The route up from Grenoble, via Saint-Martin d’Uriage, feels increasingly 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. We find that pretty encouraging. Eventually we pass large groups of cross-country skiers heading back to their parked cars near the Domaine Nordique (cross-country skiing) lift-pass office, a sign that 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. Low-rise, timber-clad apartment blocks set among pine forest make this an attractive development, not least since it offers us sweeping views to ski-de-fond clearings and the mountains beyond from our apartment’s large, south-facing balcony.
Setting out to explore the pistes above Chamrousse
The following morning we awake to find a veil of cloud drifting lazily across the valley below, bringing a magical sense of detachment to the mountains. While Gronoble is no doubt overcast, up here we’re going to be skiing in bright sunshine. Better still, despite bitterly cold temperatures there’s barely a breeze, which is good news for snow conditions.
The Arselle chairlift hauls us rather sedately from beside the ski-school area up through the pines 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 – if they plan their route on the piste map – intermediate skiers can head 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 débutante area, two chairlifts and a nearby 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 took skiers all the way to the top of the mountain in a single haul from 1953 until it was replaced by a high-capacity gondola lift in 2010. The base station is now regarded as something of an historic monument and is preserved, unlike the top station, which disappeared during re-landscaping of the prominent site.
Scenic cruising, Chamrousse style.
By now the sky is clearing, so we board the 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 panoramic, above-the-clouds views 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. 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 although steep is actually 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 Lacs Robert, which falls away steeply before easing slightly at the turn-off point for the Couloir de Casserousse, an epic, black-graded descent to Chamrousse 1400. Snow conditions have closed during our visit, but we’re now skiing beneath the return chairlift. 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. It’s a bleak and inhospitable spot and we’re genuinely impressed by the troops’ hardiness, but are happy to be joining the lift and heading back up into the sunlight.
By now 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 significant degree of willpower. Fortunately it’s just 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 steepening a little for the run down to the top of the Bachat Bouloud chairlift.
From here we see another side of the area’s personality, and 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 at Villard de Lans in the Vercors, but here it’s totally unexpected, adding 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 set out 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 and affordable family skiing isn’t always the hardest to reach.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020