Our first visit to Sainte-Foy Tarentaise coincided with one of the longest late-season mild spells we’d seen in the Alps, giving us no chance of discovering its true potential. This time things are very different. We roll through Bourg Saint-Maurice in near-blizzard conditions in mid-January, at the tail-end of an encouraging two-day dump which has covered the entire valley floor. What’s more, temperatures are set to remain well below freezing, so we take it easy during the deceptively-gentle climb through Séez, Sainte-Foy village and La Thuile, where we leave behind traffic bound for Tignes and Val d’Isère and begin the more serious climb up the mountainside to the ski station.
As we clock up the hairpin turns we’re glad of our snow tyres, as even our 4×4 occasionally struggles for grip on soft, freshly-fallen snow. In the end we make it without drama, check into our accommodation at CGH Les Fermes de Sainte Foy and leave the car in a secure underground garage. After transfering skis and baggage we’re finally installed in our apartment and gazing through now gently-falling snow to the mountainside across the Haute Tarentaise valley. It’s good to be back – and it looks like the timing is perfect.
Into the freezer
Next morning, beneath a steely blue sky, the views from our balcony seem even more awe-inspiring. In the distance to our right La Rosière is also bathed in sunlight, although it will be some time before the first rays reach Villaroger, clearly visible across the deep valley.
It’s seriously cold out there, as we discover when we leave our warm apartment, step out onto the snow and make our way past the novice area around which the village was originally developed. Beyond lies the Grand Plan chairlift, whose high-speed haul takes us up between tall pine and larch forest, while the windchill factor generated by the speed of our progress takes our breath away. At the top the temperature is currently nudging -13C, which at least promises great snow quality.
Higher being sunnier, we ski off for a quick transfer to the nearby Arpettaz chair for a shorter but just as speedy second-stage haul, during which we gaze around us in awe at the frozen scenery. By the time we ski off we’ve had more than enough of glacial lift rides, so pass for now on taking the third-stage lift up to 2620m Col de l’Aiguille.
Instead we thaw our leg muscles by skiing La Chapelle, a blue-graded cruise which begins above the tree-line before making a wayward swoop through wide woodland glades which drops us at the foot of another high-speed chairlift. It sounds tame, but moving silently among the previous days’ snow still frozen to the trees creates the kind of near-mystical experience which will come to dominate our impressions of Sainte-Foy Tarentaise.
Almost 1000m of vertical drop
Marquise is Saint-Foy’s northernmost lift and currently accesses just one pisted run – the blue graded Grand Solliet – although there are plans to add a red which will follow a detour already popular with off-piste skiers.
In the meantime, the fact that the lift is another high-speed, high-capacity unit tells you that the blue piste in question must offer something special, and it doesn’t disappoint. Intermediates can cruise non-stop from a respectable 2425m all the way down to the ski village at 1550m – almost 1000m of vertical drop. Alternatively, there’s the option of branching off early onto reds to take steeper, more direct routes.
We start with the Grand Solliet blue, and soon pass three starting points for red pistes, the second of which – Foglietta – offers a red taster and a more direct route to the base of the lift. The blue, though, serves up panoramic views of the valley (and time to enjoy them) before dropping among the remaining tree-lined sections. There’s useful shelter here during times of poor visibility, and a refreshing back-to-nature alternative to more managed ski areas elsewhere.
Grand Solliet ends at the base of the Marquise lift, but the cruise continues, via the surprisingly remote-feeling Plan Bois or the more direct Les Charmettes.
Scenic skiing, plus some steeps
Having tried both, we head back up to ski the reds, our favourite being Toboggan, for the sheer variety it packs in before it eventually rejoins the blue. Taking Liaison Plan des Veaux, on the other hand, offers longer, steeper drops with just a brief blue section before we reach La Savonnette for a final run back to the village.
When the sun finally reaches the Aiguille sector we ride the six-seater chair up to the Col, gateway to much of the off-piste terrain which for years gave Sainte-Foy Tarentaise genuine cult status. A popular choice is a gentle run over to the historic mountain village of Le Monal (the local ESF ski instructors offer accompanied group tours), although a further climb to the Col de la Foglietta or the Rocher de Pierre d’Arbine opens up many other possibilities for those who have return transport arranged.
Sainte-Foy Tarentaise: parting thoughts
Stick closer to home on to Saint-Foy’s own terrain, however, and you have some bracing red-graded descents with the option of sampling three unpisted black ‘Natur’ excursions – Morion, Shapper’s Paradise and Crystal Dark. It’s an interesting idea which offers those who normally stick to groomed terrain a safe, patrolled introduction to off-piste skiing.
Parting thoughts? Well, the obvious one is that the extent of the pisted terrain in Sainte-Foy Tarentaise may look modest on the piste-map, but there’s some serious vertical drop here, on a choice of surprisingly long runs. The other impression is of skiing against the vast backdrop of the Tarentaise valley, before heading down among beautiful (and often wide) tree-lined runs above the village. We’ll be back.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2017