Ski journalist and photographer Alf Alderson gets more than he bargained for – in every sense of the word – in La Plagne’s backcountry.
La Plagne – most ski guides describe it as ‘perfect for intermediates’, ‘great cruiser runs’, ‘popular with families’ – that kind of thing.
So, it’s not a ski resort where you’d expect to find world-class off-piste and backcountry; but you’d be wrong in your expectations.
In fact, from where I’m standing now, on the east shoulder of 3417m (11,200ft) Bellecôte, I’m enjoying views to match any in the Alps as line after line of snow-shrouded mountains extends to the horizon like the lines of a monstrous ocean swell.
Amongst the peaks in view are some of the alpine greats including Mont Blanc, Grand Casse, Grand Combin and La Meije, and I’m enjoying this absolutely unforgettable panorama with just five other people. Meanwhile, just a stone’s throw away and visible way below our vantage point, the Paradiski area (of which La Plagne is part) is gearing to accommodate the hordes arriving for the Easter holidays.
There are many reasons why La Plagne and Paradiski seem to fall below the radar when it comes to off-piste skiing, but rather than analyse what they might be I, along with ski touring pals Abi, Chris, Chris and Ian – am more than happy to just accept that in return for a 15-minute boot pack and a half-hour skin we are enjoying the kind of solitude and spectacular views that are just not possible when resort skiing.
The five of us had picked up our touring gear from Intersport (www.intersport-rent.fr) in Plagne Bellecote where unlike most ski hire shops they have everything you need if you don’t own your own touring gear. We left the busy slopes of the Paradiski area to head off and explore the wild blue yonder with ski guide André Bianchini.
However, this wasn’t my first experience of La Plagne’s off-piste riches (which as it happens turned out to be just as well – but more about that later…). A couple of seasons earlier, I’d ventured up to the summit of 2558m (8,300ft) Mont Jovet to the south-west of Aime La Plagne on a sunny January day with another mountain guide called Matteo de Marchi.
A relatively quick and easy 90-minute ascent on skins from the top of the Cretes draglift rewarded us with 500+ metres of descent on an untracked, open powder field just crying out for a signature or two.
Matteo and I were happy to oblige. We swooped off either side of a small, steep couloir, getting in three or four hard, sharp turns before the whole thing opened out into a gloriously wide playground of shin-deep fluff.
We find we can pretty much take any line we like, getting in dozens of wide, sweeping turns until we eventually glide to a halt to give our quads a rest and admire our handiwork. Above us lie two sinuous lines that in Matteo’s case at least, would make the most demanding of calligraphers proud.
There’s still a couple of hundred metres of descent through low shrubs and trees left to us before we hit the right bank of the Ruisseau de Frasse for an easy ski out to the slopes of La Plagne, the Chalet de la Rosse and, according to Matteo, “The best pizza in La Plagne”. It’s still only 11.30am but why not enjoy an early lunch? After all, we’ve worked for it!
Back to my most recent off-piste outing though. This being spring things are not as quiet as they were on Mont Jovet in January; in fact, there’s a line of people bootpacking up from the top of the Glacier chair to the start point for various descents of La Plagne’s signature off-piste descent, Le Cul du Nant.
Our chosen route takes us on an interesting mix of traverses along ridges and steeply angled slopes, a steep descent into a sun-baked bowl and then a skin up to the point where we came in, on the Bellecôte. Normally I see the mountain’s impressive north face towering above me as I ski in my home resort of Les Arcs, linked to La Plagne by the mighty Vanoise Express double-deck cable car, so I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself to be standing on top of the mountain for a change.
Guide André checks out a possible line of descent down the north face, a steep couloir which will require roping up at the top, and he eventually decides it’s going to be too tricky and too much hassle. No one argues – after all, at 67-years of age, André comes with the ultimate recommendation for any mountain guide: age (as the saying goes ‘there are bold guides and there are old guides, but there are no old, bold, guides’).
Give me old over bold any day, it tends to keep you alive in the mountains…
So, we’re heading south, into the sun and down to the beautiful high alpine valley of Champagny-le-Haut. André leads the way, followed by Abi and Ian. As they fade into the distance I reflect on the fact that the slopes of Peisey-Vallandry, part of the Les Arcs ski area that I can see in the distance, are thronging with humanity on this fine spring day, whereas our line of descent, probably no more than a kilometre from La Plagne’s upper slopes, doesn’t have a single ski track on it. Yet.
The skiing turns out to be mixed. Wide, wide fields of snow that have been topped up again and again on what has been the snowiest winter in years, but the sun has added a tricky crust to many areas, so we find ourselves breaking through this regularly, and it isn’t easy. There again, there are small pockets of powder to bring a smile back to everyone’s faces too.
However, the crust gets the better of me. I won’t bore you with all the details but I take a flyer and my bindings fail to release, but my knee ligaments do. It soon becomes apparent as I attempt to continue down to Champagny-le-Haut that I’m not capable of skiing another hundred vertical metres, let alone the thousand-plus required to get to our destination.
Cue helicopter ride out of the mountains and weeks, if not months, of rehab. Indeed, as I write this I’ve got one knee in a brace and am waiting for a diagnosis of the damage done. But it hasn’t put me off enthusing about what truly spectacular off-piste skiing La Plagne and the Paradiski area can offer and plan a return visit next winter when I’m back in full working order.
I’ve also been wondering how come La Plagne is hiding its magnificent freeride terrain from the world like this?
But on reflection, I don’t necessarily think it is. It’s just that the resort has so successfully marketed itself as an intermediate and family destination that the array of off-piste options on offer has largely been forgotten about. Check out most of the promotional material on the La Plagne website, and if your idea of a good time is blasting down red and blue runs and covering the miles it’ll be highly appealing; if, on the other hand, you’d prefer to blast down open powder fields and deserted steeps, it’ll probably have slipped beneath your radar.
Which may just be a good thing for those of us who have our radars turned on…