Supersizing the Three Valleys

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a golden glow over a huge mountain massif, the photo taken at the top of the Alps

In a galaxy far, far away (i.e. Fall Line’s Peterborough office) surrounded by giant beige computers and considerably too much JLS (which is any amount really), we first featured this nifty hack way back in FL102. When Val Thorens freerider Timy Theaux took us on a tour of his home turf, with just the right amount of skinning to make the world’s largest linked ski area, the Three Valleys, even… bigger!

For those of you sucking in cheeks, and shaking heads, we’re sort of with you. Because, in the wrong hands, this would be an awful idea. A total folly amid 600km of prime piste and mile after mile of immaculate infrastructure. But done right – using all that uplift, a VT start (for height), plus nifty piste-side refuges – it’s… bloody brilliant!

How do I know? Because having edited that first story well over a decade ago, I couldn’t quite get it out of my head. The Dom Daher images, the ‘Fancy A Quickie?’ headline (mine I’m afraid), the sheer novelty and fun of the 72-hour escapade… So when Val Thorens asked last winter if Fall Line wished to join a similar jolly, to help celebrate the resort’s 50th birthday, I was there. With plenty of stored-up keenness (which isn’t always the way with me and touring, but more on that later).

village of VT cradles in a mountain nook, very high up, surrounded by snowy slopes of the Three Valleys

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Three Valleys, with wonderful lifts, pistes and a promised ‘just the right amount’ of hiking and skinning to unlock a very accessible adventure.

Now, back to the aforementioned not-total-love of touring comment (as surely the piste/all-mountain issue is a safe space to share such treachery?). And let me just say, if I had to distil my thoughts into a single sentence, it would be: if there’s a lift, I like to use it!

Fortunately, when I mention this (think my best Oliver “Please sir, may we have another portion of gondola versus touring gruel?”) to our guide for the trip, ESF’s Stéphane Spettel, he slaps me on the back and shouts “of course!”.

And true to his word, we’re quickly loading onto first Cascades, then Moraine. All the while having the very Val Thorens discussion about where else you can do breakfast table to 2,700m in just two short lifts (and a shade over 10 minutes)? North America? Definitely, via Telluride and co. But this side of the Atlantic? I’m not so sure.

In fact, the previous evening we’ve been given a welcome pack detailing the history of Europe’s highest resort, with tales of how the banks pulled funding after an eminent professor of biology claimed there would be life-threatening risks (such as altitude disease) for anyone living at this height; while a worried Savoyard councillor and minister even took to national radio suggesting the only solution was for fighter planes to bomb the 2,400m high settlement. Crikey!

a splitboarder and snowboarder walk uphill at the very top of a mountain with a huge snowy Three Valleys vista behind

This morning, as we tour over sharky, rocky ground, converging on Col de Thorens, Stéph, who’s been an instructor here since 2000, confirms there’s now a very different enemy – one shared with pretty much every ski resort.

“This area used to be covered in many metres of ice,” he says manoeuvring his Scott Superguide skis around a smooth boulder, before adding that most of the damage (and retreat of the glacier) “has come in the last five years”.

Done right – using all that uplift, a VT
start (for height), plus nifty piste-side
refuges – it’s… bloody brilliant

Today though, it appears, if only for a short spell, Mother Nature is fighting back. And, as our six-strong group move along the ridge that rises to 3,266m at Pointe de Thorens, it’s so cold – something like minus 20C – that we’re forced to hop from foot to foot to try and keep warm (and that’s despite spending most of the last hour plugging uphill!).

Still, the good news to this extreme cold is that it’s keeping the snow in far better condition than might be expected during a lean January (with the last decent powder something like 10 days before our arrival). And, as a result, I don’t doubt our crew would have happily carried on laying wide, rewarding turns all the way to Plan Bouchet (for the new Orelle-Cime Caron lift), if it wasn’t for a certain red-suited supremo beckoning us towards the Col de Lory traverse…

ESF instructor looks into the camera at the top of the mountain in the Three Valleys

In dear leader’s defence, the flat start followed by a fairly ferocious finish does get us back to VT quicker than the aforementioned valley cruise and gondola. Or it certainly would, if Tom, one of our number, was not having a nightmare with his skins. Yet throughout it all, Stéph is a mountain marvel, first laying the ideal Z-track on the steepest section, then doubling back for kick-turn encouragement, before finally effecting a repair on our back-marker’s misbehaving ski/clip.

