Come join us in this oh-so-uncrowded spot to ride Chabrières, the drag lift that accesses Vars’ spines, couloirs and 40° faces
I know, it’s not exactly the strongest sell. Riding the lift that time forgot. For perpetuity. But this one really is rather marvellous. And accesses much of Vars’ best terrain. Yes, that Vars that held the Red Bull Linecatcher for years. So do read on if you like chasing mythical spines, couloirs and gnarly 40° faces.
As we’re diving south, well past the usual ski suspects, may I also suggest taking the train to reach this most civilised spot? (With main base Vars Les Claux nothing like the hectic, over-developed mega-resorts 100km or so to the north as the crow flies.)
And while you can airplane it into Turin, Marseille or Grenoble, all are knocking on for three hours’ drive away, and the train is just, well, so much easier. No weight restrictions, no fear your luggage won’t turn up, and perfect Eurostar meets SNCF timings. In our case we left London St Pancras late pm, then jumped on the sleeper train to Montdauphin Guillestre, a mere 15-minute taxi from Vars.
I’m not sure I’ve had a more relaxed journey, bar the crazy taxi rank at Gare du Nord, as you need to cross the city to Austerlitz station. In terms of romance, well, it’s hard to beat a 7.30am wake-up call with the mountains flashing past as the first shafts of pale sunlight settle on your four-person couchette.
Quick croissant/change at your hotel and you can be on the slopes for 9am. Should you be lucky with powder, best head to Chabrières tout suite. This 1689m-long T-bar is an obvious option for early tracks given the glorious chutes that flow from it – and the fact it’s the resort’s highest lift, topping out at 2745m.
Our guide, Karl Josephine (book him through evolution-2vars.com), said he and most of the local talent favour Poulie Retour with its 40° start, but I was rather taken with Banana, which bends skier’s right to left. In both, it doesn’t take much to feel just a little bit wonderful as you hop over the odd shark (it’s rocky here, but more of that later) and get a wonderful Cody Townsend tight pull through the crack.
There’s nothing close to as narrow as the Alaska special – Google Cody Townsend line of the year if you’ve not seen it – but there are plenty demanding enough, and steep enough so you can’t rush them, which means they ski much longer than their 300m length.
There’s a treat once you’re out too, with an enormous, ever-so-open powder field. We were visiting a good five days after the last snow and it was still wonderful. No lines, no people, just 50m arcing Alaska turns and powder plumes.
Look back up once you hit the blue run (Serre Banet) that serves as a huge cat track out and the colouring and formations are like the best of Colorado, a six or seven option slice of Rockies heaven.
Further juicy stuff includes the spines above Col Sans Nom, scratched when we skied here, but apparently wonderful in good snow. Should hiking be more your thing, it’s a hard 90-minute push from the top of the T-bar to La Raie des Fesses, just off the highest point in the area (the 2863m Pic Saint-André). This literally translates as the arse crack. How can you resist, dear Beavis? Well, until you spot the absurd steepness and no-fall zone entry…
Sweep your binoculars to the other side of Vars, and use Corniche Supérieure off our much favoured Chabrières T-bar to access (again with a hike, about 70 minutes when we did it) the mighty slots that have previously hosted the Linecatcher and Freeride World Qualifier competitions.
As you descend, reflecting that previous winner Candide could possibly learn a thing or two from you, remember that a team of park shapers spent days in here constructing jumps for the Red Bull robots to hit, in addition to all the natural and crazy drop-offs. For a standard skier, it just does not compute…
The same goes for our final recommendation, the natural corridor at the foot of Eyssina. Outlined in a vague pink on the map, and noted as ‘stade permanent de vitesse’, this is where Simone Origone broke the world speed skiing record in 2016, carding an incredible 254.958km/h.
We recommend celebrating only being 90% slower down this surprisingly rutted, pock-marked face with a huge carbonara at Le Barjo, not far from the 1400m-long face. After all, there are few things excessive cheese and meat can’t fix.