Daylight levels and temperatures are falling as we peel off the autoroute from Geneva and begin the familiar gentle ascent towards Samoëns. When we reach the valley we glimpse a silvery flash of snow-covered forests through the gathering gloom. So far it’s looking good. A few minutes later we check into our accommodation at CGH Les Chalets de Laÿssia and transfer luggage from the underground car park to the spacious apartment which will be home for the next week.
The following morning, while gazing from the balcony we spot a change to the skyline since we were last in Samoëns, in the shape of a large covered ice rink. 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
Keen to do just that, we unpack our skis and climb aboard 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. Eight minutes or so 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 up here recently, including the addition, just a few steps from the lift, of a new Club Med Ski resort.
From Samoëns to Morillon and beyond
After snapping into our bindings we push off for an introductory glide down to the six-seater Chariande Express chairlift, the first of the series of onward lifts linking Samoëns with Morillon, Les Carroz, Flaine and ultimately Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval (from which the return journey is via shuttle only). The lift offers a faster, longer ride than its older companion, the Chariande 2 chairlift.
The haul is as hypnotic as we remember it, climbing through snow-laden pines and larches before bursting dramatically into the sudden vastness of the wide-open terrain spread enticingly beneath us.
Key lift upgrades for Samoëns
It’s a fast lift; a little over six minutes and 2.26km later we ski off at the Tête des Saix (2118m), which opens up possibilities for anyone who enjoys covering some distance. 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, and if we keep straight ahead we’ll eventually reach Flaine.
Running for cover
Right now, though, it’s bitterly cold so we decide to put Flaine on hold until things have warmed up a little, and instead turn right to point our skis towards the terrain belonging to nearby Morillon 1100, the idea being to enjoy some of the more sheltered runs lower down among the forests.
This is one of the great joys of skiing in the Grand Massif, and one which surprises many skiers when they first come and experience it for themselves, not least since Flaine (much of whose terrain is well above the tree-line) has always tended to grab most of the media attention.
Down among the trees
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, then continue all the way to the main village some 400m lower, from which the Morillon gondola brings us straight back up again. We’re warming up nicely now and are developing a taste for these quieter runs, so turn our attention to the neighbouring wooded terrain which is well worth exploring above Les Carroz.
Clear and cold (for now)
The visibility, though, is best higher up, so after rediscovering a few longish blues and reds we work our way back down to the Molliets 6-seater high-speed chair-lift. At the top things now feel a lot less raw, although temperatures remain low, keeping snow conditions close to perfect as we ski down to take a break just above the arrival of the Kédeuze gondola lift from Les Carroz.
Heading back, to beat the front
After a memorably disappointing lunch (we won’t be returning, thanks) we escape from the restaurant to find conditions have deteriorated, so snap straight into our bindings and cruise via a couple of blues (Blanchot and Marmottes) down to the base of the Tête des Saix chairlift, which opened in 2016. Capable of operating at 6m/sec, the muscular 6-seater speeds things up dramatically for skiers heading to Morillon and Samoëns, which is good news for us, since we want to beat the fast-approaching depression which when it arrives promises to shut down visibility on the mountain.
Back to snowy Samoëns 1600
When we ski off at the top it’s a simple matter of taking direct a red (Marmotte) or a more wayward blue (Dahu), which head down to Samoëns 1600. We know the blue well, so follow it all the way to the Damoiseaux chair for a quick haul over the final crest before the Grand Massif Express, while the snow is falling thick and fast. Back in our apartment only our legs know just how far we’ve travelled, but getting around is now easier than ever. Samoëns is somewhere to which we’ll happily return, with or without an excuse.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2019