Les 7 Laux | Little hills, big thrills

Will Robson samples a mighty Jekyll and Hyde resort in the Belledonne mountains

skier on descent by rocks

An inversion had buried the entire Isère valley with a blanket of dense clouds, but it felt like spring up at 1,600m on the slopes of Les 7 Laux. Across from us, under a cerulean sky, the fallen cloud left the Chartreuse Massif jutting through the stratocumulus like a polar mountain range. Descending through the cloud, the skiing conditions reminded me it was January, as skiers and piste markers loomed out of the mist.

Les 7 Laux is one of 23 resorts in the Isère Department, on the western edge of one of France’s forgotten wildernesses. The Belledonne is a 60km long, 10km wide mountain range; the Grand Pic de Belledonne (2,977m), is its highest point. A new 127km trail, GR738, runs its roadless length. 20km to the south east are Les 2 Alpes and Alpe d’Huez in the Oisans range, with La Grave and Les Écrins further east at the border with Savoie.

Clouds fill a valley, mountains covered in snow rising up either side, the sun is shining

Like the Vercors to the west, the Belledonne range is routinely overlooked by foreign skiers who are drawn deeper into the Alps. This is a mistake: although the citizens of nearby Grenoble may not agree, with Les 7 Laux one of their favoured weekend boltholes.

As a ski resort, Les 7 Laux is modest in size. Created in the ’70s, it has 22 lifts and 45 pistes over 120km of mixed runs. It rises from 1,350m across three base stations: the main ’70s-looking Prapoutel, with Le Plyenet and Pipay as smaller ‘satellite’ connecting stations. Prapoutel connects you to the top lift station at Col du Pouta at 2,400m.

After skiing above and below the clouds with local mountain guide Hervé Troccaz, including the black itinerary Vallons du Pra run, which drops a vertical kilometre to Le Pleynet (1,450m), our group picked up touring skis from the local Intersport and collected ropes, harnesses and boot crampons at Hervé’s ski school office in Prapoutel.

Although the snow wasn’t ideal for ski touring, the weather was still fantastic up high, so Hervé decided we’d climb along an arête to the Col du Pra (2,463m)and ski down the other side into Les Vénétiers valley.

As can happen in ski resorts, once the guide sees you can kind of ski, he or she will happily take you off somewhere effin’ terrifying, unaware that most Brits will happily follow and worry about it later.

roped up ski mountaineers above the clouds on wind buffed snow, near the top of a mountain, the sun shining bright round a rock

Leaving the Col du Pouta top station, we strapped skis on packs, crampons on boots, rope loops on carabiners and started up a 45-degree hard-packed ridge with hundreds of metres of certain-death-cliff on either side.

The banter turned to terror-induced invective as Hervé led us scrambling up small rock pillars and along the arête, until the Col du Pra finally appeared and we descended 2km through sun-softened old snowfields to the remote refuge du Habert d’Aiguebelle. Cheese-covered boiled potatoes, cold cuts and wine cured any lingering leg shake; that, and a need to show a group of white-clad Chasseurs Alpins mountain troops alongside us that we were good to go.

a skier makes turns next to the shadow line of a lip
a skier on a steep descent, on a blue bird day in the high mountains

As darkness fell we followed Hervé by head-torch down a tight winding forest path – the sort six-year-olds love – before meeting a tracked ATV trailing a rope for us to grab for the 6km ski-tow back to Prapoutel. A beer in the stylish Kaktusbar and excellent burgers in Le Méléze followed – both unpretentious and good value (a burger costing around €15).

The ski passes are good value here too (an adult six-day ski pass costing €183), and also the accommodation, consisting of mainly self-catered apartments (it’s a popular weekend location, after all).

Some retain the ’70s vibe – not quite Le Corbusier Les Arcs or Bauhaus Flaine, but definitely on-trend modernist French. There are new ‘chalet-style’ places to be found, like the simple but comfy one-bed flat I stayed in, located in one of seven blocks of Résidences Les Granges next to the Chamois lift.

If I had to sum up Les 7 Laux in just three words? Jekyll and Hyde. It is low-key and low-cost, making it ideal for families, while at the other end of the spectrum there is plenty of spicy ski touring terrain for experts and adventurers to get their teeth into. All deep in the under-explored Belledonne mountains.

7 shadows of skiers roped up, walking on a mountain top pictured as silhouettes against the snow