Insight: La Norma
Insight: La Norma
There are compelling reasons for our having come here: La Norma has long figured on tour operators’ listings and, on a more personal level, the layout of the ski area on the piste map has intrigued us. It’s high time we satisfied our curiosity. We always like discovering areas which offer skiers some high altitude terrain backed up with more sheltered runs down below the tree line, and La Norma certainly seems to fit the bill. We’ll see.
Things begin well. The drive up to La Norma from Modane turns out to be one of the quickest and most straightforward we’ve experienced, and almost before we know it we’re entering the very heart of the village. Better still, La Norma is one of the few ski villages to offer free undergound parking – a worthwhile feature we’d like to see elsewhere. However, as our accommodation is some way from the car park and we have bags to transfer, we drive on and instead park outdoors very conveniently, just across from our apartment.
Pasta on the piste
The next day we pick up our lift-passes and climb aboard the Melezet gondola lift, which drops us at 1985m in a snowy clearing from which it’s possible for even novices to ski all the way back down to the village via two long Green-graded pistes. There’s also a mountain restaurant here (L’Eterlou ), with a cheerful and affordable pasta bar with a panoramic terrace. We’ll be back, but for now press onward by dropping down on a short Red piste to join the Carrelet chairlift for a ride up to 2332m. From here intermediates have a Blue-graded run back down among the forest on Marmottes, but this sector also demonstrates that La Norma also has some quite steep terrain up its sleeve. After a gentle run on Marmottes to the Norma II chairlift (which replaced the difficult Norma I draglift some years ago) we enjoy views of skiers tackling La Norma’s topmost slopes before laying some tracks of our own.
White on Black
Once off the lift there’s a choice of a Red (Perdrix) or the steeper Norma 2 Black. We go for the latter, which is quite wide, giving the kind of on-piste views which bring a powerful sense of skiing down rather than merely around a good-sized mountain. Since it begins at 2750m the snow has maintained its quality, so we launch off with the kind of confidence which only comes from sensing that there’s plenty of edge-grip for our turns (we don’t like icy surprises).
Eventually things ease as Norma 2 meets Norma 1, its lower Red-graded successor. Having got our legs nicely warmed up, we decide to carry on and work our way back down through the tree-line to meet the aptly-named Forêt Red piste, with a vin-chaud stop at the welcoming Grizzli mountain restaurant. The onward run is a beauty, taking us around the mountain through the kind of pine and larch forest we’ve come to love in the Alps. Being relatively low, the piste is also equipped with snowmaking all the way down to the village to assure a viable return route whatever mother nature might provide in the way of snowfalls.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain
Having got back almost to our starting-point, we take the Repose chairlift from the front de neige, and during the haul up through the trees survey events on the Chalets Red piste snaking below us. This time we ski off at 1840m, and drop down to the nearby Plateau de la Repose, where we take the Arlette chair up to the 2309m mark. From here it’s a short ride on the topmost lift – the Clot 3-seater chair.
Even before the 2500m arrival point the views are sensational, and even more so from the protection of a nearby ridge beyond which the mountainside falls away with head-spinning drama in the direction of neighbouring Termignon, now part of the Val Cenis Vanoise ski area. To our eyes it looks distinctly ‘marginal’ but in the right snow conditions is a favoured haunt for freeride skiers with a taste for challenging terrain and remote-feeling natural settings.
We enjoy a nice, cruisy Red-graded descent on Arlette, which takes us on a pleasingly wayward run through the trees and drops us back at the Plateau de la Repose. By now it’s lunchtime, so we ski back to the apartment and some much-needed refuelling.
Cruising through the trees
Suitably fortified, we head back to the Repose chairlift and work our way back up to ski more of the runs from the Clot chair. Eventually, when we’ve got that out of our system we join Arlette and drop down onto Ste Anne, a gentle Green-graded piste which ambles sedately over to the Chapelle St-Anne before turning back to cruise its way back to the village. Sometimes the really gentle runs turn out to provide a surprising amount of skiing pleasure by showing you the sights without putting distractions in your path, and this is just such a run. The next day we discover another in the shape of the Route de Repose, an agreeable cruise through the trees with a useful function, namely connecting the sector served by the gondola with that accessed by the Repose chairlift. Do this and you can take a lunch-break at somewhere unexpected, in the shape of a very well-presented (and very affordable) on-mountain pasta bar, an inspired initiative on the part of the nearby Eterlou Restaurant at the arrival point of the gondola lift. With a bit of planning you could work your way around the mountain all day without having to come back to the lower and potentially less well snow-covered pistes until your final return run. Now that’s good planning.
The resort with a big heart
During our time here we test-drove the route across the valley to Aussois but didn’t manage to ski there, due to day-long white-out conditions, which nevertheless topped up the snow depth significantly. On the other hand, we were more than happy skiing around La Norma’s own varied terrain. Long viewed as merely a budget option with the compromises which this tends to imply, it surprised us with the quality of the skiing available, particularly higher up the mountain, where there’s plenty to entertain quite capable intermediates for a few very enjoyable days. As for families on a budget, we have to say we were similarly surprised, not merely by the real-world pricing and range of child-friendly facilities, but by the feel of a place with a big heart, and which is quietly but perceptibly raising its game.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020