But a word of caution: a thaw is expected in some parts of the Alps this week, with rain falling below 2,500m and most resorts still yet to open. If you're planning a trip before or over Christmas and new Year, it'll be wise to stay high.
I'm just back from Val d'Isere and Tignes, which are both skiing at their January best. Not all runs are open - but that's due to an absence of people rather than snow. Last weekend, the temperature on the Grande Motte fell to a dismal minus 28C. Base is now 28-58cm. Courchevel is not yet open, but in mid-week there was even more snow than in Val.
Les Deux Alpes is 30 per cent open and has 125cm on the higher slopes. the Grands Montets sector of Chamonix opens this weekend with 64cm at valley level and 130cm up on the glacier.
More snow has been falling across the country. In Solden, the glacier on the road up was closed briefly because of avalanche danger. nassfeld in Carinthia caught 30cm in the same storm. The base is now 80-125cm.
In Zermatt, you can't yet ski down to the valley floor, although snow depths range from 70-173cm on the Gornergrat and Rothorn. In Davos, some pistes on the Parsenn and the Jakobshorn have opened with snow depths of 28-103cm.
The Dolomites have done particularly well, with regular snowfalls in recent weeks. Madonna di Campiglio (45-145cm) has the best of it along with San Cassiano (50/130cm).
The Spanish resort of Formigal has opened with 25/75cm, and the picture is similarly attractive in Andorra.
Breckenridge got off to a great start with huge dumps of snow and has 100cm base mid-mountain. Vail has 60cm but is skiing well. Snowbird heads the table with 147cm after 60cm this week. Jackson Hole has 119cm.
In Canada, Whistler had 46cm of fresh snow earlier this week and now has a base of 100cm.
Now you know the best places to find the finest powder this Christmas all you need to get things moving is a place to stay. Search Bargain Villas for a great deal on a ski villa and ski apartment.
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Looking for a Chamonix Piste Map?
Check out the following link for a huge selection courtesy of Google Maps - Chamonix Piste Maps from Google Maps
EXTENT OF THE SLOPES
There are several low beginner areas dotted along the Chamonix valley but there are five main areas.
The gondola for Le Brévent departs a short, steep walk or bus ride from the centre. There are runs on open slopes below the arrival point and a cable car above takes you to the summit. There is lift link to La Flégère, also accessible via an inadequate old cable car from the village of Les Praz. Both of these sunny areas give stunning views of Mont Blanc.
Up the valley at Argentière a cable car or chairlift take you up to Les Grands Montets. Chairs and a gondola serve excellent steep terrain above mid-mountain, but much of the best terrain is accessed by a further cable car of relatively low capacity, not covered by the basic valley pass (Chamonix Le Pass). This shady area can be very cold in early season.
A little way further up the valley, the secluded village of Le Tour sits at the foot of the Balme area of mainly easy pistes. A gondola goes up to mid-mountain, with a mix of drags and chairs above. The slopes are also accessible from Vallorcine (right by the train station). It is also the starting point for good off-piste runs, some ending in Switzerland.
Les Houches is the only major area down-valley of Chamonix. This low, wooded area is accessed by a gondola or cable car from the village. The lifts are not covered by the basic pass.
Cable cars and gondolas serve each sector, but many need upgrading to be fully efficient. The handful of fast chairs are widely scattered.
Ancient lifts, serious queues
The overdue replacement of the Brévent gondola a couple of seasons ago was very welcome, and reporters find it a huge improvement. But this was only one of the valley’s problem lifts. The ancient Flégère cable car can generate queues of an hour or more – to go down as well as up. The lifts out of Argentière build queues, and the chairlift appears to be on its last legs – it no longer operates from the main station, but starts a short way up the slope. At mid-mountain, the top cable car is a famous bottleneck. You can book slots in advance (at the ticket office or online) and it’s ‘best to do this the day before as places tend to sell out early’, says a reporter. Instead you can join the ‘stand by’ queue, which we’ve found to be an effective alternative. A 2010 reporter suggests going to Vallorcine and taking the gondola to miss queues at Le Tour if skiing La Balme.
At Les Houches the two access lifts are widely separated, and it’s worth going for the modern gondola rather than the inadequate Bellevue cable car. Both of these lifts build queues in poor weather when woody Les Houches gets crowded. Expect queues on the hill, too – all the chairs here are slow.
Crowded pistes are also reported to be a problem in places – most notably at Lognan on Grands Montets.
In outlying areas
The experienced HO5 crew, responsible for parks in several other French resorts and headed by ex-international pro Nico Watier, has been working hard to fine-tune the 800m long Snow Bowl park on the Grands Montets. It features a good range of obstacles including eight tabletops, four rails and a step-up, step-down feature. The Fun Zone is designed for beginners wanting their first taste of air time. And there’s a boardercross too. You can check the latest details at www.ho5park.com.
