Somehow the Col du Lauteret, highest and most exposed point on the route from Grenoble, has escaped the previous day’s heavy snowfalls, so what can be a demanding drive is today a pleasure. After dropping down through Serre Chevalier and Briançon we roll into Montgenèvre. It’s immediately obvious where the snow-clouds had been targeting; simply getting to our accommodation at the Le Chalet des Dolines, between high walls of freshly-bulldozed snow, makes us glad we have snow-tyres.
The sun is also sinking slowly, with the promise of fine weather for the coming week. Sure enough, the following morning finds us gliding off from beside the Hameau de l’Obelisque area of the village down to the Serre Thibaud ski lift in still-freezing temperatures, beneath a steely blue sky. The high-speed ‘télémix’ lift combines six-seater chairs with gondola-style cabins and has opened up some very worthwhile new terrain. It will become even more so as the plan to extend the terrain into nearby Mont Chaberton advances during the next few years.
A gentle start in Montgenèvre
From the top we warm up on Pharo and then Suffin, blue-graded pistes which between them create a satisfyingly long, gentle descent back to our starting point. Later we’ll discover that the new lift offers back-door access to the neighbouring Italian resort of Clavière via Baïsses, another long, blue cruiser whose graceful plunge through a deep valley after which it is named enters silent woodland trails lower down.
For now, though, we follow the main cross-border link indicated on the piste-map. The Tremplin chairlift hauls us to Le Prarial (2048m), where we ski down to the next lift – the Brousset fixed four-seater. This drops us at 2202m, for a quick schuss down to the Rocher de l’Aigle chairlift. At the top we ski off at 2586m. Getting to the cross-border ridge has been simple enough, with just a couple of lift changes, all the while rising through natural forests of pine and larch which eventually give way to spectacular wide open powder bowls as-yet tracked by a only very few off-piste skiers. At the top there’s the option of cruising all the way back down to the valley floor, but we’re powerless to resist the huge views unfolding before us all the way to Sestrière and beyond.
Goodbye Montgenèvre, Hello Italy
An exhilarating onward plunge takes us into the Monts de la Lune sector, through which we glide silently in a Zen-like state with not another soul in sight. Our passion for skiing is fired by moments like these. After a sudden brief plunge into the tree-line we let the skis run through winding forest tracks, with a final burst to clear a flat spot which heralds the drop into La Coche, the perfect Italian lunch-spot.
We emerge from the restaurant an hour later, smiling and fuelled for any challenge, but it takes just a couple of minutes to drop down into the compact but charming ski village of Clavière. From here it’s hard to believe that Montgenèvre lies just a kilometre or so up the valley – and as we’ll discover, you can be back across the frontier in no time via a choice of routes. We decide to take a brief stroll up to Montquitaine, an old two-seater fixed chairlift which drops us neatly onto our old friend Suffin, for a gentle cruise back to the hotel.
This near-perfect circuit will become a favourite during our stay — which isn’t to say that nothing else comes close. Each new area we explore leaves us simply bowled over. Les Gondrans, for example, begins beside an forlorn Ligne Maginot fort and offers lots of wide open cruising, with a half-pipe along the way. Le Chalvet, on the other hand, has top-of-the-world panoramic views, with a mountain restaurant at the foot of its steep-and-deep Red and Black pistes. But heroics aren’t for everyone, and anyway even heroes need to wind down sooner or later. ‘Serene’ probably goes some way to describing the much gentler Sagna Longa area between La Coche and Cesana — to which we’d have to add ‘desirable’, judging by the array of showpiece chalets sited in just about the perfect setting.
By now you’ll have guessed the thought which enters our mind repeatedly during our time here: it’s hard to believe the sheer variety of skiing to be enjoyed with a Montgenèvre/Monts de la Lune lift pass (and the full Vialattea pass adds a whole lot more). Add the perfect combination of a great snow record, high altitude skiing and 300+ days of sunshine annually and you’ll see why we think you’re going to be hearing a lot more about Montgenèvre.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020