_BreakthroughOnSkis.com __Ski Travel: Val Morel, France

Valmorel, la Belle
The most beautiful
resort in the French Savoie

all Valmorel photos
© Linde Waidhofer

   

The Alps are such a vast mountain playground that I despair of ever skiing even half of what's there; although despair is surely the wrong verb since I'm still trying, still smiling after 30-odd years of transatlantic ski tripping. And there's another dilemma to deal with each winter when I think about going over to the Alps: should go back to my all-time favorite spots like Verbier or St. Anton, or head off in search of hidden gems, unknown ski mountains that nobody (on this side of the big water at least) has ever heard of, resorts like Grimentz, La Foux d'Alos, Pras Loup — all of them, by the way, first class ski discoveries.

When faced with a tough choice between attractive alternatives, I usually opt for the sensible strategy and try to do everything. Some seasons it works. I manage to ski a lot of my old haunts among the internationally celebrated French mega-resorts in the Savoie; and also made a a couple of eye-opening discoveries. Eye-opening to me, that is. One of the best of these discoveries is Valmorel.

Ask a French skier about Valmorel and you always hear the same story: "Ah, Valmorel, la plus belle station de la Savoie, the most beautiful resort in the whole Savoie." Ask an American skier about Valmorel and the response is sure to be: "Huh? What? Where? Never heard of it!"

Well, I hadn't either, only now that I've been there I'm singing the same tune: Valmorel really is the most beautiful ski resort I’ve seen in France. Not the biggest, not the most extensive, not the best developed, not the ritziest, certainly not the most chic or most expensive (thank heavens!) but yes, really the most beautiful — Valmorel, la belle! — and that's saying a lot.

High noon, high over Valmorel. My wife, Linde, and I are chatting with a swarthy, dark-haired skier/parachute pilot whose job, here on this high snowy ridge above town, is to give the curious what the French refer to as their baptême de l’air, their baptism of the air. Suspended from an extra-large two-person paraglider. We’ve decided to try it. Flying a parapênte, or paraglider, is definitely the hottest new sport in the Alps. There are now over a hundred paragliding schools in France with certified instructors to teach you. But this is not a school, just an “introduction.” The pilot will control the parachute: steer, circle in lazy arcs over the resort center of Valmorel below, and most important land the whole rig, parachute and two skiers, on a gentle slope beside the chairlift way, way down there...

Linde hangs two cameras around her neck, slips into the yellow and green nylon webbing of a modern parachute harness, and a few minutes later, floats off into space.

From above the village of Valmorel looks like a hand whose fingers, branching hamlets of traditional-looking alpine lodges - no sky-scraping apartment blocks here - stretch up the slopes toward a cirque of high, white, treeless ridges and peaks. Downslope, at the base of these fingers of lodging, is the Bourg, Valmorel’s town center, a small warm pedestrian-only zone, whose heart is a snow-covered walking street. Snow-covered because grooming vehicles bring fresh snow down to the rue de Bourg every evening and spread it out in a soft white carpet. The buildings, stores and restaurants along this main street are plastered in various colors, and painted with motifs more reminiscent of Eastern Switzerland’s Engadine valley than of a spartan French Village. Spartan Valmorel ain’t. International it is. Germans, Dutch, Belgians and Brits share the pastel plastered rue du Bourg, and the slopes above it, with native French skiers. And yes, there are cars. But banished to a village parking area further down the slope. A particularly happy solution considering that Valmorel is almost next door to the Three Valleys (Courchevel etc...) and smack in the heart of the most popular, most developed, most built up and visited zone of the French Alps, the Tarentaise region of the Savoie. Banishing cars always takes a bit of courage. and it always works. Bravo Valmorel!
Valmorel skiing is very French, that is to say, very very big. In most of the French Alps, the slopes of separate ski villages are linked together to form larger ski regions, domains, or domaines skiables as the French call them. Valmorel too. The resort is linked across the Col de la Madeleine with the sister villages (and slopes) of Longchamps and St François. And how much skiing is that? Around 50 lifts and 3600 hectares (or 1450 acres) of ski terrain - by comparison, Aspen mountain is just over 600 acres - plus the backside of almost everything, every peak, every ridge. During my two visits to Valmorel, Linde and I spent almost all our time in untracked snow
Lunch on a terrace at the Col de la Madeleine. A rustic hut with more great sausage and cheese than one expects in a deli, and more red wine than a prudent skier really needs. But when in Rome.? And then, black espresso to wake up, just when all seems lost. The coffee restores our balance, the wine perhaps adds to our readiness for an adventure, and there’s one at hand. Just one long lift ride away.

From the top of la Lauzière, a 2550 meter crest under a wall of dark rocky summits. Afternoon light turning the snow yellow-gold by degrees. A long traverse out toward l’Homme de Buerre, untracked snow, some crust, some shimmering, mirror-like Firnspiegl, some wind waves and sastrugi, and some really good snow too — "the whole catastrophe" as Zorba the Greek once put it. A run down to the valley that takes forever, or at least hours. Skiing a whole mountain range not just a mountain much less a piste or a run....

Long fallaway slopes, broken by transverse ridges as resting spots. Mandatory rest spots, because our legs only have a finite number of turns in them, and each pitch exceeds this magic number, each pitch tests our stamina, our imagination, our determination to braid unbroken tracks down an unbroken, untracked, unspoiled mountainside. Miles away, down below us and across the valley. hundreds of black ant-like dots are actually skiers heading for home along the maintained pistes, riding long poma-lifts back up to the whale back white ridges over Valmorel, coasting down to the Bourg and its tiny hamlets in the last light.

Valmorel, la Belle. Good to the last turn. And beyond.

_BreakthroughOnSkis.com __Ski Travel: Val Morel, France
© Lito Tejada-Flores