With its huge number of different ski resorts, France offers pretty much everything for all types and abilities of skier and snowboarder. However, one of the areas in where it excels is off-piste skiing. Powder hungry skiers and riders travel from far and wide to explore its legendary backcountry terrain.
Every French ski resort offers at least some off-piste skiing, but a number are renowned for their world famous out of bounds terrain with massive domains to explore for experts and confident intermediates alike.
Whether you’re an experienced backcountry explorer who’s prepared to skin or hike a long way in order to earn your powder turns, or whether you prefer to dip into the off piste with minimal effort, there’s lots to choose from. Either way, it’s vital you’re properly equipped and understand the dos and don'ts of off piste skiing before venturing off-piste.
Here’s our pick of our best off-piste resorts in France…
With its vast glaciers, precarious precipices and challenging descents, Chamonix is renowned for its incredible off-piste terrain, and attracts intrepid backcountry skiers from over the world.
With the mighty Mont Blanc looming above the town and valley floor, Chamonix offers endless off-piste routes encompassing all types of terrain, from wide powder fields to steep couloirs.
One of the most popular areas for venturing off-piste is the Les Grands Montets in Argentière. This vast area offers many different routes and loads of vertical, most of which is easily accessible from the lifts. There are also unpisted areas which are still in bounds, such as Blanchots and Pylones, accessible from the top of the Herse chair, for those who want to experience off piste terrain in a controlled environment.
A must-do route for those making the pilgrimage to Chamonix is the famous Vallée Blanche, which runs from the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car at 3842m, back down to Chamonix town, conditions permitting. It’s a 20km run with a vertical descent of 2700m and offers some of the most spectacular views in the area. While the descent itself is not especially difficult, the route can only be accessed by descending a narrow ridge with a steep drop on either side, which is enough to test the nerve of even the most foolhardy. Also, as you are skiing down a glacier, there is a real danger of encountering crevasses, so it’s especially important to be accompanied by a guide.
For a little more detail on off piste skiing in Chamonix check out our top 10 off piste ski routes in Chamonix.
In chamonix many of the off piste routes require strong climbing ability. Here's a great video of the north face of the Aiguille du Midi being tackled...in June!
The neighbouring resorts of Val d’Isère and Tignes make up the massive Espace Killy, which is widely regarded as having some of the best, and most easily accessible, off-piste terrain in the Alps.
Arguably, the most challenging of the off-piste can be found on the Val d’Isère side, with the most difficult of all being the infamous ‘Pisteurs Couloir’ - only to be attempted by experts! This steep, narrow and long couloir can be accessed by a 45 minute hike from the top of the Grand Pré chairlift to the peak of the Rocher du Charvet. It’s notoriously difficult, but skillful negotiation of the couloir is rewarded with wide turns on some of the area’s best snow for the remainder of the descent. Here's a little video that shows you what this couloir is like in May.
The best of the rest of Val d’Isère’s off-piste terrain can be found in Le Fournet, with Le Fornet Trees, Le Grand Vallon and Le Col Pers being notable favourites. Le Grand Vallon is an enormous powder bowl which can be accessed by the Signal tow from the top of the cable car. Continue further down and you’ll reach the beautifully spaced Le Fournet trees, which is the place to head to on an overcast powder day. Le Grand Vallon can be avalanche prone, so make sure you check avalanche warnings and exercise extreme caution when considering a descent.
There are also innumerable opportunities for venturing off-piste in Tignes, with most areas easily accessible from the lifts. The resort has converted many of its black runs into ‘naturides’ which are ungroomed, but marked, patrolled and avalanche protected. This means that adventurous skiers can experience the highs of venturing off piste in a much safer and controlled environment.
For those who are experienced and properly equipped, there are many more challenging runs to tackle outside the patrolled area. One of the most popular is Mickey’s Ears, which gets its name from the double transmission aerial which marks the top. There are several routes down, all of which are steep and avalanche prone, especially once you hit Lavachet Wall, so make sure you are extremely careful and ideally, take a guide. Here's a video where they take the route right down to the Lac du Chevril.
Also accessible from the top of the Aeroski lift is a series of couloirs known as The Fingers. These vary in difficulty but most are steep, narrow and potentially treacherous, so should only be tackled by experts and with a guide.
Les Brevières is the place to go when visibility is poor, and there are loads of great routes through the trees.
Another popular destination for off piste enthusiasts is Alpe d’Huez, which has vast areas of superb backcountry terrain including some lovely long descents of 2000m or more. The best place to access the off-piste is from the top of the Pic Blanc glacier where there are lots of couloirs to choose from, all of which end up on the Sarenne path. There are also plenty of other runs down from the top of the glacier but these should only be attempted with a guide, not least because they require a helicopter or taxi to get back to the resort!
Alpe d’Huez’s popularity as an off-piste destination is increased further by its location near the famous backcountry resort of La Grave, which is home to some of the most challenging terrain in the world, including the infamous Triffade couloir. With only one ski lift, no marked pistes, ski patrol or avalanche control, this is seriously hardcore backcountry terrain which should only be tackled by experts who are properly equipped, accompanied by a guide, and prepared to work hard for their turns.
Avoriaz has some of the most easily accessible off piste terrain in the Alps, which is perfect for those who don’t want to venture too far out of bounds or prefer to save their energy for the descent.
Some of the best of the off piste can be found in the the secteur Chavanette or Fournet Valley. If you want some great fun, varied terrain, head for the Canyon du Pschott snowzone, which can be accessed from the top of the Express du Fournet chairlift. This massive unpisted playground has a wide array of features including canyons, natural half pipes, cliff drops and kickers, and is one of the best places to head to after a big dump of snow. Despite its easy accessibility, the sheer expanse of the area ensures that it doesn’t get tracked out easily. If you don’t fancy unwittingly hitting a cliff drop then take the Express Choucas chairlift up the other side of the bowl to access similar, but slightly less challenging terrain.
Venture a little further afield from the top of the Express du Fournet chairlift and you’ll find the vast powder field of La Vallée de la Manche. When conditions are good you can ski this all the way back down to Morzine, so it’s a good route to take at the end of the day.
We offer an abundance of ski accommodation to suit all budgets in Chamonix, Avoriaz, Val d’Isere, Tignes and Alpe d’Huez. Click the resort to have a look at the accommodation and for prices and availability use the yellow search box in the top left hand corner of this page.
Have we missed anything here? Are there any other ski resorts in France that should have been included in the top five? If so, leave a comment below; we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Posted on Thursday 05 Jun 2014