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The sunlight was starting to diminish as we arrived at Pointe Collet Blanc. We had made our way through a series of untouched slopes from a lift 500m higher than Val Thorens, and we were only a short ski away from our hut.
We were positioned in a way that allowed us to have a view of the entire Three Valleys ski area towards the east, and also towards the north where we could see the massif of Mont Blanc. On our west side was the Maurienne Valley. It gave us the feeling that we had the entire stretch of the French Alps to ourselves.
At the end of the day, the last run at a well-liked resort can be chaotic and packed. However, if you choose to use the remaining daylight to make your way to a cabin, it will be a much calmer and peaceful experience.
Although we enjoyed the sense of openness and being alone, we were still within a 20-minute distance from the ski slope.
Over the course of three days, we used a combination of ski touring and Val Thorens’ lift system to reach off-piste areas on the outskirts of the established network. We did not venture much further from this point.
Ski touring is a method for skiers and snowboarders to access slopes that are not accessible by ski lifts. This involves using skins attached to the bottom of the equipment, allowing for climbing up snowy hills using one’s own energy. While touring has its advantages, it can also be physically taxing and restrict the amount of downhill runs one can complete in a day.
Instead of straying far from the main trails, we stayed in convenient huts near the slopes and lifts, allowing us to easily explore Val Thorens’s backcountry without putting in extra effort for each turn.
Val Thorens, located at an altitude of 2,300m, is the highest among the three main resorts in the Three Valleys. The region, which also includes Meribel and Courchevel, boasts approximately 160 lifts and over 600km of ski runs. With over a million visitors annually, Val Thorens is not a secret spot, but discovering a new aspect of a well-known destination can be both unexpected and invigorating.
For the past seven days, there was no snowfall. However, we were fortunate to have clear skies, gentle winds, and chilly temperatures of -20C, which maintained the snow in excellent condition.
On our initial day, we rode a lift from the center of Val Thorens, then ascended to the top of the Moraine lift and used our skins to climb to the Col Pierre Lory at 3,100m. Our guide from Ecole du Ski Francais, Stephane Spettel, informed us that the pass was named after a priest who tragically passed away while on his regular journey between village parishes on either side. In his mid-fifties, Stephane has witnessed significant changes in Val Thorens, although most of them were to accommodate a surge in demand, not all of them were embraced. He pointed out the glacier above us, which has lost a staggering 25m in depth over the past two decades.
The journey down from the Col gave us a glimpse of what was ahead. We traversed through a mostly untouched, gently sloping bowl that guided us back to the ski trail. From there, we weaved in and out of the backcountry, taking advantage of what was accessible only by lifts. Following a delayed lunch at Restaurant La Moutiere, we rode the lift back up and completed a brief ascent to a ridge. From there, we embarked on a lengthy and solitary descent above the Belleville Valley to the town of St Marcel, where we then began our climb to our initial hut.
During our descent, we encountered a cloud inversion and were treated to breathtaking sunset vistas of the Italian portion of Mont Blanc. As a result, we arrived at the valley in the dark as we were sidetracked by taking photographs. Eventually, we had to use head torches to complete the 45-minute ascent to the Refuge Le Trait d’ Union.
At approximately 7pm, we arrived at the location which was breathtaking. Our charming host, Viviane Hudry, greeted us warmly. She shared with us the story of how she and her late husband Jean-Luc transformed the ruined barn into a refuge in 2004. The refuge served as a family vacation home until Jean-Luc’s passing in 2016.
We woke up feeling rejuvenated and had to reluctantly leave the delicious croissants and coffee at the cozy Trait D’ Union. We then skied up to the St Martin Express Lift above us and made our way down into Les Menuires.
Again, we explored the untouched wilderness beyond the designated boundaries with the guidance of Stephane, who utilized his knowledge of the landscape and its different features to locate the optimal and safest powder for us.
We also ventured to the Valley des Encombres, climbed up to the Col de La Challes and skied back down into the Belleville Valley. After that, we went to the Pointe de La Masse lift and descended to the Refuge du Lac du Lou. This mountain refuge is more conventional compared to the exclusive eight-bed Trait d’Union we stayed at the previous night, but it is still a welcoming place to spend the night. The accommodations are in a dormitory-style and there are hot showers available. Despite its appearance, it is not far from the ski slopes.
In the morning, we quickly returned to Pointe de la Masse and then continued southward to reach Col de la Grande Combe, going further than our previous route.
Once more, we successfully navigated through an amazing unmarked area. This specific bowl was spacious enough for our entire group of six to descend from various angles.
We finished the day with a trip up to one of Val Thorens’ most well-known summits, the 3,195m Cime de Caron, where we headed for the Col de Lauzin and then boot-packed along a ski patrol line before dropping into the silky, smooth slopes below back to the Vallee de Lou and Val Thorens itself.
That night, the Fahrenheit Seven hotel was buzzing, marking a significant change of scene after two nights in huts. While we didn’t venture miles into the backcountry, it certainly felt as if we had. And while all our group was familiar with the Three Valleys, almost all the terrain we skied was new. As we talked, it became clear that while pure touring days can be satisfying, a halfway house that enables you to spend a few nights on the mountain, emerging as fulfilled from the descent as the ascent, might just be the sweet spot.
Seb Ramsay’s trip was organised by the Val Thorens Tourist Office who offer similar packages for around 1,800 euros per head.
He lodged at two mountain shelters – Le Trait D’Union Refuge and Lac du Lou Refuge – and at Fahrenheit Seven hotel in Val Thorens.
Paris. Val Thorens is 45 minutes in a taxi from Moutiers or 75 minutes by bus.
The resort is approximately a two-hour drive from four major airports: Lyon Saint-Exupéry, Chambéry, Geneva, or Grenoble.