a bit of a character and his son was very friendly. As it was the first weekend of the season we could check in early.

Couloirs of the Saulire

Couloirs of the Saulire

The premiere neige ticket for the weekend was 49 €, more expensive than last year but there were slightly more pistes open with the chance to ski all the way to Mottaret. The Tourist Board did not seem that pleased to respond to our numerous questions about Courchevel and the ski area and suggested we buy a book on the resort from la Maison de la Presse (worth a visit for the fit blonde Grenobloise who works there)! An avalanche risk of 2 was posted at the base of the lifts but there were no further details. The resort boasted 1 meter of snow on the Saulire with 50 cm in resort, although they had been doing a lot of snow making which was noticeable from the quality of the snow. There were certainly no bare patches on the open pistes and a lot less stones than the year before.

With no queues and a vary cursory ticket inspection on the Verdons bubble lift which whisked us up to our first run of the season. There was a lot of powder to the right of the Biollay chair which was open. This proved to be very light with a good base in most places to cover up the underlying rocks. However watch out for streams and mounds that can conceal some ski ripping stones.

Further up, the Saulire red was open but all the couloirs were closed with a net fence and a red Piste Fermée sign to discourage the curious. I'd noticed that on the 2002-2003 piste plan the Emile Allais and Sous le Téléphérique were no longer marked. These were once black pistes but had been shown as red itineraries the year before. The tourist office brochure also talked about these 'off piste' couloirs. This caught my attention as Guillaume Kerrien and I had discussed the status of itinerary routes in the newsgroup: rec.skiing.resorts.europe just a few days before. The Sept Laux ski area has removed its famous Vallons de la Jasse itinerary for what it claims are legal reasons. Had Courchevel done the same? Was this related to the six deaths in an avalanche last season on an itinerary route at Val d'Isère. I went to the piste patrol office to find out their version.

Courchevel Grand Couloir

The Ridge to the Grand Couloir

The head pisteur told me that he didn't understand the concept of an itinerary route. There were marked pistes and off piste as far as he was concerned. He was unaware of the changes to the piste map but explained that "the Grand Couloir, Emile Allais and Sous le Téléphérique had all once been marked and prepared black pistes" (this corresponds with my memory when I first skied Courchevel). A decision has been made to only mark the Grand Couloir and that this would no longer be pisted. I asked about avalanche risk: "all the Courchevel Couloirs are controlled by the pisteurs, either with Gazex or grenades because they threaten the red piste that passes below". If the cable car is running you can ski the Couloirs. And the fence closing access this weekend? "there is not enough base, skiers may damage their skis on rocks so we have closed access, it is up to you if you want to cross the fence". One thing that did occur to me as strange was that the piste office at the base of the Saulire cable car posted an avalanche risk of 1. A low risk given the quantity of recent snow and different from that posted in Courchevel 1850. Maybe an indication that the avalanche services were not fully up to speed? Given the two big avalanches in the Ecrins over the weekend where again there was a low official avalanche risk it shows that you still need to be careful, trust your good sense and still have a bit of luck.

Couloir Tournier

Couloir Tournier

I have to say I didn't have any problems with rocks in the Couloirs. I had some trouble identifying which was which even though I'd previously written about them. There were four Couloirs that I could identify. A narrow steep couloir from the Verdons, a largish couloir by a finger of rock which I thought to be the Grand Couloir, it seemed the easiest and clearest of the lot. However a black arrow indicated a couloir down below the Gazex pipes, surely this must be the Grand Couloir or was the arrow a vestige of the days when the Emile Allais was a piste? I would have to check the descriptions and the piste plan later. This was somewhat steeper and much less skied and still held about 30cm of fresh powder that was fantastic to descend in a serious of whump-whump-whump turns. Finally back towards the Téléphérique there were perhaps three 'runs', one directly under the cables, another that crossed the cables further down and a final, separate couloir. This had a very small corniche and a rather large crack in the snow which looked a bit suspect to me, I prodded it with a pole and didn't feel much better about it. I gave it as wide a berth as possible. This seemed to be the steepest of the slopes although not that scary, maybe around 30 degrees, perhaps slightly steeper in places. I didn't tackle the Tournier. Although some had skied it I didn't want to cut across off-piste in Mottaret as the snow cover didn't look good down there and I'd got stuck in the crust from hell the year before. It was now early afternoon and starting to get cloudy. The rest of the day was spent on piste practising technique and trying to keep warm.

Courchevel Grand Couloir

The Grand Couloir

That evening we made a tour of the town, there were about four or five restaurants open. We went to the excellent Le Saulire, a very attractive place with friendly staff. We decided to have an evening 'terroirs' and ordered Fondu au Cepes and an excellent Mondeuse 1999 along with some side orders. All in around 60 € / head including coffee and aperitifs but it is possible to grab a slice of pizza in the Patinoire for those on a budget.

Sunday and the journey was catching up with us. We made it down to breakfast for 9.30 and hit the pistes a little after ten. Today was an on piste day. If anything the weather was sunnier than Saturday but very cold in the shade. Mottaret offered the warmest slopes. The snow was excellent down to the intermediate Pas du Lac bubble lift stop with a choice of red and black pistes, there may even have been a blue open but I didn't check the piste plan that closely. The easy to access off piste was largely skied out by now and there were plenty of rocks on this side to rip your skis. The Sanglier black (red on last year's plan) was excellent, steep with some loose snow and some nice ridges to launch off. I almost overcooked it on the last one near the cable car stop and landed on both edges doing some tricky sitting down carving manoeuvre to recover (aka luck). I've noticed that since starting to rollerblade intensively during the summer months my balance and coordination has improved.

between the pistes on the Saulire

David between the pistes on the Saulire

The lunchtime rendezvous was fun. I decided to tackle some of the powder that was untouched in the Creux bowl. It is was then necessary to cut back across to Courchevel on some fairly thin snow, I could see why this sector was closed. We'd chosen PMR channel 5-38 for our talkie walkies but were sharing with some rather rude English people on the channel who told us to "f*ck off their frequency". Maybe they were connected with the loud group who went through Courchevel at 3am shouting and causing trouble. No wonder some English skiers have rather a bad reputation in the Three Valleys resorts (three years before I'd been summoned to a meeting with the Mayor in Les Allues to represent one of the Tour Operators to discuss the problems of zee lager louts britanniques). Anyway after some confusion we met up at the Saulire top station for a well earned lounge in the sun. Then a short afternoon on the pistes of Courchevel before starting back to Paris.

To summarize, an excellent weekend, empty pistes but not that much open yet: The Saulire cable car, the two bubble lifts from 1850 and the Biollay char. The link to Val Thorens was closed, they had the Andros ice driving trophy and didn't want hordes of skiers dropping in from Mottaret. The pistes in Courchevel are fine, at least those that are open. Over in Mottaret the pistes were a stony below the first cable car station (2200 meters). With more snow at lower altitudes the pistes should open as far as la Tania. There is also snow making into Méribel Village this year which should improve the ski to resort possibilities. Courchevel is picture postcard pretty with all the snow on the trees - I actually went to check to see if was real it just looked so good! The roads up to resort are clear, but chains were recommended over the weekend to get to Val Thorens. Off piste on the Courchevel side is good at altitude but watch out for rocks lower down.

Anyway next stop are the Belledonne resorts.

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