There are also two terrain parks at Les Houches, one of which is floodlit twice a week.
One of the great resorts
Chamonix is renowned for its extensive steep terrain and deep snow. To get the best out of the area you really need to have a local guide. There is also lots of excellent terrain for ski-touring on skins. See the feature panel for more on off-piste possibilities.
The Grands Montets cable car offers stunning views from the observation platform above the top station – if you’ve got the legs and lungs to climb the 121 steep metal steps. (But beware: it’s 200 more slippery steel steps down from the cable car before you hit the snow.) The ungroomed black pistes from here – Point de Vue and Pylones – are long and exhilarating. The former sails right by some dramatic sections of glacier, with marvellous views of the crevasses.
The Bochard gondola serves a challenging red back to Lognan and a black to either Plan Joran or the chairlift below. Shortly after you have made a start down the black, you can head off-piste down the Combe de la Pendant bowl (‘excellent, so much space, always great snow’).
At Le Brévent there’s more to test experts than the piste map suggests – there are a number of variations on the runs down from the summit. Some are very steep and prone to ice. The runs in Combe de la Charlanon are quiet and include one red piste and excellent off-piste if the snow is good.
At La Flégère there are further challenging slopes – in the Combe Lachenal, crossed by the linking cable car, say – and a tough run back to the village when the snow permits. The short draglift above L’Index opens up a couple of good steep runs (a red and a black) plus a good area of off-piste.
Balme boasts little tough terrain on-piste but there are off-piste routes from the high points to Le Tour, towards Vallorcine or into Switzerland.
Plenty of better resorts
Chamonix is far from ideal for intermediates unless they relish challenging slopes and trying off-piste. If what you want is mile after mile of lift-linked cruisy pistes, go elsewhere.
For less confident intermediates, the Balme area above Le Tour is good for cruising and usually free from crowds. There are excellent shady, steeper runs, wooded lower down, on the north side of Tête de Balme, served by a fast quad. A lovely blue run goes on down to Vallorcine but it is prone to closure.
The other areas have some blue and red runs. Even the Grands Montets has an area of blues at mid-mountain. The step up to the red terrain higher up is quite pronounced, however.
If the snow and weather are good, confident intermediates can join a guided group and do the Vallée Blanche (see feature panel).
A day trip to Courmayeur makes an interesting change of scene, especially when the weather is bad (it can be sunny there when Chamonix’s high lifts are closed by blizzards or high winds).
Head for Le Tour
Chamonix is far from ideal for beginners too – there are countless better resorts in which to learn. There are nursery slopes either side of Chamonix itself, but they are limited, low and (in the case of Les Planards) dark and cold in mid-winter. They are separated from the other sectors of slopes, so moving on to longer runs is a major upheaval. La Vormaine, at Le Tour, is a much better bet: extensive, relatively high, sunny and connected to the slopes of the Balme area, where there are easy long runs to progress to. But it’s 12km from Chamonix itself.
The undisputed king of freeride resorts, Chamonix is a haven for advanced snowboarders who relish the steep and wild terrain.
This means, however, that in peak season it’s crowded and fresh snow gets tracked out very quickly.
The rough and rugged nature of the slopes means it is not best suited for beginners, but for more experienced adventurous riders, willing to try true all-mountain riding. If you do the Vallée Blanche, be warned: the usual route is flat in places.
Check out former British champ Neil McNab’s excellent extreme backcountry camps at www.mcnabsnowboarding.com. Most areas are equipped mainly with cable cars, gondolas and chairs.
However, there are quite a few difficult drags at Balme that cause inexperienced boarders problems – though you can avoid these if you can hack the cat tracks to take you to other lifts, says a reporter.
There are terrain parks on Grands Montets and at Les Houches.
FOR CROSS COUNTRY
A decent network of trails
Most of the 40km of prepared trails lie at valley level in and between Chamonix and Argentière. All the trails are shady and often icy in midwinter, and they fade fast in the spring sun. Catch the bus rather than ski between the Chamonix and Argentière areas, suggests a reporter, as the link is by ‘steep and difficult trails’.
Chamonix Piste guide source
Chamonix is one of the most beautiful Ski resorts in Mont Blanc France. search Bargain Villas for a bargain Ski Villa in Chamonix
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REI Ski Carrier
It might not look very exciting, but this little gizmo binds your skis together and, thanks to a sturdy strap, makes carrying them a breeze. I loathe wobbling through the snow with equipment balanced precariously on my shoulder and this carrier has put an end to that.
Price: $12.50 (£7.80)
Available from Rei.com
Please note: Pices of gadget displayed was correct at time of article. Prices is subject to change by retailor.
