Off Piste in Tignes

Reporter: Andrew Walker

As you wander round the pistes of Tignes you will see bowls and mountainsides, some seemingly inaccessible, which after a snowfall gradually become criss-crossed with ski and snowboard tracks. Tignes is one of the best big resorts for off-piste skiing, and while there is some excellent terrain close to the piste, the best, and most challenging areas are harder to find and in some cases you have to take your skis off and walk, maybe for 30 minutes or more, especially if it hasn’t snowed for a while and you’re having to go further afield to get fresh tracks.

The best snow is soft, deep and untracked and sometimes on alarmingly steep slopes, which does mean that the avalanche risk is higher. When the temperatures rise this snow is best found on northerly-facing slopes, and for some of them you really do need a guide, at least the first time you do them. You should also never under any circumstances venture into such areas without a transceiver, shovel and probe, and know how to use them in an emergency.

SCGB runs instructor-led guiding in a number of French resorts, including Tignes, and on the March holiday I signed up, along with Brian Richardson, Howard Matthewson and Steve Wardle for the Wednesday excursion, a day billed as intermediate/advanced level off-piste technique. The maximum number is six, and with two others we had a full complement. Jerome, a local instructor from the New Generation ski school, and with a penchant for 180s, 360s, 540s and the occasional backflip to entertain us, was our excellent guide.

The day started with a 45 minute transceiver practice session, essential if you haven’t done one for some time. After some tense moments we all successfully completed the test and headed to the top of Grattalu for the first descent, into the Chardonnay Bowl above the Grand Huit lift.

The couloirs are quite steep but the trick is to get in your first turn, and if you get it right you’ll probably be OK, but having an audience does focus the mind. You don’t have much leeway as the couloirs are quite narrow and the sides are usually made of rock. The pleasure of getting through a narrow section, and continuing your descent on a wide open slope, finding the best, least-tracked snow, is addictive.

After that it was off to the Col des Ves lift, and a long traverse to one of the couloirs leading back down towards Val Claret. After lunch on a rock, far from the piste, we took the Lanches lift towards the Grande Motte, before heading across the tongue of the glacier to what is known as the Tignes Wall. We returned to Lanches via a route down the bowl picked for its jumps and kicks, with Jerome at one point landing a 540 on a bit of rock, but he did say his skis were in any case pretty much knackered.

Next was the north face of Petit Balme. As you look up the Lanches lift towards the Grande Motte that’s the mountain on the left, with Grande Balme on the right. I hadn’t actually realised that the north face was skiable, but evidently I was mistaken. This is the one facing Toviere. It’s quite a winding route to get to it. The entrance is narrow, rocky and full of bumps, but once through that we had a good long run down to the valley bottom. Our last run of the day was the Lavachet Wall, above Tignes le Lac. The snow wasn’t the best but it was all good practice.

Brian and I were also booked on the next day’s guiding, for advanced/expert off-piste skiers. On the whole it wasn’t actually much harder than the previous day, which had been tuned to the abilities of the group rather than an absolute level, although there were a couple of places which needed an extra degree of concentration.

Starting with the Col des Ves couloir for a warm-up, we headed to Grapillon in the Chardonnay Bowl, accessed via a 30 minute back door route from the top of the Grattalu lift. First was a short walk up, followed by a short, sharp descent via a rocky route (see photo), just about wide enough for the length of a pair of skis, and quite steep. Jerome advised us not to fall. After a traverse it was skis off and a 20 minute gasp up a steep snowfield to the col (see photo). From there we had what is possibly one of the longest, least-tracked and best runs available in Tignes, back to the Grand Huit lift.

After lunch above Tignes le Lac we went up the Aiguille Percee lift for a descent of the Vallon de la Sache. Not to be confused with Vallon de la Sachette, this is entered via a short traverse immediately opposite the top of the lift. Jerome thought he could find us some good fresh snow, which he duly did. We ended up looking down the steepest couloir of the day which, frankly, looked a bit vertical, but Jerome did say it was the steepest he would send us down all day.

A degree of caution is needed on such slopes, not least because each turn you take sets off a cascade of snow which hides the surface for a few seconds. If you do fall it usually ends up with no more than a red face as you gradually slide to a stop, but some couloirs get narrower and steeper before they open out, and the rocks are bit hard. A bit like this one. After a more sedate open snowfield we exited to the Sache piste, but kept tracking off to find powder, culminating in a route through the avalanche barriers above Brevieres.

The next day was the last, and Brian and I decided to revisit some of the places we had been on the previous two days, including the north face of Petit Balme, at the top of which we had a delightful lunch on a rock overlooking the valley. In the afternoon we did the lovely off-piste under the Grand Pre lift a couple of times before heading up the funicular for a last descent into Tignes, and a beer.

Some may have concluded that off-piste skiing is not for you, but others may want to venture further afield where the crowds thin out considerably. This isn’t a tutorial, but some key points are: get the equipment and know how to use it, get instruction, get more practice and experience, and get a guide if you don’t know where you’re going or want to explore new areas. And make sure your insurance covers you for off-piste skiing without a guide.