Fast chairs, serious vert and heavenly snow in Montgenèvre

Why Montgenèvre, with its fort and its sidecountry tree lines, is where many a mountain guide seeks out pow stashes

The Col de Montgenèvre, at 1854m, has more historical significance than you might realise, as you sit on the Chalvet chairlift thinking: “this is nice”. For Julius Caesar, no less, brought his legions over the col to invade Gaul, it being the lowest Alpine crossing point between Italy and France. And you’ll recall that Charles VIII of France came through in 1494 on his way to invade Naples.

That’s enough Wiki-bore; although militaristic undertones endure in Montgenèvre today, adding to the mystique of this understated resort in the Cottian Alps above France’s highest city, Briançon (1326m).

Montgenèvre is not as well known as its near neighbours of Serre Chevalier, Sestriere or, further afield, La Grave. But as with so many hidden gems we find at Fall-Line, it’s a place where guides like to bring clients, either to hunt secret stashes of untracked pow; or to save the day when conditions are failing at the headline resorts.

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As one of the first French ski resorts (1907), Montgenèvre has developed at a sedate pace. It’s by no means tiny, with 35 lifts topping out at 2577m. Its 59 pistes span the north and south sides of an open valley, making the chances pretty good of finding decent snow all day long. Being a 20-minute drive from Briançon, it’s the place locals go when the snow clouds roll in, and they don’t need a fancy resort that brings in too many tourists.

As it’s low-profile, Montgenèvre’s lifts never leave you queue-bound. Yes, there are some drag lifts on the upper reaches, but fast chairs get you high up and drags such as Crête open up interesting terrain that would otherwise not qualify for expensive upgrades to six-man chairs.

Montgenèvre’s pisted runs offer the usual ratio of mainly red, then blue and (eight) black runs, which include Les Myrtilles on the north side, accessed from the Serre Thibaud chair; and Les Rhodos on the south side, accessed from the Brousset chair. Both offer some spice when the avalanche risk is high, as it has often been this season.

The north side of the valley has some fun fast leg-burner reds, such as La Combe du Loup, off the top of the Chalvet chair. The village is 770m of vert below, making it a fine and speedy warm-up run.

Head over to the south side of the village and you’ll find yourself in the Le Prairial area, a wide, tree-laden undulating ridge between Montgenèvre and Claviere. It has plenty of sidecountry tree lines between pisted runs, either bringing you down the east side to the Tremplin chair or down the west side towards Montgenèvre village.

Not being known for freeriding means that the challenging couloirs that trickle down the west side of the ridge to the left of the Gondran lift are likely to be yours alone. The same is true on the eastern edge of the area, where the Italian-French border meets the top of Le Rocher de l’Aigle chair. Along the ridge between the peaks of Colletto Verde (2560m) and Monte La Plane (2546m) run a series of open fields and couloir descents, epic in the right conditions.

As with many of our Little Hills, big hills aren’t far away. So if getting in the miles is your thing, upgrade your pass to the full Vialattea (Milky Way) ski domain, of which Montgenèvre is part. It’s mainly in Italy and the border is Schengengly easy to cross; only two runs east from Montgenèvre in Claviere. This Italian village is home to my favourite restaurant, Kilt, a brilliant lunch spot near the bottom of the Col Boeuf chair.

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It’s impossible not to notice the ring of mountaintop forts around Briançon, protecting its position at the confluence of the Guisane and Durance rivers. Above Montgenèvre is Fort Janus. It’s long-abandoned but well worth a visit on skins. Peeping through the slit windows it’s easy to imagine how grim a place it must have been to inhabit.

The French military still train above Montgenèvre, lodging in a barracks near the top of L’Observatoire lift. I saw them skinning up in zigzag lines with huge packs and solid touring set-ups. There’s a rifle range too and some guides have found themselves hurrying clients across Val Cervieres to the rear of the range, anxious that stray bullets don’t come their way!  

 

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