Flowing pistes, rolling plateaus and epic pillow lines. When a storm comes rolling in the small French resort of Arêches-Beaufort is the place to head
“Beaufort? As in the cheese? Count me in!” A friend had just called to ask if I wanted to tag along for a day’s
shred in Arêches-Beaufort, a resort I had never been to, but that was located smack-bang in Beaufort cheese country. All the motivation I needed.
I knew more or less where it was from blasting past the turning on many previous occasions when heading up to the Espace Killy (now Tignes-Val d’Isère) or Les Trois Vallées, but had never thought to ski there.
Matt had been watching the meteo reports and saw something brewing over the Haute-Savoie/Savoie border. Cold with lots of precipitation. And rather than aiming for a large high-altitude resort, he elected to head for a lower and smaller one.
Now, this turned out to be an important lesson in storm-chasing for me. You would think that, with a big dump forecast, heading to a larger resort would be the most logical thing to do – with only a day’s riding, you want the most bang for your buck, where you are guaranteed long runs and more scope for fresh tracks.
But! A day, or even a long weekend, just isn’t very long, and there simply isn’t enough time to ski everything in a mega resort. And most importantly, when a storm rolls in lower resorts don’t suffer the high wind that their higher neighbours can (no one wants to spend the whole day waiting for lifts to open). Not to mention the super-varied terrain you get lower down. Think tree skiing, chutes and pillow lines galore. So choosing a ‘little hill’ like Arêches-Beaufort made perfect sense.
Pulling into the resort, it had the feel of the prettier parts of the Portes du Soleil or Grand Massif, all chapels and barns and old family shops. No one is in a hurry. There are only 13 lifts, a mix of chairs and T-bars, and a sweet view of Mont Blanc from almost all points.
The ski area is divided into two sectors: Arêches and La Planay. We decided to head straight up the Grand Mont and Bonnets Rouges chairs on the Arêches side, and got our first glimpse of the easily-accesible tree skiing. We passed directly over tasty-looking pillow lines that we would be skiing in 10 minutes. Spotting lines, exits. What a way to get you pumped for a run.
The chair deposits you above the tree-line, on what is basically a big rolling plateau. There are three T-bars here, servicing flowy pistes along cruisy, open spaces, as well as plenty of un-pisted scope, with natural lips and drops for some air time. This is where you would come for the best late-season snow, or cruising around in the sunshine or what-not, but we were too stoked by what we’d seen on the way up to stay here. There was too much steep stuff to ski! We worked the legs, lapping the chairs a couple times, blasting the trees on the front side and hitting those juicy pillow lines. Sick! Then it was time to go get the really good stuff.
It isn’t easy to see on the piste map but the lift lines from both Arêches and Le Planay head up diverging sides of a valley, and serendipitously, from either of this valley’s sides, you can drop down into the centre, via a parallel series of steep chutes: open and gladey at the top, becoming narrower as you descend. The vertical, being the equivalent of two chairlifts, is long enough for you to forget about the rest of civilisation for a while. And when you have tracked out one of them, you can simply shift along to the next. The chutes all end on the valley floor in a home-run: a pisted road, called Perches, back to the bottom stations.
As far as the Alps go, I can’t remember such easy access to steep lift-accessed chutes with no skinning out. Instead you get a scenic ‘boulevard de liaison’ lined with huge barns for all those Tarentaise cheese cows and a pretty river, with plenty of time to pause and reflect on what a rad descent that was.
Speaking of skinning, there are plenty of options up top on both sectors, and at good altitude too. That afternoon we headed up to the Col de la Forclaz (2320m) via the top Arêches T-bar and a mini 10-minute bootpack up and over to that same back valley. From there you have a great view of Le Grand Mont, a significant chunk of mountain that rises up right in front of you to 2687m, which has plenty of touring options. Next time…
The whole time we were in Arêches-Beaufort we only heard a couple of English voices – most skiers were French. And we only encountered one other group off-piste, so it felt very much like we had it all to ourselves.
By the end of the day we were amazed at the vertical we had done (enough to compete with any bigger resort), and the volume of tarte au Beaufort we had eaten; our lunch stop of choice was the La Marmotte restaurant, serving all manner of traditional cheesey dishes, and conveniently located at the bottom of the Planay lift; it gave the option to sip coffees and schnapps, while others did another lap. Who am I kidding. There was no coffee or schnapps – we were all too eager to get going again. So much skiing, so little time…