Will Robson explores Les Sybelles and discovers the perfect mix of cruisey blues and challenging sidecountry
Brits can be suckers for a high profile ski resort and not always because the terrain is better or the snow is abundant. Funny that. For some, the expense and impossible glamour of a skiing holiday means choosing a big name resort is still the safest bet.
But ‘Skier 2.0’, usually a Fall-Line reader, seeks powder-bliss beyond the groomers and mink-lined onesie scene. Which is good news, as the possibilities snowball once you widen your search for resorts not necessarily on the UK ski holidaymaker’s radar.
Take, for example, Les Sybelles, above the Savoie-Maurienne valley in the south-western French Alps. You may not have heard of France’s fourth largest connected ski area but that’s forgivable as it was only created as a collective entity in 2003 when six resorts were linked: Le Corbier, La Toussuire (a mountain stage finish in the Tour de France), Les Bottières, St Colomban des Villards, Saint Sorlin d’Arves and Saint Jean d’Arves. It all adds up to 310km of piste across the domain – pretty impressive when you stack it up against, say, France’s mighty Val d’Isère-Tignes ski area, which has 300km. Okay, so there are no télécabines and it tops out at just 2620m (Les Perrons summit), but it’s the backcountry, side-country and couloir options across the six valleys that make this place really interesting. For any ski trip planner bravely attempting to please everyone, Les Sybelles is worth closer inspection. Particularly if like many recreational riders, your burgeoning talent on skis is cruelly constrained by time and money.
It could be the ideal compromise for those friends or family who want to save cash and, less admirably, don’t share your delight or ability in the deep stuff. You know the ones: while your transceiver beeps forlornly for a mate, they’re tanking it down a blue run to start the après meltdown early.
More than 60% of the 124 marked runs are green and blue. So with a network of (mostly) fast chairlifts, beginners and intermediates can cruise relentlessly while the freeriders among you explore interesting side-country (including some seriously steep and narrow couloirs above the Saint Sorlin d’Arves area) while easily staying in touch with the group if you need to.
While this approach is clearly not as epic an undertaking as a big mountain day in say Verbier or La Grave (whose dominating peak, La Meije, is visible to the south of Les Sybelles), it’s a great way for budding freeriders to build confidence and skills before tackling something way beyond the piste map.
The variety of aspects and terrain across the area’s six valleys is impressive. In only a day we’d ridden the rolling, expansive Rochers de la Curiaz area behind Les Perrons, which links easily with chairlifts at the Chalet d’Olle. Snow conditions were ‘thin’, so couloirs were out but we traversed beneath the glacier de Saint Sorlin and the highest peak in the area, l’Étendard (3464m) to descend through the trees above the village of Saint Sorlin d’Arves.
If you want to go further afield, including a night in a refuge, Les Sybelles has plenty of IFMGA mountain guides, such as the legendary Phillip Vincent, who’ll take you into the backcountry for around €160 per day.
Les Sybelles is considerably cheaper than the well-known resorts. So far this knowledge has cunningly been kept quiet by the Dutch and Belgian skiers who dominate the foreign visitor population, but if you don’t mind that English is seldom heard and that many of the apartment blocks are not what you’d call pretty, Les Sybelles’ lack of pretension can be strangely appealing.
Away from the apartment blocks in La Toussuire, efforts are being made to build more chalet-style hotels, such as the three-star hotel Beausoleil. It’s only a few hundred metres poling from the lift station, but the surroundings are so much more aesthetically pleasing than those endless concrete walkways so typical of French resorts purpose-built in decades past.
Les Sybelles is not for everyone, but if you’ve a group of mixed abilities to organise and costs to keep down, it offers a cost-effective week’s skiing with extensive, fun, varied and easily accessible terrain. FL