Ski: Les Gets and the resorts of the Portes du Soleil.
Cloud hung in the valley, but high above, at the Pointe d’Angolon, the sky was clear. To the south were the unmistakeable snow-capped Mont Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi and the Grand Jorasses. Looking west I could see the ski slopes of Flaine on the Grand Massif. East was the Portes du Soleil and Swiss border and north our point of origin, the valley of Les Gets and beyond, Lausanne. Having climbed high above the resort chairlifts, we put on our skis. It was a beautifully sunny day and the powder was knee deep, untracked and not too steep.
We’d started at Les Gets, one of the 12 resorts that make up the Portes du Soleil ski area on the Swiss-French border. The great thing about this area is that it offers one of the shortest transfers from Geneva at around an hour so you can catch a morning flight from the UK and be on the slopes by lunchtime.
If you want to clock up some serious ski miles the Portes du Soleil covers 650km. It offers distinctly different skiing from the Trois Vallées, with many of the resorts being lower than those in Trois Vallées and with largely intermediate slopes. From Les Gets it takes about 50 minutes to ski to the French purpose-built resort of Avoriaz then it’s a short distance to the Swiss border. It’s possible to ski the extensive circular tour, which you can do in either direction, travelling through both French and Swiss resorts.
Les Gets itself is a small traditional, village, with cosy chalet-style restaurants and accommodation. There’s not much nightlife but it’s very popular with families. I was expecting it to be merely a gateway to the vast and varied skiing in the larger linked resorts, such as Avoriaz, but as I quickly found out there’s more to this ski area than meets the eye.
On our first morning we reached the resort in time for lunch at La Paika, a busy rustic hut, with a small menu, extensive wine list and tempting deserts. For my first ski of the season, we headed over to the pistes of Ranfoilly, lots of wide open pistes and a view of the Col de Joux Plane, one of the most gruelling climbs in the Tour de France.
The following day, expecting a gentle circuit of Les Gets we met our guide Nicolas Anthonioz from the Ecole du Ski Français. It turned out Nicolas was not your average ESF instructor but a champion freeride skier so we were apprehensive about where he would take us. We need not have worried. Nicolas was conscientious and charismatic, although he couldn’t resist scampering up a rather treacherous looking outcrop as we followed a traverse below him. After a few turns in the powder, we looked up and saw him suspended in the air as he hopped from cliff to gully like a mountain goat.
One of the qualities of a good guide is not only to assess your ski level but also to gauge your level of commitment. Our guide the following day was Jean-Luc Tamanini and he calculated I’d be up for little adventure. The conditions also called for it – we’d had nearly two foot of new snow and the best snow was already tracked out. So we started the day with a few warm-up runs then took the Chamossiere chairlift to a traverse accessing a huge powder bowl, marked on the piste map as a zone freeride. But instead of descending, we climbed up, carrying our skis. Fifteen minutes later we reached the top, which was the start of a longer walk along the ridge. The ridge was narrow with nothing but spectacular views on either side.
Jean-Luc gave me the choice of going first which meant if I fell he could catch me, or behind where he couldn’t. But manoeuvring myself around him seemed too challenging, so I decided to focus on his ski boots rather than the abyss on either side.
After admiring the view, we swished down, turn after turn in fresh, light snow until we eventually reached the tree line in the Nyon area above Morzine. Our journey took us through the hamlet of Les Bo, a few summer chalets almost completely hidden under the snow. We reached the picturesque Vallée de la Manche, where we joined some of the cross country trails. Only as we reached the car park to the Nyon cable car did we see another skier.
On the other side of Les Gets is Mont Chery. This ski area, reached by gondola, has a variety of skiing, and spectacular views. At top is the Grand Ourse, a highly rated restaurant run by an English family with 180-degree views of the Mont Blanc Massif.
One of the most famous landmarks is the Wall, a run on the Champèry side of Pas de Chavanette, which has a reputation for steepness. The chairlift up to it is the only one you can also take down if your nerves fail. But with time running out (you need to get back to the French side before the lifts close), we opted for a late lunch at Coquoz, swapping specialities of the Savoie for the Valais canton of Switzerland.
But back at our extremely comfortable chalet another challenge awaited us – an eight course dégustation menu, each course served with a different wine. As night fell and the twinkling lights of the chalets around us became a snowy fairyland, a loud boom ricocheted around the valley as a spray of golden lights lit the sky. The day had brought perfect snow, a dinner worthy of some serious accolades and a private firework display. Skiing doesn’t get much better than this.
DID YOU KNOW? The first village chair-lift in Les Gets – a one-person affair – opened in 1938; the first lift on Mont Chéry appeared in 1954