Insight: Vallorcine / Balme
Insight: Vallorcine / Balme
The last time we skied here involved taking the Chaumillon gondola lift from Le Tour, for the simple reason that back then Vallorcine was little more than a down-to-earth farming community (which it still remains for much of the year). There were, however, already clear signs that it was also about to become the Chamonix Valley’s newest (and probably final) ski destination. That was then. Now we no longer turn off the road towards Le Tour – in fact, this time we relax and peer at the snow-covered Vallée de l’Arve through the windows of the Mont-Blanc Express, which we’d joined at Chamonix.
On time and with impressive smoothness, the train glides into the retro gem that is the Gare de Vallorcine, after which it takes us just a couple of minutes to walk to the nearby gondola lift. Intermittent snowfalls mean that conditions are murky, but we’ve waited a long time to get back and while it’s skiable we’re up for it.
It’s a smooth and rapid haul up the mountainside, and after snapping back into our bindings we do what all skiers from Vallorcine do and ski the lower section of the blue-graded Les Esserts piste. In fact, there are two; turn right from the gondola and you’re on the ‘Variante’, or like us follow the main route by heading left. The two reunite around their mid-point for a final run to the foot of the Tête de Balme chairlift.
From here you can swing a sharp left onto the blue-becoming-red descent through the trees back to the valley floor, or ride the four-seater chair for a haul up to 2250m, the topmost point in the Balme/Le Tour ski domain. It’s another essential stage for skiers from Vallorcine, and in clear visibility the panoramic views from the top are quite something.
Today, though, we’re plunged into dense cloud well before we reach the top, and find ourselves skiing off the lift virtually blind. In conditions like these it’s all too easy to get completely disoriented, especially on wider pistes, but groping our way past successive piste markers enables us to find our way without mishap down the blue-graded Bêchat to the base of the Plan des Reines chairlift.
Just below it is handy drag-lift (‘l’Aiguillette’) which heads up to a ridge from which the top section of the Esserts piste drops down to the Vallorcine gondola. Since we’ve barely begun, time isn’t exactly tight, so we press on onto Retour Charamillon, another blue piste which drops back through the clouds en-route to the 1850m arrival point of our old friend the gondola up from Le Tour.
The clearer conditions down here mean we suddenly have a lot more skiers for company than would be the case in better weather, so we head into the on-mountain self-serve for an early lunch, which should find things calmer when we head back out (and everyone else is about to eat).
It seems to have worked when we re-emerge, so we take Les Caisets, a red-graded piste which winds its way down to the village of Le Tour. It feels very different from how we remember it (not least since the previous occasion was on snowblades..), but the valley overviews dead ahead are as impressive as ever, and a major part of the charm of skiing here.
At the bottom we jump in the gondola for a slightly leisurely ride back up (the lift is due for replacement soon), while we enjoy the scenery at the head of the valley. At the top we transfer to the Les Autannes chairlift for a ride up to 2195m, where we find the cloud base hanging stubbornly significantly lower. What’s more, there’s a chill wind blowing in from Switzerland (which begins just on the other side of a nearby ridge) and light levels are starting to drop even more.
Clearly, the weather forecasters were right in their predictions for a depression to move in during the afternoon, so we decide somewhat reluctantly to start making our way back to Vallorcine before things clamp down completely. The Liaison Balme is normally an easy blue-graded cruiser, but in fast-deteriorating conditions feels more like an adventure where it crosses a couple of pistes and a draglift before reaching the start of Esserts.
A few minutes into the run things have become clearer and we have the welcome shelter of woodland on either side, so when we reach the gondola we let the skis run all the way down to the Tête de Balme chairlift. This time we pull a tight left turn and settle into the long run down Forêt-Verte, which certainly penetrates dense pine and larch forests but is graded red (although take it easy and there’s nothing along the way which need deter blue-piste skiers unduly).
It looks good on the piste map, though, and doesn’t disappoint when you get to ski it at the end of the day, when it offers a sheltered and enjoyable alternative to a gondola ride.
Parting thoughts? Well, conditions prevented us from getting the kind of images which would do this place justice, but we can see just how well Vallorcine and Le Tour fit together. If the latter hadn’t got there first then its new neighbour would be claiming a lot more piste mileage, so we’d say don’t read too much into the stats alone. There’s great skiing here, with a whole lot more within easy reach, thanks to the superb local transport services.
Being this far up the valley creates a sense of remote detachment, and with less through traffic you sense you’re somewhere which hasn’t lost touch with its mountain community roots.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2019