2017-2018 Far West Skier's Guide - 60
es Trois Vallées was one of the first
ski regions to understand the benefit
of linking their lift systems together
in an effort to offer their guests more variety,
having done so way back in the early 1970s.
Today, the original three valleys have added a
fourth by linking up with Orelle a few years
ago. While Val Thorens, Meribel, and Courchevel are the most famous stations, the resorts of Les Menuires, Saint Martin de
Belleville, La Tania and Brides-les-Bains are
also connected in what is one of the two
largest lift-linked ski areas in the world.
This is a resort with unending superlatives - more than 180 lifts, 600 kilometers of
pistes, 1900 snow cannons and a lift capacity
that can move 260,000 people per hour. The
list of impressive statistics goes on and on.
The various villages have quite different
atmospheres. Courchevel is the most up-market of the resorts. While there are some rather
challenging black routes from atop the Saulire,
most of the terrain is not so difficult.
Méribel and Les Menuires benefit from
being in the center of the lift system, but Les
Menuires is an eyesore of cement and steel,
while Meribel, with many chalets in addition
to its hotels, is more in harmony with the surroundings. Val Thorens, at 2300 meters, is the
highest ski resort in Europe and usually attracts the hard-core off-piste skiers.
Meanwhile, Brides-les-Bains and Saint
Martin de Belleville offer yet a different sort
of alternative. They are small, traditional villages, in marked contrast to the larger areas,
which are all purpose-built resorts. While they
both share with Méribel and Les Menuires the
advantage of being central in the lift system,
here the traditional elements of slate, stone,
and wood give the village an ambiance that
one cannot find in the large ski centers of Les
Trois Vallées. This is provincial France, with
small houses clustered around a Baroque
Brides-les-Bains's fame as a spa town
predated its more recent incarnation as a ski
village by about 400 years, so it is also characterized by a number of classic old-world spa
Saint Martin is the largest of a few hamlets that are all situated down the valley from
Les Menuires, and best of all, one can ski offpiste to any of them. The west-facing slopes
of the Belleville Valley are made up of gentle,
open terrain, where off-piste enthusiasts can
ski to St. Marcel, Praranger, and St. Martin. St.
Marcel makes a particularly nice destination
for such an endeavor, as one can relax and
reenergize with a gourmet lunch at the well6O
The Saulire cable car in Courcheval takes 160 passengers up to 2738 meters (approximately 8,983').
known La Bouitte, a lovely restaurant with
three Guide Michelin stars.
For freeriders with a palate for more
challenging terrain, there are also some interesting possibilities from the La Masse side of
the valley that end up close to these same
hamlets. The Col de la Fenêtre and the Vallée
des Encombres descents finish near the tiny
hamlet of Le Châtelard, while the Les Crêtes
route comes down near St. Marcel.
My friend Carl and I visited the Trois Vallées in March and were met by spring weather.
Whether we stayed on the trails or opted for
off-piste terrain, corn snow was the "plat du
jour". We decided to spend our first day primarily in the Méribel region, where the east-west
orientation of the slopes is well suited to
We spent the morning on the east-facing
slopes of Roc de Fer, Roc des Trois Marches
and Mt. de la Challe. By eleven o'clock, these
areas were getting too soft, but the sun had
not yet softened the crust on the west faces.
We kept active in the meantime in the steep
mogul fields under the Saulire cable car from
Courchevel. By early afternoon, the west faces
of Saulire and Mont du Vallon had softened to
perfection, providing a nice dessert to the day's
La Masse has some of the best skiing of
any single mountain in Les Trois Vallées and
versatility to boot. It was the target of our second day's activities. Again we spent the early
hours playing in some off-piste spring snow on
the east faces. Later, we descended one of Les
Trois Vallées classics - the Lac de Lou descent
from La Masse.
With lifts that ascend up to 3230 meters,
spring can turn back into winter at any time,
and Carl and I were in luck. That afternoon, a
storm blew in, and by the next morning, it was
time for powder.
Val Thorens and Orelle are home to the
highest lifts in the region and most of the terrain is north facing. That is where we aimed
our skis on a bluebird morning that followed
the snowfall. We got some of the first tracks
down in the Orelle section of the ski area and
also on the Glacier de Péclet. In the afternoon,
we cruised the 12-kilometer long Cime de
Caron - the longest descent in Les Trois Vallées. We finished the day with a Lac du Lou
run from the Boismint Lift and worked our
way back to Saint Martin. Spring is a wonderful time of year when one moment one can be
skiing corn snow in shirtsleeves and the next
day one needs one's winter woolies to keep
warm in the powder.
Carl and I sat on a verandah and reminisced together over an après-ski Kronenbourg. Carl had spent two ski-bum seasons in
Val Thorens and told me about some great
runs in the St. Pères Couloirs high up on the
Aiguille de Péclet. I, too, had skied one of
those couloirs, and that run was just a small
part of one of my favorite ski-bum experiences.
It was April 1982, and I was finishing a long
season of ski bumming with my first ever visit
to Les Trois Vallées. This was, of course, long
before the Russians had discovered Courchevel and more than a decade prior to Orelle
being added to the lift system. I dragged my
gear off the train in Bourg St. Maurice and
asked a young man where I could find a bus
Far West Skier's Guide 2O17 - 2O18 / See the Digital Edition of the Far West Skier's Guide at www.fwsa.org.