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Early season ski touring adventure in Val d'Isere

Backcountry expedition in the Vanoise National Park

Floss | Val d'Isere Reporter | Published: 5th December 2017

Keeping an eye on the weather and the snow conditions, Tuesday 14th November was a perfect time to leave Tignes and go to Val d’Isere to start our backcountry ski touring hut to hut adventure which began in the Manchet valley. It would also give us a great opportunity to check conditions and the snowpack for the winter coming.

I love my low season time in the mountains as fewer people are around and there are lots of adventures to be had. Ski touring this time of year is a completely different game compared to going ski touring in spring as going ski touring at the beginning of winter takes a lot of preparation and different skill sets. To have a great experience, to be insured and to be safe, you are strongly advised to go with a mountain guide or instructor.

Off we set with all our years of experience, an open plan that gave us plenty of options and knowledge of the snow conditions. Just before the Manchet chairlift, we gained the access road. Little did we know that the two women walking their dogs would be last time we would see human life for two days. The road was a nice easy warm up before harder things to come. At this time of year days are short so we wanted to use our daylight hours wisely and make sure that we were in a hut by 16:00. With no running water in mountain refuges, we were taking full advantage of topping up our water bottles in streams as much as we could and keeping hydrated.

Passing the Manchet chairlift we were in good spirits and excited about our adventure to come. We toured through the gates and entered the Vanoise National Park. Each National Park has different rules that you have to obey to so its good to find out about them before you go. The sun was warming up our bodies and the spectacular views were warming up our hearts. We started climbing steeper terrain and that’s when I could feel the weight on my back. I was carrying close to 10kg, which included 3 to 4 days food, water, clothing, first aid, clothing, stove and gas. We had to be self-sufficient and prepared. It's always good to pack more food than you think, just in case you get stuck in a storm and have to wait for better conditions.

The line that we normally take in the valley wasn’t achievable due to lack of snow and previous avalanche debris from last winter, so we took a high south-west route. We had to be skilful and concentrated as kick turns were tricky on steep slopes and, with the hard layer of wind crust, our skis would break through the sugary faceted snow. With difficult snow conditions and, slowed down by the weight of our packs, we were behind our game plan. After nearly four hours of touring uphill, we were pleased to see the Fond du Fours mountain refuge. Being on the side of caution we changed our decision to reach the Refuge de Femma and decided to stop and rest overnight. We finished a perfect day by watching the sunset with a whisky and coke. We then took off any cold and wet clothes and, putting on dry extra clothing, we settled in for the night. We made a fire, dried our boots, and melted snow to hydrate and cook the food that we had carried. We both fell asleep deeply listening to and watching the roaring fire and its embers.

By law, every mountain refuge should have a winter room and be open when the hut is not manned by a guardian. It is always good to phone ahead to check with the guardian that the hut is open and what supplies are in inside before planning your route.

After a hot breakfast soup, we packed up, taking all our rubbish with us. We left the hut closed and tidy after paying a small fee into the honesty box known as the 'tronc'. We started touring uphill heading to the Col De La Rochure, half a day behind our original plan. The views were spectacular as the sun was breaking through the high rising mountains. The large peak of Mean Martin was looking down on us as we were breaking tracks in the snow. No one was around; it was just us and the only signs of life were very faint old tracks in the snow. It was so silent you could hear a pin drop. The snowpack was thin, probably only a foot in depth due to limited snowfall and high winds. All north-facing slopes were covered with sugary faceted snow. On south-facing slopes, the snow had consolidated but was even thinner in depth.

Changing our route slightly and after a small booting up, we had reached the Col du Pisset. Totally on our own, we could see for miles and miles into different valleys. It was exactly what I expected, all the snow had been stripped off the ridges and peaks and the snow was deposited in gullies. Finally, we enjoyed making downhill turns and leaving our tracks in the virgin snow. The sun was dropping slowly out of the sky as the temperature plummeted. We were tired and behind our plan and the right decisions had to be made. There were cirrus clouds in the sky and collecting fast which is an indication of high winds and a change of weather. With this information, we decided to change our plan once again and head back to the Col du Pisset towards home. We didn’t want the new weather front to come in early as we were a long way from home. One of the many lessons that I have learnt when in the backcountry or skiing off-piste is not to be set and follow just one plan. Always adjust plans to timings, weather, snow conditions and to the group. Listen to your inner self and never be scared to turn back.

After one and half hour touring, we were at the Col du Pisset once again. We handrailed a ridge line and started our descent back home. My legs were feeling the strain with a heavy pack and the long day but I knew I had to be focused not just on the line to take but also my ski technique. The snow was thin and variable which meant that every turn was different and you needed to adapt your skiing to every condition. However, the descent was unforgettable, skiing open bowls, ridge lines paths and skiing over bridges then crossing the Manchet gorge. The views were stunning with the continuing silence. It was 16:30 once we had reached the path and handrailed around the Charvet. It was impeccable timing and at 17:30 it was nearly dark we had finished our adventure and was safe and off the mountain. It was another great ski touring adventure that I won’t forget and shared with a great friend.


Read more from Floss on her website. You can also book a backcountry experience with her!


NB: Off-piste skiing and ski touring are dangerous. The opinions expressed in these articles are very much time and condition-specific and the content is not intended in any way to be a substitute for hiring a mountain guide, undergoing professional mountaineering training and/or the individual's own backcountry decision making.

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