This plaque celebrates Henri Duhammel,
who pioneered French Alpine skiing
right here in 1878.
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Above it all...
At the southern end of the Massif de Belledonne, where it overlooks the Winter Olympics host city of Grenoble, Chamrousse is surprisingly easy to get to. The fact that Grenoble is roughly the same distance beyond Lyon as Chambéry makes driving from the UK relatively simple, particularly as all but the final climb to the resort is on fast autoroutes.
For air travellers, transfers from budget flights into Genoble are similarly rapid, despite usually being routed via the busy city centre, where a change of coach is required.
Ninety kilometres of groomed terrain might not look much on paper, but much of it is well-linked blue- or red-graded cruising. Blacks include the world-famous Men's Downhill and the Couloir de Casserousse (with 850m of vertical). At the other end of the scale there are gentle ski-school areas, and some worthwhile green runs for novices. Whatever your level, Chamrousse is a surprisingly nice place to be, with sensational views higher up over Grenoble to the Plateau de Vercors, and more sheltered tree-lined pistes above the villages. Just below them lie over 40 km of deservedly-popular ski-de-fond (cross country) terrain.
Chamrousse comprises three villages – 1650 (le Recoin), 1700 (Arselle) and 1750 (Roche Béranger). Chamrousse 1400 is a little-developed access point at the base of the Casserousse black-graded expert terrain, while the others have the accommodation, services and main lift access. Best-established are 1650 and 1750, which also have a better range of services than the more recently-developed 1700 Arselle area. The villages' respective appearances reflect their origins from 1950s to the present day, but an attractive contemporary style has shaped more recent development, giving Chamrousse a unique identity. Don't expect a traditional Alpine chalet feel; for all its history, this upbeat place is much more about the future than the past.
There’s varied terrain for all levels and interests, making this a perfectly serious contender for most tastes. It’s therefore particularly suitable for families and mixed-ability groups, not forgetting cross-country skiers. Non-skiers should also find plenty to do, including walking, snowshoeing, ice-driving, snowmobiling, dog-sledding and paragliding. There's a large spa and wellbeing centre, with pool, Jacuzzis, steam-rooms, saunas and solarium. Also on offer are massage and a range of relaxation and beauty treatments.
The route up from Grenoble, via Saint-Martin d'Uriage, feels further and further removed from the bustle of urban life down below. In fact, driving the forested upper sections remind us of similar wayward approaches to ski areas in the wilds of western Canada. Which is pretty encouraging. Eventually we pass large groups of cross-country skiers heading back to their parked cars near the Domaine Nordique lift-pass office, and know we're almost there. Things get a little confusing when we encounter signs to the various ski villages, but we make it to our base in Arselle with no real problems. The low-rise timber-clad apartment blocks set among pine forest make it an attractive development, but it's nothing compared to the sweeping views we're about to discover from our south-facing balcony to ski-de-fond clearings and the mountains beyond.
The following morning we awake to find a curtain of cloud drifting lazily across the valley below, adding a magical sense of detachment to the mountains. While Gronoble is overcast, up here we're about to ski in bright sunshine. Better still, despite bitterly cold temperatures there's barely a breeze, which is good news for snow conditions.
Working our way up and around the mountain
The Arselle chairlift hauls us rather sedately from beside the ski-school area up through the trees to join the blue-graded Bachat Bouloud piste serving a chairlift whose name it shares. This second lift gets us rather higher, and a little closer to the heart of the ski area, from which it's possible (if you plan your route on the piste map) for intermediates to ski all the way round to Chamrousse 1650 without taking another lift. For now, though, we're happy to work our way around while seeing what's on offer above the villages. A gentle run down Perchette, a cruisy blue-meets-green piste, brings us into Chamrousse 1750 – a popular spot, with a debutant area, two chairlifts and, nearby, a pair of draglifts.
We take the high-speed Bérangère chairlift, which gets us even higher but still little more than half-way to the 2250m summit of La Croix. We exit the lift onto the upper Liaison Roche-Recoin blue piste, to join the red-graded Schuss des Dames. By now visibility is failing as the cloud in the valley has crept higher, but the run is easy to follow as it snakes and swoops around the craggy contours of the mountainside. We have a ball in the misty silence, and are tempted to continue all the way down to a pair of draglifts for a haul up to do it all again. Or maybe ski Fusée, the run's blue-graded counterpart.
In fact, we do neither, instead peeling off before the lowest section onto another useful link-run, the pleasingly-named Traversée du Rat ('Rat-Run'), which fires us onto the red-graded Jardins. This long, relatively gentle traverse brings an opportunity to drop down to another high-speed chairlift (Gaboureaux) – take this and you can transfer half-way up the mountain to the Les Amoureux, another high-speed chairlift heading up to La Croix. Alternatively you can do as we do and carry on down into Chamrousse 1650. The village originally developed around the La Croix cable-car, which from 1953 until it was replaced by a high-capacity gondola lift in 2010, took skiers all the way to the top of the mountain in a single haul. The base station is now regarded as something of an historic monument and will be preserved (unlike the top station, which will disappear during an ambitious project to re-landscape the prominent site).
By now the clouds are clearing, so we board the shiny new gondola to enjoy the views during the smooth ride to La Croix. Stepping out again into temperatures of around -12C has real shock-value, but the above-the-clouds views all around are sensational. From here there's a long, long blue-graded descent which, with a bit of careful navigation, would take us all the way back to our base in Chamrousse 1700.
Time for some real scenic cruising
But there are other options. We haven't come all this way simply to head back to the apartment just yet, so we decide to press on beyond La Croix to the Lacs Robert piste, which, apart from the gradient, is one of the easier reds we've skied. All the same, it kicks off in style: to our right are spectacular views towards Les Grandes Rousses and Oisans mountain ranges, while falling away to our left is the huge snowy bowl of Les Lacs.
After a photo pause we make the left sharp turn and tackle the piste, which falls away steeply before easing slightly at the turn-off point for the Couloir de Casserousse, an epic, black-graded descent (which snow conditions have closed during our visit) to Chamrousse 1400. We're now skiing beneath the return chairlift, and as we approach the bottom of the run we're surprised to see ahead of us a large army camp beside a group of snow-covered small lakes. In such an inhospitable spot we're genuinely impressed by their hardiness, but waste no time joining the lift and heading back up into the sunlight.
We're growing hungry too, so from La Croix we ski the top section of the Olympique Dames black piste before transferring to the red-graded Simond for most of the remaining run down into Chamrousse 1650.
Burning-off those lunchtime calories...
After the glacial cold, our relaxed (and later than planned) lunchtime interlude at Les Gaboureaux feels so pleasurable that leaving afterwards requires a major effort of willpower on our part. Fortunately it's only a few steps back to the gondola lift. At the top that long cruise over towards the apartment has now started to sound like a really good idea, so we schuss off lazily on the well-named Crêtes. The blue-graded piste follows a long ridge overlooking more fantastic scenery, before becoming a little steeper for the run down to the top of the Bachat Bouloud chairlift.
From here we see another side of the area's personality, as we cruise in wonder through a landscape whose wild, craggy beauty feels for all the world like that of northern Provence. We've had that feeling before, over in the Vercors, but here it's totally unexpected and adds the perfect final touch to an already great day's skiing. Minutes later we slip beneath the road bridge connecting Arselle with the neighbouring villages, and know we're almost home. Sure enough, we recognise ahead of us the novice area from which we started this morning, and from which a few minutes' walk will take us back to our apartment. Whatever we were expecting, Chamrousse has surprised us in many ways, not least by proving that the most enjoyable family skiing isn't always the hardest to get to.
© Roger Moss