Insight: Les Contamines
Insight: Les Contamines
The weather forecast isn’t overly encouraging when we set off for Les Contamines, but we’ve heard so much about this place for so long that we’re not going to pass up an opportunity to ski here at long last. The drive round from our base in Combloux proves to be undramatic, unlike the scenery which greets us as we make our final climb to the village. We normal resist using words like ‘cute’ to describe ski villages but in this case there’s no escaping the fact that this is how it looks and feels at a first encounter. Judging by the beautifully-restored Baroque church rising from the skyline, it’s also very much a living and working mountain community with a lot of history. For now, though, we press on, driven by a desire to get up the mountain to the ski area and cram in what we can before a fast-approaching depression stops play.
We have no problem at all parking at La Gorge, and are soon riding the gondola on a steep haul up through the forest to Etape 1470. From the top a Red-graded return run drops through the trees back to the base of the lift, but we transfer to a second gondola for a gentler ride up to Signal (1900m). So far there’s little more than a gentle breeze, but we know it isn’t going to last, so we ski down to take the Roselette chairlift to head up for a look at how the liaison with the Hauteluce sector works. At the top there’s a stiff breeze building, but the scenery falling away before us is even more breathtaking, so we decide to take the plunge and go for it on Choton, a steep but wide Blue cruise which we follow down to La Ruelle (1600m).
Away from it all skiing at Les Contamines
It’s in every sense a blast – all the way down we’re skiing against a strong, bitterly cold headwind. When we reach the bottom we decide to take a chocolat-chaud break, thaw out and make the most of the views. Just above us across the valley we can make out the fortress-like dam of the Lac de La Girotte, whose frozen surface had been far below as we left the Col just minutes earlier. As soon as we’re suitably revived we snap into our skis once again and schuss sedately down to the welcome sight of the Col chairlift. In better conditions we’d have continued all the way down to Belleville 1200 for a return gondola-ride, but with hostile-looking clouds rapidly heading our way we don’t hang around before taking the high-speed four-seater for a glacial haul back up to the Col du Joly. At the 2000m ridge the wind is blowing harder, and the lift operator at this remote spot must be in no doubt that this will be a short day for him and his companions spread around the mountain. From our point of view, we’re just glad that we did at least manage to see something of the Hauteluce sector, an area we usually approach from Les Saisies on the far side of the village itself. The Beaufortain looks a picture in fine weather, but as today has already proved, sometimes the sense of adventure of skiing in less-than-perfect condition brings its own rewards.
As we drop back down from the Col visibility comes and goes, but so far hasn’t decided to clamp down altogether. Taking this as a good omen, we join the Jonction four-seater chairlift at its low mid-station (the lift operates in both directions) for the first stage of a ride all the way up to Aiguille Croche, at 2487m the highest point in the ski area. The next is the four-seat high-speed Tierces lift, which, believe it or not, replaced an almost 2km-long haul by drag-lift (originally a T-bar). In 1995 the new lift finally opened this rewarding area up to intermediate skiers, along with the topmost terrain served by a four-seat fixed chairlift.
At the top we get to see little more than fleeting glimpses of the vastness all around us, but it’s still hugely impressive. It’s also becoming windier by the minute, so the nearby drag-lift up to the Black-only terrain below Veleray (2450m) is closed. In these conditions we’re hardly complaining, and set off on a long Red- and Blue-graded descent which eventually brings us right back to the Col lift mid-station. This time we join in the opposite direction and find ourselves heading calmly back up to Signal (1900m).
At the top it’s still sunny and feels a lot less exposed but gusting winds have nevertheless closed the gondola which runs along a ridge. Sadly we haven’t managed to take in the Gentianes piste we’d planned on skiing to explore the gully between here and the Aiguille de Roselette, but on the gentle cruise back to Etape 1470 we know we’ve crammed a lot into a very unpromising morning’s skiing.
During the gentle gondola ride back down to La Gorge our cheeks are burning and our hands tingling. But it’s as nothing compared to the highlights we replay in our minds – it all adds up to the kind of tantalizing glimpse into just what Les Contamines offers skiers with the desire and imagination to try something just a little away from the mainstream.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2023