Insight: Les Houches
Insight: Les Houches
Arriving at Les Houches has a certain drama, particularly when (as has happened to us on more than one occasion) you enter the Tunnel des Chavants at the end of the viaduct up from Cluses in steady drizzle and emerge in the Chamonix Valley amid a vigorous snowfall. It’s at times like these that you appreciate being able to peel off at the first exit and head round into the village.
Twinkling cheerfully in the darkness, it looks welcoming enough, but temperatures here have plummeted. During our first visit getting to our relatively high, piste-side accommodation meant fitting snow chains, but this time we’ll staying at the much more easily accessible Hameau de Pierre Blanche, one of our favourite CGH Résidences. With the car securely garaged underground, we transfer our skis to the heated locker room and our baggage via a lift direct to the floor on which our apartment is located and set about unwinding and getting a good night’s sleep. Next morning it’s a simple matter of putting on our boots, liberating our skis and walking to the nearby gondola lift to head up the mountain for some serious skiing.
Spoilt for choice at Les Houches
The Prarion gondola hauls us smoothly up to the heart of the terrain, where a wealth of possibilities is spread around us. Snow quality is perfect, so we glide off to take a closer view of the distant Belleview plateau. It’s blue-graded cruising terrain all the way, which allows time to take in the scenery – something we find ourselves doing more and more during our time here. Along the way we cross the ‘Verte’ piste just a few days before the legendary black run is due to host the Men’s World Cup Downhill skiing events. For now, though, we focus on Les Houches’ gentler side and press onward down towards Belleview.
When we halt above the snow-park we’re beside the tracks of the Mont Blanc Tramway, which since 1907 has climbed up here from Saint Gervais via the Col de Voza. Despite the passage of time, its still creates something of a surreal sight as it rattles and whines its way beside the pistes. Skiing alongside the trams is a unique sensation and can usually be relied upon to raise a few smiles from passengers, many of whom are probably getting their very first glimpse of a ski resort.
From up here you can peel off the trackside piste and onto the red-graded Mur des Epines or Variante runs, which soon unite for the drop down to Maison Neuve (1220m). From there you have the option to join the lower section of the celebrated Kandahar Black or ride the Maison Neuve and Kandahar chairlifts up to Prarion to do the whole run or its blue-graded companion Aillouds. Either way there’s 900m of vertical drop on offer, and you’ll end up right back in the village beside the gondola lift.
Plan B, which we’ve come to favour during the earlier part of the day, is to head from Prarion to the sector above Saint-Gervais. We’ve found that things are often quieter over here, and there’s a choice of very enjoyable tree-lined runs which will drop you either at the Crozat four-seater chairlift (1493m) or lower still to the base of the long, 40 year-old Plancerts draglift (1370m). The away-from-it-all sensation of skiing these scenic runs is addictive, and might just be the perfect excuse to stay put, rather than heading further up the valley, where things tend to be rather less calm.
From Belleview we drop down to pick up the Voza lift, which drops us at 1900m. A quick blast down the red-graded ‘Stade’ piste followed by a ride up the Kandahar chair gets our legs warmed up for the onward run over to the terrain located above St Gervais and nearby Les Contamines. Half-way down, at the parting of the ‘Cha’ red and ‘Abbaye’ blue-graded pistes we reach a piste-side restaurant, where we take a lunch break in the sunshine.
We leave suitably refuelled and legs of lead, to continue our run down through the trees to the base of the Crozat chairlift, which hauls us serenely back up to do it all over again, this time on the steeper, red-graded ‘Fontaines’. The steep descent is huge fun, and there’s even more nearby for good skiers who don’t mind a long, steep haul back up the long Plancerts drag-lift.
Days like this are what Les Houches is all about, with the prospect of a perfect ending on the long return routes back to the village, via a choice of blue, red or black runs, with much of the Chamonix Valley spread at your feet.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020