Off-piste in Alpe-dHuez
PUBLISHED: 11:28 18 November 2009 | UPDATED: 20:33 06 February 2012
With so many nonskiing options available in the resort of Alped’Huez, Carolyn Boyd hangs up her skis to try out the other activities before finally giving in to the urge to strap them back on
As you glide above the slopes of Alpe-d’Huez in the Marmottes cable car, a quick glance below reveals hundreds of skiers swooshing down the slopes, just as in any other ski resort. But as you ascend the mountain, look a little closer to see another side to Alpe-d’Huez. Among the skiers, half a dozen people are sliding down the mountain on their sleighs; a skidoo is speeding up the mountain; at the foot of the slopes, teams of huskies are pulling off with a sleigh in tow; at the top, snowshoers are taking a rest to enjoy the view, and walkers emerge from the ski lift to stare up at a parascender swirling against a backdrop of blue sky.
For Alpe-d’Huez is not a ski resort, but a snow resort and with it being situated in a shallow bowl, surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, you’re guaranteed a dose of winter sunshine whatever you end up doing.
Snowshoeing is an interesting activity for non-skiers and skiers alike, allowing you to escape from the crowds and experience the stillness of a snowy landscape. In Alpe-d’Huez there are dozens of trails to follow. As a novice, however, I need an expert to show me the ropes, so I call upon the services of veteran snowshoer Jean-François Capelle, who has been leading walks here for 19 years. Our group of seven snowshoers (all the others are French) meet at the tourist office for our afternoon walk and within a few minutes we are strapping small, round plastic raquettes over our walking boots. The first few minutes on the snow are a strange experience and we all spend some time literally finding our feet – and they’re big, so big I feel a little like Big Foot. The raquettes have a hinge at the front, so if I lift my foot too far in the air, they flip open and the raquette extends out in front of my foot instead of flipping up under it. However, after some tuition from Jean- François, we all get into a rhythm and trudge off down the side of the hill and away from the town. As we leave our own deep tracks through the virgin snow, we weave through trees, and beneath our feet we can barely see the tops of some shorter trees poking through the snow.
We stop for a short rest and Jean- François points out other creatures’ trails – rabbits and foxes have all left their mark. We continue down and before long, we enter Huez village. Thick snow tops the roofs and the houses look like cakes that have been iced. Icicles hang underneath the rooftops and glisten in the sunlight. After walking alongside the main road for a short distance, we carry on into the valley. Above us, the cliffs are striped with snow, and a waterfall is frozen midstream – its grey-green icicles are like the pipes of a church organ suspended high above us.
We continue down the hill to reach the bottom of the valley and, as the trees get thicker, we follow a trickling stream. It’s reminiscent of CS Lewis’ Narnia, and I half expect the Snow Queen to appear through the trees in her sleigh. The air is still and as we are all silently concentrating on our steps without saying a word, all I can hear are our feet squeaking and crunching on the snow above the barely audible trickle of the stream. In spring, this river would be a raging torrent, but for now it is gently cutting its way through the snow. We arrive at some stone ruins and Jean-François explains that the building was an old mill. I would easily have trudged past without noticing, it was so buried in snow.
We cross a small stone bridge and join the Chemin des Pêcheurs to start our ascent back up the hill. A sea of grey mist fills the valley below us and light drops of rain fall lightly on my face. It’s a welcome refreshment as the walk up the hill is tough. Eventually, beneath a pink-striped sky, we arrive at the ski lift in Huez village. On the trip back up to the ski resort, I feel my limbs tingling, well and truly limbered up for whatever activity Alpe-d’Huez has to offer me next.
Tel: (Fr) 6 89 03 70 15
Away from the slopes the town offers more than enough attractions for holidaymakers, among which the most unusual is the church. The fascinating Église Notre-Dame des Neiges’ sweeping shape – almost like a wigwam – sits perfectly in the snowy landscape and its interior has as much wow factor as the mountains outside. The curved wooden roof swoops into the centre where the amazing hand-shaped organ sits in a well of light within a concrete arch. The church, built facing the mountain La Meije, was designed to mark the 1968 Winter Olympics in the region. I visited when the organist was practising and as I listened to the amazing sound filling the whole space, I wandered around the edge looking at each of the stained glass windows, which were added in the 1990s. Beautifully modern and colourful in their design, they each depict a story from the Bible from Jesus in the temple, to the Last Supper.
Not far from the church is the Palais des Sports which offers a huge array of activities – from swimming in the pool, to badminton on the courts and rock climbing on the walls of the climbing room. There is also an indoor high ropes and climbing assault course for children called In’Vertigo – the ideal way to wear out the little ones if the skiing hasn’t done so already.
The cinema is also found here, with films in English or subtitled in English, while outside, the ice-skating rink gives Torville and Dean fans the chance to perfect their own moves. If you’re in need of some pampering, head to the beautiful Chamois d’Or hotel for its wonderful spa.
And if all these modern distractions leave you hankering for some history, you can always visit the Musée d’Huez et de l’Oisans to see the displays of antique skiing equipment.
Notre-Dame des Neiges,
Chemin de la Chapelle,
Tel: (Fr) 4 76 80 33 30
Free tours Tuesdays at 5.30pm
Chamois d’Or, Rond Point des Pistes
Tel: (Fr) 4 76 80 31 32,
Musée d’Huez et de l’Oisans Route de la Poste,
Tel: (Fr) 4 76 11 21 74,
Information on all other sports and activities, visit www.alpedhuez.com
The ski slopes are closing and the sun is setting behind the mountain, but for 16 dogs and two trainers, there’s still half a day’s work left to do. As I walk against the flow of skiers leaving the pistes for the day, I hear the dogs’ barks and whines before I see them at the Rond-Point des Pistes. Their tails are wagging as their steely grey eyes look out to the mountains beyond. They have already been doing balades (drives) further down the mountain, through the forests below the resort all day. But now that the skiers have gone home, the pistes are theirs for the taking. I take my place at the front of the sleigh, with the musher (driver) Manu and another visitor standing on a platform behind me.
