Xavier Schouller, MD of Portsmouth-based ski-drive specialist Peak Retreats, knows a thing or two about skiing in France. He grew up there, first put on skis as child in Val Cenis, and has been pounding down the mountains in the both the Alps and the Pyrenees for the past 42 years.
So what’s your top ten of French pistes? Here are mine – and I make no apologies for the fact that it’s a subjective list. After all, there are more than 360 ski resorts in France, more than 3,595 lifts, and an enormous quantity of pistes in our mountains. I don’t think anyone has yet managed to ski them all!
Still, get these ten ticked off and you’ll have gone a long way to earning your skiing stripes. They’ll take you (almost) from your first snowplough turn, to the kind of mogul runs only really skilful skiers will enjoy, with some memorable moments in between. Just be sure to save each one for a day of sunshine – and soft, cold snow – for the full effect.
1. L’Escargot, Val Cenis
Vertical drop: 700m
What do you do with a mountain road when it closes for the winter? Simple – turn it into a beginner’s piste. At least, that’s what they’ve done in Val Cenis, the ski area shared by two villages at the far end of the Maurienne Valley, Lanslebourg and Lanslevillard.
They sit at the bottom of the Route Nationale to Italy, and come December the locals fire up the snow-cannons to make sure it’s skiable from top to bottom, providing a proper taste of the Alps for even the most nervous snowplougher. What’s more, at 10km, it’s thought to be the longest green run in the Alps.
Wow Factor: Mountain veterans will yawn – after all, l’Escargot is French for “snail”. But if you’re new to skiing, the view across the Maurienne, towards the 3583m peak of the Grand Roc Noir, will have you jumping for joy.
Ow Factor: 10km of snowploughing? That’s going to hurt…
2. Les Bergers, La Mongie
Vertical drop: 338m
It’s not often a blue piste delivers you into really wild mountain terrain: but that’s the feeling you get when you ski Les Bergers – regarded as one of the finest pistes in the Pyrenees. Starting at 2500m, you ski between two rows of serrated crags, dodging through a giant rock garden as you go. The snow is usually excellent up here, and the pitch of the slope steady but never intimidating.
Wow Factor: If you know anyone who’s sniffy about skiing the Pyrenees, bring them here. The scenery will blow their ski boots off.
Ow Factor: Any pain is purely mental, as you ride the old, slow, two-man chair-lift to the top.
3. Cucumelle, Serre Chevalier
Vertical drop: 1115m
Actually this fabulous top-to-bottom run, from the top of the Vallons chair-lift, down to Villeneuve in the valley, is made up of several pistes, each with a different character. At the top, the Cucumelle red pitches you into a broad and snowy bowl that’s perfect for high-speed cruising.
In the middle, there’s a flattish interlude around the pretty hamlet of Frejus, before the Bez red pitches you into the trees. Save some energy for the little steep bit at the end. You don’t want to look like an idiot in front of everyone!
Wow Factor: Go on, I dare you. Ski it all in one go.
Ow Factor: But don’t blame me if your legs explode.
4. Blanchot and Les Cristiaux, La Clusaz
Vertical drop: 1437m
La Balme is the best area in La Clusaz for more advanced skiers, with some good speedy reds and a descent from top to bottom that will severely test anyone’s downhill ability. It starts at 2477m at the top of the Col de Balme, and offers two variants.
One starts with the red piste, Blanchot, which then splits into two pistes, either red or black; the other with Les Cristiaux, another red that eventually turns blue. Follow them all the way down, and you’ve got a mighty, muscle-burning descent, with a long flat green back to La Clusaz to finish off.
Wow Factor: Uninterrupted skiing through 1400 vertical metres – in la Clusaz? Who knew?
Ow Factor: La Balme faces north and holds its snow brilliantly, but it does finish down near the 1000m mark. You want to ski it in the middle of winter to be sure of decent-quality snow on the bottom half.
5. OK, Val d’Isere
Vertical drop: 1042m
The OK is a World Cup downhill course in Val d’Isere named after two of the resort’s racing heros: Henri Oreiller and Jean-Claude Killy. But when it’s not prepared for racing, it’s a fairly tough red piste for good intermediates. It starts at the top of the Funival funicular, with a few steep pitches.
Then it rushes on past La Folie Douce and Le Trifolet restaurants, and on down a steep pitch to La Daille. When busy the run can be icy, so you’ll need to stay in the middle and turn as little as possible. You can opt out of the nasty bit at the bottom by cutting across down a path that leads to where you probably want to go next – the Funival funicular that takes you back up to the top.
Wow Factor: Nowhere more exhilaring, when you take the first lift of the day and have it to yourself.
Ow Factor: Avoid having one at all on the last bit by avoiding collisions with less accomplished skiers who tend to slide to a halt or crash in the most inconvenient places.
