For almost year-round skiing on big mountain terrain, head for the snow-sure bowl that’s the jewel in France’s Tarentaise Valley, says Matt Carr
As a city-dweller forced to spend much of my life in a subterranean sardine can, the last thing I want to do when skiing is get in another one. When I’m in Tignes however, I’m prepared to make an exception for the funicular and subsequent cable car from the base of Val Claret at 2100m to the top of La Grande Motte at 3456m. Neither will help you with your goggle tan, but in just 12 minutes they will deliver you to an all-you-can-ski 1300 vertical metre buffet stacked with more terrain than you’ll be able to shake a ski pole at in a season, let alone a week.
Piste skiers can arc GS turns down a choice of vast, steepish and wide open reds down the top pitch, past the mid station and all the way down the fabulous Double M to Val Claret, with the option of keeping left at the bottom for a run through the colossal 22ft superpipe at the base.
Those in less of a hurry can bear right at the mid station for the undulating tranquillity of the blue Genepi piste, which eventually deposits you back to the base of Val Claret.
The high altitude means that the snow quality is always the bee’s knees and, as a result, the glacier is open to skiers from early October through to May. In July and August the terrain park moves up here and hosts a choice of freeski camps, while a number of international race teams train on the steeper-than-most glacier.
There’s not a tree in sight up here though, so in bad weather forget about it, unless you enjoy the views inside a ping-pong ball.
In winter, the quantity and quality of big mountain accessible terrain is truly mind-boggling. Tignes is a real heavyweight in the freeride arena, and it’s easy to see why. The classic combination is La Trilogie: the three consecutive and varied north faces of the Grand Motte, Pramecou and La Grande Balme. Together they comprise about as comprehensive a freeride examination as you could hope to combine in a morning.
Between them they feature just about all of the technical hazards you should expect to encounter in big, high altitude terrain (two of the three are former Freeride World Tour faces), so a guide is a must. The first is the north face of the Motte itself: easily accessed directly off the top bin, this is the glaciated expanse to skier’s left of the cable.
It’s a comparatively gentle warm-up, winding serenely through crevasses, before opening onto the huge expanse of gradually flattening glacier, which tends to resemble a giant ploughed field (snow conservation for summer). This must be crossed before the long, gentle climb up the shoulder of the Pramecou to skier’s left. Easiest on skins, this shouldn’t take more than 40 minutes.
Dropping into the Pramecou north face can feel a lot like skiing off the edge of the world. It’s seriously steep, and you can’t get a clear view down until you’re in the belly of the beast. The reward though is 400m vert of 45° powder, which spits you out at the start of the climb to the final north face – that of the mighty Grande Balme. Like the Pramecou, the climb is gentle and straightforward, while the descent is steep, committed and spectacular.
If you manage all three in a morning, you’ll have earned a macro-lunch, and happily you’ll end up back at the bottom of the funicular, which’ll take you back up to a place where such a meal is available.
Michel Bouvier’s fabulous gourmet sheepskin-seated, beret-waitered Panoramic restaurant at the Grand Motte mid-station is an ideal way to offset a morning’s exertion, while enjoying the spectacular views. And for those on a budget, there’s also a snack bar and self-service which serves decent local fare without turning your credit card to fondue.
La Trilogie aside, the list of classic lines accessible directly from the Motte is long. Genepi Bowl, to skier’s left of the piste of the same name, is a mellow zone with a peaceful, away-from-it-all vibe, while La Petite Balme offers a pick ‘n’ mix of ‘mini-golf’ terrain to skier’s right of the Double M piste. And crushing a line down couloirs P1 to P5 directly opposite (accessed the same way as the Pramecou) will leave the peanut gallery on the Lanches chair scratching their novelty-hatted heads, wondering what it must be like to be as rad as you.