Here’s one of the great mysteries of life – well, skiing, anyway. Why do so many skiers go to Chamonix/skiing yet so few go to Courmayeur? After all, they’re only half an hour apart and share similar stupendous scenery, but after that – well, much as I love Chamonix I have to say that after today I may be shooting straight past it for Courmayeur in the future.
It’s a foregone conclusion that even in January, traditionally the quietest month on the slopes, Chamonix will be busy. And on a powder day – well, you gotta move faster than a Bode Miller to get fresh tracks.
Compare that with Courmayeur, around which I was guided today by the affable Thomas Cantele, a 25-year-old local ski instructor who has had the good fortune to grow up in the shadow of Monte Bianco (a so much more exotic appellation for Mont Blanc, don’t you think?).
Our morning was spent blasting around the red and black pistes below 2624m Cresta Youla and 2256m Col Checrouit in watery sunshine. The conditions were ideal for hammering about, even though Courmayeur didn’t share in the big dump that hit the northern half of the Alps last weekend. We skied perfectly groomed, wide-open slopes with barely a soul on them.
Sure, the off-piste wasn’t in great nick, although we did find some acceptable powder between the trees above Val Veny later in the day, but as Thomas so sensibly pointed out, why ski second rate off-piste when you can take your pick of first rate groomers?
The pick of the action was our pre-lunch run from Cresta Youla to Zerotta, over 1100 vertical metres of virtually empty terrain that was a mix of respectably steep reds and blacks which wind down and around the mountain like an enormous python. I can’t think of many ski resorts in the northern Alps where you could enjoy that much fun shared – or so it seemed – between just two people.
Things remained just as good when we popped into the rustic, friendly Chateau Branlant above Plan Checrout for lunch. It’s no slight on Chamonix to say it doesn’t have a hope of competing with Courmayeur in terms of mountain dining – in my opinion nowhere in the world can compete with Italy when it comes to mountain dining.
I enjoyed a superb polenta with grilled Fontina cheese. It was big enough to feed an army and cost 9.50€ – fantastic food in a lovely little restaurant at a price that doesn’t break the bank.
After lunch we felt duty bound to burn off some calories with a few more blasts down those under-populated pistes. The black Pista Dell’Orso proved a favourite, a steep, twisty little number where you can never quite see around the next bend, so it always keeps you guessing. Since we encountered only four other skiers in three descents, we could hoon along at top speed with no fear of damaging anyone other than ourselves and perhaps one of the fir trees that guard the edges.
By now the sun was out and the alpine panoramas before us were a geography teacher’s dream – the entire Mont Blanc (sorry, Monte Bianco) range towered over us, just the upper reaches of the massif shrouded in cloud, and it struck me time and again what an amazing setting this is. Okay, so the actual extent of the skiing is limited – 36km of groomed pistes in total. But as anyone who’s read Paddy O’Powder’s blogs from Courmayeur for Welove2ski will know, there’s some fantastic off-piste skiing here too. Bearing in mind the quality of the mountain food and the skiing here – as well as the cute village at the foot of the slopes and the 90-minute from Geneva airport – it’s a canny spot for a short-break ski holiday. And if you want to extend the adventure, then invest in an Aosta Valley lift pass, and go on a ski safari.
By the way, if you want to see just how extraordinary some of the off-piste is above Courmayeur, check out the Freeride World Tour, which is in the resort from January 24-29.
For more information about the Aosta Valley, visit aosta-valley.co.uk.