6. Combe de la Saulire, Courchevel
Vertical drop: 622m
Want to ski the best piste in Les 3 Vallees? Then get out of bed early. To understand why this Courchevel red has so many admirers, you have to ski it when only a couple of ski patrollers’ tracks are etched across its corduroy. Hit it in the afternoon, after roughly 5½ million people have left their mark, and the chances are you won’t be going back for a second helping.
What makes it special? Four things: pitch, breadth, aspect and setting. There’s a short, steepish section at the top, which will give some intermediates the willies, the first time they try it. But once you get beyond that, the slope eases up and opens out into what feels like the longest, widest skiing boulevard on the planet.
Up above, the magnificent crags of the Dent de Burgin rear up into the sky. Beneath your skis, the cold, north-facing snow is almost always soft and grippy. And if you can’t string together a series of smooth, eager turns across its surface, you might as well bin the ski boots and take up tiddlywinks instead.
Wow Factor: On cold, sunlit morning you might just decide this is the best intermediate piste in the world.
Ow Factor: But for god’s sake, keep an eye out for the idiots – straightlining their way down the slope at 500mph.
7. Fontaine Froide, La Rosiere
Vertical drop: 1020m
Save this one for a snowy winter – because when the cover’s plentiful, the red La Fontaine Froide will take you from just above La Rosiere 1850, down through the tree-line to Escudets (1176m), and from there onto the Villard Dessous blue, all the way down to Séez.
Wow Factor: This is a long, long cruise that seems endless. Especially gorgeous on a sunny day.
Ow Factor: It turns even the strongest legs to spaghetti.
8. The Grande Motte, Tignes
Vertical drop: 1329m
Early morning, freshly-groomed snow: it’s a formula for piste-skiing pleasure in any resort, but on the endless run from the top of the Grande Motte cable-car, all the way down to Tignes Val Claret, your head just might explode with happiness.
It starts with a bit of steepness on the black Descente piste – but the snow here is usually blissfully soft and grippy, so it’s unlikely to scare you, and as you descend the pitch gets easier and easier. By the time you get to the bottom of the Double M you’ll be making fluent turns, and feeling like you’re Ted Legety. Provided, that is, you’ve timed your arrival to avoid the crowds that gather from mid-morning onwards.
Wow Factor: Stunning Alpine scenery, high-quality snow, and extraordinarily wide pistes – this run has got the lot. Apart from trees, that is. There’s not a single one: which means that on a cloudy day the visibility is non-existent.
Ow Factor: Don’t work too hard on the glacier, drink loads of water, and remember to breathe on each turn. At 3400m, breathlessness can quickly turn into a blinding altitude headache.
9. Aiguille Rouge, Les Arcs
Vertical drop: 2026m
The descent takes you all the way from the bitterly cold summit of the 3226m Aiguille Rouge, to the gentle forested slopes of far-flung Villaroger; a journey from winter to what feels like spring in less than an hour.
At the top, bits of it can be tough going for intermediates: but the challenge is mostly mental rather than physical, provided the snow’s in good condition. And in its lower sections, it turns into one of the best long pistes in the Alps.
Anyone skiing Les Arcs who feels strong and fluent on reds should keep an eye on the snow and – if conditions aren’t icy – have a go on it at the end of their holiday.
Wow Factor: ‘I’ve just skied a whole mountain, from summit to (almost) the valley floor.’ How many times in your life will you be able to say that?
Ow Factor: At the top, there’s a short, sharp section of black piste which is frequently wind-blasted, and rock-hard. It’s seen many a fall, in full view of all the other skiers who’ve been delivered to the summit by the Aiguille Rouge cable-car, and are waiting their turn. If your technique isn’t up to it, take the red-rated variant next door instead.
10. The Tunnel, Alpe d’Huez
Vertical drop: 630m
Alpe d’Huez is home to the 16km Sarenne, the longest black run in Europe, but Le Tunnel, also starting at the 3330m summit of Pic Blanc, is much more difficult. The setting is spectacular and in fresh powder it is only moderately difficult once you have made that daunting first turn.
However, when it’s icy, The Tunnel – with its fierce black moguls – has a more menacing disposition. A fall can result in a slide of 200m – or worse.
Halfway down you come across a tunnel through the mountain after which the run is named. Push through and out the other side, but the challenge doesn’t end here – actually it begins: yet more black bumps carry on down to the foot of the run.
Wow Factor: Good skiers will feel a real sense of achievement when they reach the bottom.
Ow Factor: Everyone else will be in tears.
Over To You
Have you skied any of the runs above? Which ones are you most desperate to ski? Let me know, as well your suggestions for any classics I’ve missed, in the comments below.
See also Welove2ski’s feature on the 10 best ski runs in Austria.