Insight: Orelle - Val Thorens
Insight: Orelle - Val Thorens
We’ve driven past Orelle countless times over the years while en-route to other areas. Eventually, though, the image of the Three Valleys Express gondola lift looming high above the roadside proved just too much to resist, so this time we’re back to ride it and find out what we’ve been missing.
As we peel off the road from Modane in the chill of dusk we discover that it takes surprisingly little time before our accommodation comes into view just above the village. After checking into the Hameau des Eaux d’Orelle we garage the car and transfer ourselves and our luggage to a snug apartment with a view we’ll have to wait until the following morning to appreciate.
There’s no fresh snowfall but overnight temperatures plummet, and we awake to a frosty overview of a development of large, chalet-style apartments set around a central green, against a familiar mountain backdrop set between Valfréjus and Valloire/Valmeinier. To our right we glimpse the cabins of the gondola dangling idly, spurring us to make an early start.
We’re not the only ones to have this idea, judging by the lift-queues which greet us down below – clear signs that word is out about this place. But the wait is shorter than expected and soon we’re leaving the village far behind as we head up the mountain on an epic haul of over 5km, gazing expectantly at the craggy terrain above with no idea until the very last minute of what awaits us. Some snow would be good. As we crest the final ridge we’re suddenly above the snow-line and heading into a totally different world, proving once again that in a less-than bountiful snow season there really is no substitute for altitude (in this case around 2360m).
There’s powder up here
It’s hard not to smile as we step from the gondola onto pure, soft powder. All around there’s a whole lot more, as we glide down to the nearby Rosaël chairlift for a smooth haul up to around 3000m to get an overview of the Orelle sector’s snow-cover.
At the top, close to the Col de Rosaël we get our first glimpse of Val Thorens, looking very different when peering down from the Maurienne side compared to gazing up from somewhere like Les Menuires. Getting there involves little more than launching off onto the blue-graded Chamois piste, which kicks off a gentle cruise (with the option of a detour on the red-graded Falaise piste), taking us to the base of the Grand Fond Funitel lift.
After climbing back to 3000m and not too far from our starting point at the Col, we blast our way down the red-graded Variante and head for the Portette chairlift, gradually working our way across the sizeable, mostly north-facing area which finally tops off at 3130m on the Glacier de Thorens. It’s already clear that there’s no shortage of long, wide cruising runs above Val Thorens, which is exactly what the majority of today’s intermediate skiers are here to enjoy.
A change of scene above Orelle
Since we have just one day here and little hope of skiing it all, we decide to head down past the village for a closer view of what we’ve so far only glimpsed in the far distance. When we get there what previously appreared remote and exposed feels much more welcoming, and the energy levels, with skiers converging from all directions, are infectious.
Ride to the Glacier
Later we’ll get a lot closer, but first we take the impressive Péclet funitel lift for a scenic ride up to the famous Glacier de Péclet at 2945m. At the top there’s the option of a run down to a chairlift for a haul up to a single black-graded piste called, not surprisingly, Glacier.
Given more time and softer conditions we’d do just that but for now we stop to take in the panorama spread around us before skiing back down to the village on the long, red-graded Béranger. One day, though, we’ll return to try the four or more alternative runs we have to skip for now, since we sense lunchtime approaching.
Once safely down we ski over to another chairlift, this time the Plein Sud high-speed six-seater. It’s a key link for skiers heading directly over to Méribel and Courchevel, and throws in the welcome bonus of bird’s-eye views of the lower end of Val Tho’.
The haul begins gently enough, passing over the blue-graded Cairn piste, before climbing more determinedly between chalet-style apartments while below us skiers thread their way cautiously on a steeper section of piste which has remained quite icy in the low, low temperatures.
A little higher up there’s further light entertainment, as more confident skiers and snowboarders are tackling some well-established mogul fields on either side of the pisted terrain. We leave most of them behind as we continue climbing ever higher and transfer to another lift, the Bouquetin funitel, which drops us near the viewpoint of the Col de la Chambre (2850m). The following brief black-graded run down the Goitschel piste delivers us neatly beside the welcoming terraces of La Fruitière, where we relax for a beautifully prepared meal in what must count as one of the best locations in the French Alps.
When we finally summon the will to leave we take a long Blue-graded cruise down the Plein Sud piste and over to the Caron gondola lift for a haul up to the Cime Caron cable-car – the world’s largest when it opened in 1982, with a capacity of 150 passengers per car. In 2010 new panoramic cars were installed, making the 2.1km ride up to 3200m even more impressive.
Even so, the panoramic views from the summit are even more hypnotic, and well worth the journey. Suitably uplifted, we decide to round off the experience with a run down the black-graded Combe Rosaël piste we see snaking away far below us, which turns out to be a run we’ll long remember.
Even without the near-vertical wall of sheet ice we encounter early on it’s quite something, and fires us down back into the heart of the Orelle sector’s own terrain for a final few runs beside the chairlifts before we have to head back to the valley below.
Orelle: sometimes less is more
Orelle’s half-dozen or so local runs don’t look much on the piste-map, but then maps can’t get across the sense of being there, and this is one place which makes a compelling case for the notion that sometimes less really is more. For example, the Bouchet chairlift will haul you all the way to 3230m – the highest lift-accessible summit in the whole of the 3 Vallées – from which you can ski very nearly 1000m of vertical back to the gondola. Deciding that our hard-working legs really might no longer be up to it, we satisfy ourselves for now with half that figure, on a run down the blue-graded Peyron piste, while the sun sinks languidly into the gathering late-afternoon haze.
Minutes later, in the cosy fug of the Trois-Vallées Express gondola, we gaze in wonderment at the scene unfolding below us with a considerable sense of achievement at the mileage we’ve packed into a single day here, and the experiences we’ve had along the way.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2021