The drive up from Modane only takes a few minutes, yet somehow we seem to have repeatedly passed Valfréjus by until now, when we finally get to satisfy our curiosity. Maybe we should have come sooner. In a typical year January should find the Maurienne (and the rest of the French Alps, in fact) subsumed in snow and enduring temperatures well below freezing. Our visit, though, turns out to be anything but typical, and while it’s bitingly cold the snow-cover at lower-lying areas looks distinctly patchy. Fortunately, at 1550m things are altogether more reassuring, and as we roll into Valfréjus at nightfall there’s little doubt that we’re in a ski village – and as far as we can tell in the darkness, a rather stylish one.
Onwards and upwards in Valfréjus
Next morning we peer out onto an appealing picture of mountain scenery, complete with extensive forests of pine and larch. After heading over to the Arrondaz gondola lift we start get the bigger view, and a rapidly-changing one, too – operating at around 6m/sec this is one of the fastest lifts we’ve ever ridden. Once above the tree-line the steep climb eases as we cruise smoothly over the Plateau d’Arrondaz, where the first of the day’s skiers are now assembling for their respective ski-school classes. The surprisingly good snow-cover confirms everything they say about the area catching just about every weather front heading across the nearby border with Italy.
Once the lift has touched down we snap into our skis and pole our way towards the nearby chairlift for another high-velocity ride, which this time will take us to Punta Bagna, at 2737m the highest point on the mountain. This time the climb begins gently before ramping up the angle of attack for a more dramatic final ascent, which in early morning shadow adds to the chill-factor. Much more so, in fact, than would have been the case for this lift’s predecessor, the trade-off being that the old Punta Bagna II gondola would have been affected much more by gusting winds than the powerful six-seater chairlift. Whatever the logic, at the top we’re more than glad to be back in full sunlight once again. Better still, despite the altitude, today there’s barely a breath of wind, so before putting in our first runs of the day we head onto the large panoramic sun-deck of the nearby bar/restaurant to warm up and take in the scenery.
Ahead lie jaw-dropping views of the snowy vastness of the Italian Alps, while somewhere to our right lie the linked ski areas of Valloire and Valmeinier. Faced with this awe-inspiring sight today, it’s easy to understand how Valfréjus and its French and Italian neighbours once dreamed of linking their terrain to create a ski domain of epic proportions. Sadly the project (named Croix du Sud) never materialised, although the more modest aspiration to a link over to Bardonnechia could still happen one day. We certainly hope so.
For now, though, there’s plenty to see right here in Valfréjus, so we snap back onto our skis and head off on the blue-graded Crêtes for a long cruise which takes us first along the spine of the mountain before turning sharp right onto a quite steep descent on Col, which is still graded blue, since it’s more than wide enough to reassure timid intermediates. Right now it’s also still in shade, but lower down we ski back into the sunlight as the pitch eases for the final run on the Plateau d’Arrondaz. It’s a great run and underlines the fact that the cruising terrain here is perfect for those who like the occasional steep on which to develop their edge control and build both confidence and fitness.
More fresh snowfalls…
The Punta Bagna is a point of departure for other options, including speed-riding. Sure enough, after a second haul up to the sensational viewpoint, just beyond the top station of the lift we watch in awe as two paraglider-equipped skiers launch themselves off the ridge and take off from a steep, unpisted section of mountainside. It’s hugely impressive, and not without a degree of risk for those who get it wrong.
Meanwhile something altogether more benign had caught our eye while we’d been taking in our surroundings from the viewpoint. Heading left from top of the lift is a gentle-looking blue-graded cruise which accesses the Punta Bagna black for the rather more direct, mostly-ungroomed run back to the Plateau. Just past the exit, though, the blue turns hard right towards all that glorious virgin Italian territory we’d seen earlier.
Not that we’re planning on crossing the border. For now we just want to ski the blue-graded Lac piste to enjoy the silence and staggeringly unspoilt scenery on this side of the mountain. Further down there’s a turn-off onto Combe, another scenic blue run which makes a gently curving detour before rejoining Lac ahead of the run down to the Pas du Roc chairlift (2323m).
In more typical snow conditions this is just the beginning – the Jeu piste offers a further 10+ kilometres (along with almost 800m vertical drop) of blue cruising along the sides of the valley all the way back to Valfréjus village. Sadly the run is closed during our visit, so we make a note to return and ski it one day, and instead take the chairlift to join the red-graded Pas du Roc piste. From here another red (Argentier) would drop us quite steeply back down to the base of the chairlift, but we head back to the Plateau, and soon rejoin the wide blue piste we’d skied earlier.
Despite our early arrival, the fine weather finds the first lunchtime skiers already relaxing on the sun terrace of the pisteside Bergerie mountain restaurant. We have to consciously remind ourselves that we’re still in Savoie, as the relaxed, informal mood is very different from that of some of the more conventionally-chic Alpine ski areas just a little further north.
After lunch we take the Petits-Vallons chairlift to ski some of the shorter red- and blue-graded pistes which drop down behind the Plateau and its restaurant. It’s useful terrain as a means of progression for ski-school groups who have outgrown the super-gentle green terrain on the opposite side of the Plateau, but of more limited appeal to independent intermediates.
So we decide to see what the return runs to the village hold. The answer is a surprising mix of intermediate and advanced runs, each of which eventually feeds onto a green-graded final approach – the exception being the choice of red- and blue- graded pistes accessing the area near the entry to the village. The greater part of all these runs is nicely sheltered below the tree-line, which means that if visibility suddenly becomes limited (during heavy snowfalls, for example) those who don’t want to take the gondola down can find their way with no ‘where-am-I’ moments. It’s a good, but until now not a perfect solution, the stumbling-block being the upper section of the Bovenières blue piste, which less-confident skiers found just a little too steep and narrow for comfort. Now, however, this key run has been re-profiled to improve things and allow just about anyone to descend with confidence.
In the space of just a day-and-a-half’s enjoyable skiing in one of the French Alps’ so far lesser-known ski areas we already know that we’ve stumbled on somewhere with a fresh approach to things, and whose time will surely come before too much longer. If and when the link with Bardonnechia becomes more than a long hoped-for dream then we’re all going to be hearing a lot more about Valfréjus. Until then, you can intrigue your friends by having had great value family skiing in a quality Alpine ski area they’ve yet to discover.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020