Big open bowls, hidden couloirs, tight gullies and trees. You’ll find some of Val d’Isère’s most rippable terrain off its Solaise peak, with a new über-plush gondola to get you up there
Words Ben Langridge
Forgive yourself for feeling like Darth Vader as your leather-seated, tinted-windowed, sleek black telecabine eases silently up towards the summit station of Val d’Isère’s Solaise peak. Replacing the old Solaise Express chairlift, the resort’s new state-of-the-art godola – opened for the 2016 season – is about two things: speed (it whisks skiers to the summit in just seven minutes) and views, as giant windows frame the mountains.
Add in heated seats and free wifi and you have a welcome break from the 710 vertical metres of skiing back down – but only a fool checks his emails. Savvy skiers take the opportunity to tighten their boots and fix their goggles to minimise any summit faff, because, once there, a wealth of serious skiing awaits. So let me be your guide…
We could rip it straight down the piste M (a top-to-bottom red that’s often a sea of fun slush moguls by the end of the day). But not today. Instead we’ll start by popping under the rope and traversing round to Danaides Wall – the steep, exposed face that should always be skied with caution, and which levels out onto a plateaux from where the main route splits into a myriad of options.
Go hard skier’s left and we’ll find the forked entrance to Lavancher Couloir – a thigh-burningly long descent to the valley floor. Offering great views, it’s one of my favourite introductions to couloir skiing.
Back at the foot of Danaides Wall, we’ll ski Danaides itself, a relatively steep, cliff-strewn forest that offers a variety of tree-skiing options back to the valley floor at Laissinant. If you know the routes and their many variants you can ski fresh powder here days after a storm.
If you like making a dramatic entrance you’ll love the Couloir to Nowhere. This big open bowl funnels into a chute that ends in a cliff, so a guide is a good idea here. Make sure you follow me closely because, just at the right point, I’ll hook up into the trees and drop into a hidden couloir that descends out of nowhere onto piste L.
On the right day, there’s plenty of snow and terrain to grab by hooking east at the foot of Danaides Wall and heading into the Dana L off-piste sector. The terrain here is steep and open with a few cliff bands.
Each route accesses the Laissinant path, which is a short five-minute skate back to the Solaise telecabine; or for the less energetic, a five-minute bus ride takes you back to the base station for another loop.
If Danaides isn’t ripe, we’ll go west into Super S, where a wide bowl funnels into an S-shaped chute with steep walls – great for slash turns or big jumps into infinity on powder days. As the terrain progressively mellows, little gullies and big canyons provide feature-packed terrain leading you down to the Manchet River, which, in turn, takes you back to the telecabine.
Seven minutes later and we’re back at the top… come on, no time to faff, there’s more to explore. This time we’ll head further skier’s left and into the more committed S Prime. Starting gently, this long open bowl soon steepens and tightens into a funnel between two cliffs.
Once negotiated, the tight passage opens up into some of the most rippable terrain you can imagine; a skier’s dream on a powder day, leading us back into the Manchet Valley for another lap.
Super S and S Prime are both tracked-out now, so stick with me as we traverse higher along the same face, heading into the Marmottons Couloirs. These chutes can get tight when the snow is thin, but take your pick – there are at least three separate routes through the cliff band, all of which rejoin the S Prime face linking into the Manchet Valley.
Back at the top, we’re flaking, legs are tired and sweat is slowly steaming our anti-fog goggles.
Let’s not be too hard on ourselves, we’ve just skied seven laps of the Solaise Telecabine, totalling 5000 vertical metres of red-black gradient slopes, with only 49 minutes of rest time in the lift.
Oh, and did I forget to mention that was all off-piste, under the rope, uncontrolled backcountry? Let’s go to the Space Station X (or rather, the new über-plush day lodge, located at the top of the telecabine, complete with a café, sofas and mini cinema). I hear C3PO is serving coffee and pastries. I’ve got the Super L and Mattis Trees, two more off-piste sectors, lined up next…
Vertical rise: 710m
Val d’ Isere
Who is Ben?
Ben has been leading groups in the Val d’Isère off-piste since 2006. He teaches alpine skiing with The Development Centre and is a founder of Tele Tracks a telemark ski school offering a unique Scott NTN test centre.