As a native New Englander, I learned that downhill skiing meant wearing six layers of wool clothing, thick face-cover, triple socks and the occasional mitten warmer to survive the -15F (-26C) wind-chilled New Hampshire slopes. Also don’t forget your well-sharpened skis to grip all of the ice patches that were bound to appear on the 2000 ft “mountains” where I grew up. With this in mind, it was a real pleasure to discover skiing in the French Alps, where even the smallest ski areas tend to have multiple peaks, awe-inspiring views and slopes covered in snow instead of ice!
The Long and Winding Road
Before you can ski in the French Alps, you first have to survive the climb to the ski station. This means driving up narrow, winding mountain roads in caterpillar formation with cars full of skiers on all sides. Inevitably, also expect the guy behind you to tailgate the entire way, despite the fact that if he passed you he’d still be behind hundreds of other cars also heading to the ski area. Throughout this time, you must constantly scan the road for black ice and never look at the spectacular views to avoid drifting into the other lane or falling into the thousand meter abyss appearing just over the ancient brick and mortar guard rails that still seem to line many mountain roads. For an added thrill, you could also opt to catch a “ski bus” that takes skiers from the city to a nearby station, where looking out the high windows as the bus winds its way up the mountain can be scarier than some roller coasters I’ve been on!
I must also mention that if it starts to snow the local police will often setup roadblocks at the bottom of critical mountain roads where they will force motorists to pull over and put on snow chains – if you forget your chains, time to turn around and go home. For some reason (at least in the South), many French have never heard of snow tires and insist on only equipping their cars with summer tires all year round; Perhaps they simply enjoy the finger-numbing thrill of putting on snow chains any time a storm blows in!
The French are also experts with jamming their cars into any available space for parking, and ski stations are no exception. Expect the parking lots to be packed full by ~10am, with cars and recreational vehicles lined up in some strange, fractal fashion. If you search hard enough, you’ll eventually find the single lane route that’s somehow left open through the parking lot, allowing traffic to flow. And also be sure to watch out for the ice as you step out of the car – salting is optional!
Compared to your average North Eastern US $70 full-day ticket price, ski rates in France are a bargain. An adult ticket is ~25€ ($35) with rental ~20€ ($28). There is also usually a way to find some local coupons for discounts. When you purchase your ski ticket, expect to be pressured to add on accident insurance for a few extra euros. Basically, this covers your medical expenses and evacuation in case you decide to try that triple helicopter jump in the huge pile of powder at the summit. If you actually dare to refuse the insurance, the hourly rescue rates tend to be listed next to the ticket prices so at least you’ll know that it will only cost a mere 300€ an hour if you break your leg (which is probably cheaper than most US health insurance deductibles).
French ski stations in the Alps vary widely in size, but even the small family ones are often huge by New England standards. When purchasing your ticket, it is very important to ask for a ski map to navigate the labyrinth of slopes and shortcuts for connecting to the various lifts leading to different peaks. If you need to go back to the base station, you sometimes have to mount 3-4 different peaks before connecting to a return path. Ski slopes are also color-coded with different lines: green/blue (circles), red (squares) and black (diamonds).
One of the more thrilling experiences in older French ski stations is wrapping your legs around a pole with a circular seat at the end known affectionately as a “tire-fesse” (literally ”butt puller”). Because of ski area size and basic economics, there can’t be chairlifts (télésiège) everywhere, so the smaller hills are sometimes serviced by an old fashioned “tire-fesse”. Some of these lifts seem like they were built at the dawn of industrialization and are literally chiseled into the mountainside with whizzing cables and ancient gears pulling you up an ungroomed 20% incline with no hope of escape and nobody at the top to help extract you from the contraption… At this point, all you can do is remember the rules: hold on tight and try not to crush anything important with the pole!
If there’s one thing that French skiers like to do more than skiing, it’s also eating of course! At many stations there are snack bars, bistrots and restaurants at the bottom, top and mid-slope. If the ski area is sunny enough, many also have outside lounge chairs for a quick cat nap in the afternoon sun to recover from all the spiced wine served with lunch. Although this may seem like a great way to spend the afternoon, the pleasure of eating out can also cost more than the ski ticket itself because, just like in America, restaurants in ski areas are often overpriced rip-offs.
The French can also be quite frugal and frequently bring their own coolers and picnic lunches to save on the exorbitant food prices. The difference is that in American ski lodges you just need to find a free bench, empty your cooler on the table and have a grand old time. However, in France it is completely rude to just sit at a random free restaurant table, even in an outside snack bar, and start eating your picnic lunch. Often you’re left with the choice to either pay for food or join the French tailgate party in the ski area parking lot during lunch hour (unfortunately, without any music). At this time you’ll see many families cracking open their compact hatchbacks and having some good old ham and butter baguette sandwiches with the occasional flask of “eau de vie”1 before heading back to the slopes.
Unlike in America, the average French ski resort doesn’t seem too concerned with lawsuits. They may put up a warning sign or two, but you have to be smart enough to not ski too close to cliff edges and be careful when the slope intersects a “téléski” (the official name for the “tire-fesse” ski lift). Also, don’t be a moron and ski off the groomed trails when there is a high chance of an avalanche! This may seem like common sense, but in America it would definitely be grounds for a lawsuit if you slipped off the sheer unfenced cliff edge that happens to be a mere 5m (15ft) from where you get off the ski lift! In any case, don’t expect a Saint Bernard to come running to save you anytime soon. Like many natural tourist destinations in France (mountain hiking trails, natural beaches, etc.) the spectacular beauty can also be pretty dangerous, so try to keep in mind that you’re pretty much on your own… In the meantime, pull out that flask of “Eau de Vie” and enjoy the stunning vista of the French Alps! Happy Skiing!
Le Vanoise Express - France boasts the biggest ski area cable car (téléphérique) in the world. It is a massive, double decker machine that can hold over 200 people and links La Plagne and Les Arcs ski resorts in the Savoie area. Despite its size, fortunately the laws of physics still apply!
Conduite sur Glace at Serre Chevalier - Many of France’s bigger ski stations also have a special car circuit nearby reserved for teaching people how to drive on ice. Basically, it’s a regular driving school where you can crank on the steering wheel, slam on the breaks and slide into snowbanks to your heart’s content! It’s amazing what fun you can have when companies don’t have to worry so much about lawsuits…
SkiFrance.fr - the domain name is self explanatory. Lists all the ski areas in France with webcams, snow reports and ratings
Skiset.com - Online ski rental site for many stations. As usual in France, I’d recommend giving a call after you reserve just to double check with the rental shop that they received the email…
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- ”eau de vie”, literally translated as “water of life”, is popular after-meal hard liquor usually made from fermented mountain flowers [↩]