More than once, however, my brain naughtily asks: worth the work? And so far I’d say definitely yes, for the beauty and stillness of Vallée de Lory (with a topographic sleight of hand meaning we never see the infrastructure, lifts or skiers below), but maybe not for the turns, which is just fine, as we’re about to dive over 1,000 vertical metres, in a single, lusty, piste-packed swoop for lunch in Les Menuires.

skier and boarder crew waiting to set off, by bottom lift station

As to whether I’d recommend a large burger Savoyard at La Moutière for anyone intending to hustle up to Pointe de la Masse for the Geffriand itinerary, well, that’s a harder question to answer. Maybe lay off the chips I think, as all too soon we’re rushing to catch Masse 1, then Masse 2, for yet more skiing and skinning.

Arriving into Saint Marcel, with darkness falling, it’s fair to say we are a rabble (after some inevitable dusk comings-together on the approach to town– think tight bumps, berms, ruts, tree roots and even a river crossing). In fact, we now share just one common goal. Stop crashing into each other and get to the nearby Trait d’Union refuge for essential rest and… beer!

Trait Union refuge covered in snow, a sauna tube outside

The note we leave just before 9am the following morning, for owner and host Viviane (who lovingly restored the eight-person off-grid hideaway with her late husband Jean Luc) hopefully says it all. ‘Fantastique! Lovely fondue, 12 Leffes and a bottle of red consumed.’

As you can imagine from that, we slept very nicely thank you, and after a breakfast of yoghurt and bread (plus cake– allowable at all times when touring, don’t you know!) we’re back in Les Menuires for a quick coffee, while Seb gets his Leki pole sorted (told you there were some excitements the previous evening).

Anyway, Les Encombes, skier’s left of now-familiar Pointe de la Masse, is the plan and, just like yesterday’s itineraries, it’s quiet (despite again being very accessible) with plenty of powder. It’s also a good deal warmer than the previous morning, possibly even too hot, as 90 minutes later after skinning out via Col de la Challes, it appears my brain has been fried. Because I somehow manage to miss our agreed point to cross over a ravine and re-join the piste.

It means a long wait for everyone else, and a Hail Mary jump over water (followed by deep snow/bushwhacking) forme. Worse, it makes us very late for lunch. With Stéph the poor soul left to explain to Le Setour why we are hours late for our booking, yet must have our food very quickly please, with a lift to catch in Les Menuires.

Amid a sea of apologies, upturned palms, and so-very-sorry nods, six portions of lasagne and salad rapidly appear, and we make the last gondola of the day with just a minute or three to spare.

snowboarder makes fresh tracks in shade as the sun lights up the dust trail left behind

From Pointe de la Masse’s top station, this time we traverse south-east, corkscrewing the 2,804m-high peak, dropping into the Vallon du Lou for sheltered north-east-facing slopes and a sight of our accommodation by the lake far below.

Thank God it’s not done in the dark, like the day before I think, as we arrive at the Lac du Lou refuge for good beer and a warm welcome from Alaska the collie.

After one last sleep, we finally pin Col de la Grande Combes for the steepest and most rewarding turns of the trip, before hiking the ski patroller line to the Gazex station high above Val Thorens, and we’re done.

With something like 70km ridden, just under 7,000 vertical metres climbed, and the Three Valleys made even bigger, and better.


Visit Val Thorens for more; and book your ESF guide who offer a full off-piste day from €440 (for guiding up to eight people).

Stay in resort at Fahrenheit Seven from around €175 per night and up the hill at Trait d’Union from €95 per person, and Lac du Lou from €35 per night.