Within minutes the dogs are pulling off towards the slopes, leaving the resort far behind. The views are spectacular and the sun is still drenching the tips of the mountains with a warm yellow light, which the dogs chase towards with enthusiasm. As they turn and swerve, the sleigh turns this way and that and I almost feel as if I might fall out.
Manu calls out to the dogs to steer them in each direction “serre à gauche” for left, “serre à droite” for right. Every so often the dogs, with names such as Floyd, Simcha, Oslo, Timy and Willy, get their own ideas about where they’d like to go, leading to a stream of whistles and forceful instructions from Manu. As we head up the mountain, I hear barking in the distance. Manu points to a row of green huts lower down the mountain and tells me they are the kennels in which the dogs live. The breeds vary – Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, Alaskan – with some having been rescued from dogs’ homes, and the remainder bred by the company themselves.
Those pulling our sleigh range between four and nine-years-old, with the eldest at the front. As we reach a plateau near Lac Besson, we come to a halt in the evening sunshine. It’s a welcome glimpse of warmth, as the air is cold in the shadows of the mountains. All around us are empty slopes, with not a person in sight. The resort has even disappeared from view behind us. I get out of the sleigh and jump around a bit to warm up. After a few minutes, Manu turns the sleigh around and we’re heading back to the resort, the dogs squealing in anticipation of a hard-earned rest.
Foyer de Ski de Fond
Tel: (Fr) 6 03 65 15 61
With so many other activities going on in the resort, I was slightly concerned that the skiing might not be up to much, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Not only are there 120 runs, but one of them – the 16-kilometre Sarenne – is the longest uninterrupted ski run in the world. The resort is also ideal for beginners, due to the gentle incline at the bottom of the slopes. More advanced skiers, meanwhile, will be spoiled by the 34 red (74 kilometres) and 16 black (67 kilometres) runs.
From my hotel, Les Grandes Rousses, it is an easy trip up to the slopes on the unusual cage-lift’ that zips you from the town to the Rond-Point des Pistes. From there, it is hard to choose which of the many lifts to take to the top. To help me regain my ski legs after a year away from the slopes, my instructor Camille and I first take a gentle glide down a few of the green runs. They are wide and empty and, as the resort is so wide and open, it is the perfect way to take in the spectacular views around me. It isn’t long, though, before I am itching to get up higher and we are well rewarded with runs from the 2,800 metre Petites Rousses, stopping off halfway down to visit the Grottes des Glaces. This carved ice cave takes on a new identity each year, and for last year’s Prehistoric’ theme we saw fantastic carvings of mammoth and cave men. This year’s theme is Ancient Greece’, and it will be the 17th year that ski guides Bruno Gardent and Bernard Lambolez and their team have taken on the challenge of carving 120 metres of ice galleries into caves at various places throughout the Alps.
Further down the mountain on the red runs from the Grotte des Glaces, we take a detour down the Boulevard des Lacs, a blue run that takes you away from the busier slopes (though they’re not really that busy) to an isolated restaurant Chalet du Lac Besson. It sits on the shore of Lac Besson, but in winter the name of the restaurant is all that indicates there is a lake there at all – it is completely covered in snow. As we ski the undulating track down to the chalet there isn’t a person in sight and I expect the restaurant to be just as deserted. Inside, however, the place is buzzing. It is packed with lively skiers and snowboarders all tucking into delicious savoyarde food, such as tartiflette and fondue. On the walls are cowbells, baskets, mounted stags’ heads and a huge clock that strikes the hour, all adding to the typical mountain hut atmosphere.
On the afternoon of day two, Camille urges me to be more ambitious and we take the cable car right up to the Pic Blanc. At 3,330 metres, it is the highest point of the Grandes Rousses Massif and of course the views are spectacular. As we exit the cable car, we leave our skis and hobble up the steps in our boots to the viewing platform. The wind is howling and snow is blowing in our faces, but we can just make out the views around us. Les Deux-Alpes is in front, and in the other direction we look out towards the Mont Blanc Massif.
It’s from the Pic Blanc the famous Sarenne run starts and given that it offers an hour and half of uninterrupted skiing there’s no surprise that it’s busy. The first part is very steep and so, with the wind blowing snow and ice in my face and rocks protruding from the snow, I start by faisant le dérapage, sliding gently sideways. There are two black runs down from the top, and this is the easier of them; I can’t help wondering how difficult the other must be. Before long we are skiing down the long piste sheltered by the sides of the two mountains.
Every so often we stop to take a rest and enjoy the views and Camille tells me about an even more exciting way to experience the run – at night. Throughout the season, the resort organises group trips on the last Pic Blanc cable car to the top for a traditional meal at sunset. They then ski down by the light of their head torches and the moon. It sounds terrifying, but Camille assures me it is a wonderful experience.
Towards the end of the run at 1,500 metres, it enters the Sarenne gorge and joins the green Le Gua piste. Here the pace gets slower and you can push yourself along through the trees and alongside the gentle stream to finally arrive back at the ski lift that links up Alpe-d’Huez and the tiny resort of Aurisen- Oisans.
I take my seat and look up the mountain to the clouds that are starting to turn pink. As the sun sets on my final day in Alpe-d’Huez, I vow to come back and try out all the other activities that I didn’t get a chance to try on this visit.