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Warm-hearted skiing with mileage...
Recently re-branded as Galibier Thabor, the linked ski areas of Valloire and Valmeinier occupy three valleys high above the Maurienne Valley en-route for the legendary Col du Galibier. Each is readily accessible from the budget-flight destinations of Chambéry and Grenoble. The region is Savoie, although there’s more than a hint of the sunny south down here...
Spread across three valleys, the whole area offers extensive skiing for just about all levels. Highlights include long Blue-graded scenic cruises which begin high and end among pine forests. You can even follow the course of a river. It can take a little getting to know, which, of course, is all part of the appeal. The link between the two areas is simple enough, via a choice of two lifts – the Inversins detachable chair at the top end of the valley, and the Arméra chairlift, which reaches Valmeinier 1500 across a deep gorge in a memorably-vertiginous single span. A further plus is the provision of Green-graded descents from peaks like Gros Crey (2594m), allowing less-experienced skiers to enjoy top-of-the-mountain sensations.
Valloire, at an altitude of 1430m, is the larger of the two villages and has a all the charm and history of a traditional working community. The mood is friendly and there’s quite a buzz after the lifts close, particularly during the annual international ice-sculpture competitions. Above the main village (Sétaz) on the route up to the Col du Galibier lie other accommodation centres around Moulin Benjamin and Les Verneys. They are served by shuttle-buses, and each has a chairlift to the skiing, but only the slower, fixed variety, so queues can be a problem here.
Valmeinier comprises two villages set at 1500m (la Ville Dessus) and 1800m, with a third development (Gros Crey) set roughly midway between them. Not surprisingly, the higher, purpose-built sites well above the tree-line have a slightly remote feel. They are, however, right in the thick of the ski terrain and ski-in/ski-out, although Gros-Crey is served by a single Green-graded piste.
Young and budget-conscious family skiers seem to love this place, and we can see why. The skiing is good, with plenty of variety and opportunities to put some real mileage under your skis. On the other hand, you can take it easy on gentle, scenic runs through forests or simply enjoy hanging out among very relaxed company. It’s very convivial, and you get the sense that plenty of French family skiers return here year after year. All in all, a cheerful place to be.
Driving to Valloire involves powering up the long, winding route over the Col du Télégraphe, one of the most gruelling classic climbs of the Tour de France. Ordinarily we'd take it in our stride, but after fresh overnight snowfalls we could be pushing our luck arriving before things have thawed and softened a little.
Fortunately, the first sight of the snow-laden village rooftops cheerfully backlit by the pale morning sun, suggests that we might just have come to the right place at the right time. There’s a distinct buzz as we drive through the heart of the old village, where a new influx of visitors takes in the sights and regulars meet up with old friends. It’s also a big week for Valloire, which is hosting its annual International Snow and Ice Sculpture Competition, the raw materials for which are aligned in huge blocks at the roadside.
There’s more snow overnight, setting a pattern for the week, and we lay the of our tracks here the next day amid the kind of fairytale scenery we'd choose for our Christmas cards. Particularly dreamlike is the gentle run down through the trees to the Settaz gondola, which hauls us up smoothly to the intermediate terrain below La Settaz-des-Prés (2538m). It’s clearly a popular spot, particularly on Sunday mornings, when the local skiers swell the numbers on the pistes, but things are considerably quieter in the next valley. In the days to come taking the Crêt de la Brive gondola, rather than Settaz, will put more distance between us and the terrain above village. For now, though, we press on via the Montissot chair-lift, which gives us time to take in the wild-looking scenery in which we find ourselves.
At the top we cruise lazily over to the nearby Brive 2 lift, on which we finally reach Le Crey du Quart (2534m). From here on we’re in the Valmeinier sector, the purpose-built village becoming visible in its sensational location at the head of the next valley spread before us. We decide to take a closer look at the valley and take Grapil, one of the Blue-graded trails which snake down the valley side. This doesn't go as smoothly as planned — on a narrow, icy section half-way down we encounter lots of small stones, which are impossible to avoid. Result: some unwelcome scratches on our skis. A few minutes later, though, things look up when we chance upon a chalet-style restaurant right beside the piste and offering warming food and sweeping views across to Valmeinier 1800. Perfect timing.
More fresh snowfalls...
After a reviving break we fumble our far-from-instinctive way back to Valloire and spend some time getting better acquainted with the piste-map. This rewards us the following day with the kind of skiing which we'll long remember. This time we board the Crêt de la Brive gondola and Brive 2 chairlift direct to the Crey du Quart ridge and take Armera, a long, Blue-graded scenic cruise which after fresh snowfalls really is the stuff of dreams. It also fires us down through the forest to the sensational chairlift spanning the valley.
It’s quite a ride, with a free vertigo test thrown in along the way. Once across we spend some time on the mainly Red and Blue-graded runs of the Gros Crey area, before heading back over to meet Christophe Michelet, an ESF ski instructor who will take us on a tour around Valloire and Valmeinier sectors. There’s nothing quite like skiing with someone who has known the terrain since childhood to instantly make sense of your surroundings. Freed from the need to guide ourselves, we follow in his elegantly-carved tracks like fledgling fighter pilots before taking a breather on the serene drag-lift haul up to Le Grand Plateau. This rite of passage opens up unimagined riches, including the Combe Orsière, a long and exhilarating swoop which clings to the side of the Neuvache Valley, above a gently flowing river. It’s a different world over here.
And so it continues, a glorious afternoon’s skiing which gets us back to Valloire just as the lifts are about to close. Christophe is a true pro, and has not only shown us things we’d otherwise barely have imagined; somewhere along the way we had begun to share his obvious love with this place.
© Roger Moss