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Off Piste in Tignes — Part 2

by Andrew Walker

I wrote a piece three years ago after my last off-piste guiding days in Tignes. During that trip, if you were prepared to go outside the resort boundary, take your skis off, stow them on your backpack, and spent 30 minutes trudging up to a ridge, you were pretty much guaranteed soft, fresh and relatively untracked snow, and a glorious descent into some of the massive bowls Tignes has to offer. This year the snow conditions were a bit rubbish, so with Brian Richardson, two others, and our guide, Davide (a native of Sestriere) we set off for the day to see what we could find.

The guiding was organised by SCGB in partnership with the New Generation ski school. The cost for the day to join a group with a maximum of six was €120 for non-members and €60 for members, which is exceptional value for money. They do several levels, from introductory via intermediate and advanced to expert. This was an “advanced” day.

But why ski off-piste in the first place, and what is off-piste anyway? Well, it’s anything that isn’t marked, even if it’s only a few metres outside the marker poles. Many people will be familiar with itinerary runs, which are marked and patrolled, but generally not pisted except perhaps maybe a track down the middle. Then there are the areas of the mountain which are not patrolled or marked, and you are there at your own risk. They may also be outside the resort boundary.

As those of you who were on the Tignes trip will have noticed, the resort has decided to abolish car parks and build more accommodation instead, including a vast Club Med development in Val Claret. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the crowdedness of the pistes, but if the rooms are as small as those in our hotel it will have almost as many as the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (6,852 since you ask). It seemed to me this year that were more skiers than ever, although some of the crowds may have been

because people have missed out on at least a season’s skiing and were keen to get back on the slopes. Off-piste skiing is one way to avoid the congestion on the pistes, but it’s also a great way to push your skiing technique several steps further. Or just get very annoyed and wondered why the bloody hell you bothered. For crowdedness comparison purposes look at the photo from a March 1987 trip to Tignes, somewhere on the double M run from the Grande Motte.

We didn’t get any fresh powder, and unseasonal (or are they now seasonal?) high temperatures ensured that below about 2500m the snow was either crusty or soft running to slushy, depending on the time of day and solar exposure. An added hazard was the patchy deposit of Sahara sand deposited with a few inches of snow two nights earlier which, while giving your skis a free base grind, absorbed sunshine and warmed the snow to give an alarming sensation of having the brakes applied whenever you skied over it.

After a bit of basic technique training and being videoed and forced to relive your own mistakes, we went up the Col de Ves ski lift, a conveyance so basic and antiquated that it seems designed to deter all but the most determined or stupid skiers. We followed the Pramecou black run until we diverted to the right for a long traverse to the couloirs above the airstrip. I made a hash of the first couloir we skied, which had soft snow on the left and rock hard crust on the right, and my turns were merely attempts to remain upright. Lower down it was better, but you often remember your mistakes more than your successes.

We went back for another couloir, which I think I managed with marginally more elan, but that was about it. After lunch we skied the Golf off- piste area (so-called because, well, work it out), an area accessed below the top of the Merles lift and which takes you down to a bus stop between Le Lac and Val Claret.

The afternoon snow was turning slushy and my short freeride skis, selected when the forecast before travelling made it quite clear there would be no new snow, would turn only at gunpoint. After that we went up Lanches for a bit of exploring off the side of Petit Balme (sandwiched between the Lanches and Fresse lifts), and our final run was from Toviere back to Val Claret. A lovely bit of slush it was too. I’ve had better off-piste days, but you get what you’re given and it was still very enjoyable, and it’s all good experience. I didn’t take any photos on the day, but on the final day I managed to grab a couple of phone snapshots near Grande Motte which came out surprisingly well, albeit in black and white.

The oddest thing about the week was that I felt like I had a great holiday. This was despite the appalling journeys out and back, the tiny hotel rooms with glass-walled bathrooms, the very average hotel food (especially the thing called vegetarian lasagne — congratulations, and respect, to Steve Wardle for finishing his), the not-very-good snow and the rip-off bar prices. Maybe I was just inordinately grateful for what I did get. It must have been the company.

If you haven’t done much off-piste before and think you would like to do more, try first venturing a bit further from the piste. If you want to go further afield, get some instruction, and go with a guide or a group you trust (and who trust you). Make sure your insurance covers you for off-piste skiing (ideally without a guide). More than anything, however, you should have the full avalanche kit of transceiver, shovel and probe, and know how to use them. Some groups will allow people to join them off-piste, only if they have this equipment at least after the first day.

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