Daylight levels and temperatures are both falling as we peel off the autoroute from Geneva and begin the gentle ascent towards Samoëns. When we reach the valley we glimpse the silvery flash of snow-covered forests through the gathering gloom. So far it’s looking good. A few minutes later we’ve checked into our accommodation at CGH Les Chalets de Laÿssia and are transferring bags from the underground car park to the spacious apartment which will be home for the next week.
The next morning we gaze from the balcony across to an impressive, award-winning covered ice rink, a new arrival since we were last in Samoëns. Beyond it the Grand Massif Express gondola lift is stirring from its slumbers, ready to haul skiers up the mountainside to Samoëns 1600, gateway to the vast Grand Massif ski domain.
Fuelled for the long run
For our first day’s skiing we unpack our skis and head off to board the shuttle bus which stops beside the residence. It’s a free service, but takes a circuitous route to pick up other skiers before finally dropping us at the foot of the gondola lift. The Grand Massif Express is an impressive, high-capacity lift offering a smooth and at times near-vertical haul. It’s quite a ride, but around eight minutes later we’re stepping from the cocooning micro-climate of our cabin into the desiccating chill of a sunlit snowscape at Samoëns 1600. Things have changed a lot in recent years, not least the addition, a few steps from the lift, of a brand new Resort Club Med.
After snapping into our bindings we push off for an introductory glide down to the six-seater Chariande Express, the first of the series of onward chairlifts linking Samoëns with Morillon, Les Carroz, Flaine and ultimately Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval (from which the return journey is via shuttle only).
The route over is as hypnotic as we remember it, climbing first through snow-laden pines and larches before bursting dramatically from the forest to reveal the sudden vastness of the wide-open terrain spread enticingly beneath us. It’s a fast lift; a little over six minutes and 2.26km later we ski off at the Tête de Saix (2118m). Up here we’re spoilt for choice, with red- and blue-graded descents back through the tree-line to the neighbouring villages. If the snow cover is good there’s also the option of skiing back to the foot of an antique ‘egg’-style gondola serving Vercland, between Samoëns and Morillon.
Somewhere down there in the shelter of the similarly-wooded margins are the villages of Morillon and Les Carroz. As we ski off the Chariande chairlift we find ourselves at the 2118m Tête de Saix, which opens up the possibilities for anyone who enjoys covering some distance. From here, if we keep straight ahead we’ll eventually reach Flaine, something we decide to put on hold until things have warmed up a little. Instead we turn right and point our skis towards the terrain belonging to nearby Morillon, in search of some more sheltered runs down towards the forests.
This is one of the joys of skiing in the Grand Massif, and one of which many skiers are unaware until they actually come and experience it for themselves, since Flaine (much of whose terrain is well above the tree-line) has always tended to grab most of the media attention.
Running for cover
Taking a combination of blue- and red-graded pistes starting with Perce-Neige and l’Arête, we work our way lazily and in blissful near-silence down to Morillon 1100. If we wished we could continue all the way to the main village some 400m lower, from which the Morillon gondola would bring us straight back up again. However, we’re warming up nicely now and are developing a taste for these quieter, sheltered runs, so we decide to stick to our winning formula and turn our attention to the more extensively-wooded terrain above neighbouring Les Carroz. As you’ll see in our Resort Review, we’ve skied it in varying conditions, including fresh (and still-accumulating) powder, so we know that this sector is well worth exploring – particularly during less-than-perfect weather, when the sheltered runs here feel particularly welcoming.
This particular morning’s visibility is however perfect, so after a few tree-lined blues and reds confirm everything we’d remembered about this sector, we work our way back up to the Gentianes chair-lift to enjoy some of the best views in the Grand Massif. At the top we ski off back at the Tête de Saix, where things feel a lot less raw now that the sun has climbed a little higher in the near-cloudless sky. Temperatures remain low, however, keeping snow conditions close to perfect as we ski down to pick up the Vernant chair-lift up to the 2204m Grands Vans, followed by a gently-snaking cruise down the blue-graded Tourmaline piste. As we swoop down through the tree-line once again, we see coming towards us in slow-zoom the unmistakable outline of Flaine Forum, the ski village created by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer.
After a welcome lunch break on the front-de-neige we take the Grand Platières gondola up to 2480m, the highest point in the Grand Massif and gateway to the famous Cascades piste. Europe’s longest Blue run extends for 14km, while dropping a similarly-remarkable 1800m, most of them gently. The sting in the tail is a final steep winding descent beside the frozen waterfalls after which it is named. It’s almost always icy, and today is no exception, putting our edge-grip to the test. At the bottom we find ourselves in the small village of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, where we refuel on chocolat-chaud before boarding a shuttle-bus back to Samoëns.
Back at the hotel only our legs know just how far we’ve travelled, but it adds up to a long way; more than we’d thought possible, in fact. Despite which, we can’t resist a final walk around the heart of the village, which is a very nice place in which to spend some time unwinding. Later, as we relax beside the hotel’s crackling log fire, we reflect on our experiences, and realise that Samoëns is somewhere to which we’ll happily return, with or without an excuse.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2018