Arrive from the Albertville exit on the Lyon-Geneva autoroute and almost before you know it you’ll find yourself entering the Beaufortain. But drive, as we did, from Les Saisies and Hauteluce, and you get the bonus of a buzzard’s-eye view of the deep valley spread before you. After the Val d’Arly, the Beaufortain looks altogether deeper and more mysterious. But spend a little time here and you’ll find that the local people are just as welcoming as the ski terrain. Much of the latter is located on Alpine pastures at the opposite end of the valley from Les Saisies, Hauteluce and Les Contamines, and beyond the historic villages of Beaufort and Arêches. The Arêches-Beaufort ski area has no unwelcome through traffic – each winter heavy snowfalls ensure that the road ends here, rather than head up to the Lac de Roselend.
“…the Beaufortain looks altogether deeper and more mysterious. But spend some time here and you’ll find that the people are just as welcoming as the ski terrain.”
Skiing below the Col de la Forclaz
We begin our first day’s skiing by taking the Grand Mont chairlift up to Le Cuvy (1710m) then transferring to the Bonnets Rouges chair. Heading any higher than this means taking drag lifts, which top off at the 2320m Col de la Forclaz. The reward, not surprisingly, is that the higher we go the better the snow quality becomes. The views all around are fantastic, too, culminating in the unmistakable summit of Mont Blanc (4810m), whose nearby presence accounts for the Beaufortain’s exceptional snowfalls. From up here there’s the option of a combined vertical drop well in excess of 1000m during the run back down to our starting point, but for now we spend some time getting our bearings and soaking up the winter sun on a few gentle exploratory runs below the Col de la Forclaz. The snow here is hard-packed, but due for a welcome top-up overnight.
Sure enough, next morning things look radically different. Even down on the valley floor the fresh snow which swept in overnight is lying as deep as the now-familiar snowy silence. There’s reduced visibility, too, shifting our attention from the snow-clearing efforts of our nearest neighbours on the valley floor to the surrounding mountains, and to where exactly our skis might take us today.
Arêches-Beaufort ski terrain above Le Planay
This time we head to the end of the valley at Le Planay, a second ski area accessible in good snow conditions (like today’s, if things are stable enough) via a Red-graded run down from Le Cuvy. After taking the more direct road approach we park below the Piapolay high-speed chairlift, which hauls us up through the trees to Les Arolles (1908m). If the first afternoon’s skiing had been mostly on reassuring Blue pistes, over here things are noticeably steeper, the runs below the 2130m Col des Combettes, for example, being mostly graded Red. To get there you have a choice of the Grand Combe drag-lift or the Combettes fixed chair.
We take the chair, and discover that there’s nothing sinister up above, making this probably as good a place as you’re likely to find anywhere in which to graduate from Blues to Reds. Alternatively, the Blue-graded Grand Combe piste now connects seamlessly with its lower counterparts le Papillon and l’Echarté to create a memorable scenic cruise all the way to the valley floor, clocking up an impressive combined vertical drop of some 930m.
For now, though, we plan to stay high. It’s a real away-from-it-all experience, with the reassurance of sheltered return runs through the tree-line, should conditions deteriorate.
Fortunately for us they don’t, and we pass a memorable morning simply blasting down the mountain for fresh hauls straight back up for more of the same. Sometimes, when the snow’s this good, that’s all it takes – and as we discover, there’s potential for incorporating a few entertaining variations along the way. Better still is a sense of low-season, low-pressure calm, which makes it feel like we’re skiing on our very own mountain. If only…
When play finally has to end we schuss back down to the car park area at La Planay on the Boulevard de Liaison link run which takes us gently and all-too-soon through a charming assortment of ancient-looking chalets, rows of beehives and other timeless features of working mountain communities. It’s the perfect antidote for anyone looking for a more natural environment than the more frequently-tracked pistes of the larger, more familiar-sounding ski areas. When you ski in Arêches-Beaufort you really are getting right back in touch with the essential spirit of the mountains, and increasing numbers of skiers are discovering that this, after all, is just what they’ve been looking for.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2017