There is a good mixture of Cortina Ski slopes above and below the treeline. Reporters consistently praise quiet slopes, at least in the areas close to the town, but complain about signs, piste classification and marking, and the piste map.
All Cortina’s smallish separate areas are a fair trek from the town centre. The largest is Pomedes, accessed by chair and draglifts a bus ride away from the centre. You can reach it by tricky black piste from Tofana, Cortina’s highest area, accessed by cable car from near the ice rink. There is no link in the opposite direction.
On the opposite side of the valley is the tiny Mietres area. Another two-stage cable car from the east side of town leads to the Faloria area, from where you can head down to chairs that lead up into the limited but dramatic runs beneath Cristallo.
Other areas are reachable by road – in particular the road west over Passo Falzarego. (Taxis are an affordable means of access if shared.)
First, there’s the small but scenic Cinque Torri area. Excellent north-facing cruising runs are accessed by a fast quad, followed by an ancient one-person chair; beyond that, a rope tow leads to a sunny, panoramic red run on the back of the hill to Fedare.
From Fedare the Croda Negra chairlift links to the tiny Col Gallina area – north-facing, again – from where you can take a blue back to Cinque Torri. The cable car from nearby Passo Falzarego up to Lagazuoi serves an excellent red/blue run back to the base station and accesses the famous ‘hidden valley’ run to the fringe of the Alta Badia area.
One way to tour the area is to use special ski itineraries (maps are available). ‘Skitour Olympia’ takes you on the 1956 Olympic courses and the bobsleigh run.
Some in each sector
The main access lifts are cable cars and there are fast chairs scattered throughout each sector, but a lot of slow old lifts remain too.
Most Italian visitors rise late, lunch at length and leave the slopes early to get scrubbed up.
That means few lift queues and generally uncrowded pistes – in the afternoon especially. A 2009 visitor, however, reports crowded runs at Cinque Torri, even in low season.
He speculates that the crowds came from the Sella Ronda resorts, taking in Cinque Torri before riding the cable car to Lagazuoi for the famous ‘hidden valley’ run. Queues can form for this cable car, not surprisingly.
Not a bad one
There is a terrain park at Faloria that has some decent kickers and rails, and a half-pipe. It’s not open to skiers.
Normally rather limited
Decent amounts of natural snow are the key factor – not only to provide plentiful off-piste (which will offer fresh tracks for days on end) but to ensure adequate snow cover on the sunny black runs.
These include the excellent Forcella from Tofana to Pomedes: deservedly classified black, it goes through a gap in the rocks, and gives wonderful views of Cortina way down in the valley below.
And Cortina’s most serious challenge, the Staunies run at the top of the Cristallo area – a south-facing couloir that we have never found open (tougher than it looks from below, warns a reporter).
There are short but genuinely black runs below Pomedes and Duc d’Aosta.
There are some excellent red runs too, notably at Pomedes and Faloria. Heli-skiing is available.
Fragmented and not extensive
To enjoy Cortina you must like cruising in beautiful scenery, and not mind doing runs repeatedly.
The runs at the top of Tofana are short but normally have the best snow. The highest are at over 2800m and mainly face north. But be warned: the only way back down is by the tricky black run described above or by cable car. The reds in the linked Pomedes area offer good cruising and some challenges.
Faloria has a string of fairly short north-facing runs – we loved the Vitelli red run, round the back away from the lifts. And the Cristallo area has a long, easy red run served by a fast quad.
It is well worth making the trip to Cinque Torri for fast cruising on usually excellent north-facing snow. And do not miss the wonderful ‘hidden valley’ red run from the Passo Falzarego cable car.
Wonderful nursery slopes
While there are no special deals for beginners, the Socrepes area has some of the biggest nursery slopes and best progression runs we have seen.
Points cards are issued by the day too. You’ll find ideal gentle terrain on the main pistes but some of the blue forest paths can be icy and intimidating.
Despite its upmarket chic, Cortina is a good resort for learning to board. The Socrepes nursery slopes are wide, gentle and served by a fast chairlift.
And progress on to other easy slopes is simple because you can get around in all areas using just chairs and cable cars – although there are drags, they can be avoided.
Boarderline is a specialist snowboard shop that organises instruction as well as equipment hire. In a normal snow year there is little off-piste, but there are some nice trees and hits under the one-person chair at Cinque Torri.
FOR CROSS COUNTRY
One of the best
Cortina has around 78km of trails suitable for all standards (including a new one in 2009), mainly in the Fiames area, where there’s a cross-country centre and a school.
Trails include a 30km itinerary following an old railway from Fiames to Cortina, and there is a beginner area equipped with snowmaking.
Passo Tre Croci offers more challenging trails, covering 10km. A Nordic area pass is available.
Cortina is one of the most beautiful Ski resorts in Italy. search Bargain Villas for a bargain Ski Villa in Cortina
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