backcountry touring

Backcountry bootprints...What lies beyond the top of the chairlift?

Published on 23rd Oct 2018

There’s a new breed of skier that’s quickly multiplying throughout resorts in Europe. You’ve seen them on the chairlift... Fat skis, rucksack, face flecked with snow, big grin. And then, when you reach the top, you quickly realise that this is not quite the top of the mountain, because those other skiers are going further, on foot. Up, beyond and out of sight.

If you’ve ever considered following these mysterious trails of snowy footprints that wander beyond the piste, then perhaps it’s about time you acquired the know-how in order to take the next step in your freeride career. Those hike and ride hustlers know where to find the goods, and with a bit of research you could beat them to it.

But why bother going further up, when you can easily access off piste terrain from the top of the chairlift? Some might argue you’ve got to earn those turns, and they’ll feel that much sweeter. For others, simply standing on the true summit of a mountain, with an alpine vista all around, is more than worth the effort. Whatever your motivation, you’re guaranteed to escape the crowds, bag a longer descent, discover a little slice of wilderness and hopefully find some fresh powder snow ripe for the taking.

If that sounds like your kind of day, read on… You’re going to need to brush up on your backcountry skills:

Safety Equipment

You should be well practised using your safety equipment. Once well away from easy access side country, you’re that bit more exposed to the elements and the responsibility is all your own.

Where To Go

Get yourself a map and talk to local skiers, ski patrol and the lifties, these people know the resort inside out. If it’s your first time in resort, then spend a day or more with an instructor or guide getting comfortable with your surroundings, find out the routes that might suit your ability and learn about the recent history of the snow pack.

backcountry bootprints

Know The Conditions

This doesn’t just mean the weather forecast. The snowpack is constantly changing, so a face that’s safe today, won’t necessarily be safe tomorrow.

We’ve spent some time working on our own backcountry ski skills over the last few years, here are a few of our favourite routes to get you started.

Espace Killy

  • North face of the Borsat: A quick five minute hike from the top of the Borsat chair lift gives you to access to a wide open face which will bring you down into Tigne Val Claret.

  • La Table du Orientation: A 25 minute hike to the to the top of the Rocher du Bellevarde brings you to the entry points of two steep, east facing couloirs. Make your way down the 40/45 degree channels before hitting an open face after around 200m. Watch out for people and traverse lines that have come from La Face. Continue down to join the bottom half of La Face, or head into the trees and Val d'Isere. Get fantastic views of the ski area, over to Mont Blanc and the start hut of the Olympic downhill.

  • Mickey’s Ears: An infamous, sporty boot pack with some areas of exposure, and transitions from boots to skis and back again in the Massif du Lavachet/Tignes Le Lac area. So named for the antennae and satellite dishes at the summit of the Pointe du Lavachet, the face is reached by taking any of the lifts to the top of Tovière. In great winters there are lots of options to ski here. The main route is a dramatic cathedral couloir which faces east/south east and takes you on to a large plateau. Beware, the three couloirs are all steep, only experienced off piste skiers should take these on!

Portes du Soleil

  • Pointe de Vorlaz: Head to Avoriaz where the Cubore chairlift gives you a great head start on height. The hike to the summit should take around 25 minutes. Once on the narrow ridge expect an airy climb (not suitable for those with vertigo!) From the top, there are several options of varying difficulty on the north, east, and west faces of the mountain.

  • Les Haute Fort: This mountain offers some brilliant off piste terrain along its western shoulder, on the wide and undulating northwest face. Access is from the top of the Grandes Combes chairlift, where you can head straight for the summit, or ski to the right and traverse underneath the rock face and hike to the ridge in around 30 minutes.

Les Trois Vallees

  • Vallee des Avals: From the top of the Chanrossa chair, boot pack up to the Roc Merlet in around 30 minutes for a long descent down into the valley. The first section of terrain can be challenging with steepness reaching around 40 degrees. Snowboarders beware: long flat sections ahead on the valley floor! You will eventually return to the Avals piste in the Courchevel 1650 area.

  • Fourth Couloir: The rocky corridors between Saulire and the Dent de Burgin dominate the skyline of Courchevel resort. They are well known and well skied. The Grand, second and third couloirs are easily accessed on skis and often quickly tracked out and bumped up. Access the fourth couloir by entering into the Grand and then hiking up to the left. The hike should take around 30 minutes depending on the conditions, and bring you to the top of a narrow and challenging descent.

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