This week and next, I shall review the possibilities for summer skiing in the Alps, on glaciers: this week in France, next week in Italy, Austria and Switzerland. In the weeks running up to Easter, I shall look at the two main options for skiing in the southern hemisphere: Australia and New Zealand, then South America.
Summer skiing in the Alps combines happily with more seasonal mountain activities such as walking, climbing, rafting or biking, and with recreations such as tennis that may be available in mountain resorts.
Skiing takes place during a limited time, from mid-morning to early afternoon. Before then, the snow is too hard, after, too slushy, so you get relatively little time for the price of your day-pass.
I am sure I don't need to point out that swanning around on glaciers at more than 3,000m in the height of summer exposes you to radiation of an intensity that you have probably not experienced elsewhere. Take extreme precautions at first - complete sun block - and experiment with reduced protection at your peril.
I am focusing here on lift-served skiing. Those with a taste for mountain adventure probably don't need me to tell them that there is the alternative of ski- touring: travelling around at high altitude by plodding up the mountains on skis equipped with 'skins', then skiing down the other side. Many high resorts are excellent launching points for this sort of skiing, among them Chamonix, which does not have a summer skiing area of the conventional kind.
France has two main summer-ski areas, at Tignes in the central French Alps, and Les Deux Alpes, farther south. Three other resorts have worthwhile areas: Val d'Isere, a short drive from Tignes, is one, making Val and Tignes together an interesting destination. Alpe d'Huez, near Les Deux Alpes, is another, but the two areas are farther apart by road. Val Thorens, the high point of the Trois Vallees, is the third. These areas are dealt with in more detail below. There are other, smaller areas, on the Bellecote Glacier, above La Plagne, for example, but these are mainly of interest to locals.
None of these resorts is a particulary attractive sight in the summer; in fact, most are blots on the Alpine landscape. But Val d'Isere is the least offensive, having the remnants of an old village discernible among its modern hotels.
For quality of skiing and ease of access, Tignes's Grande Motte is unmatched in France, and, weather permitting, is open 365 days a year. A new underground funicular takes you up from the edge of the resort at Val Claret to the bottom of a cable-car that crosses the north-east-facing glacier, rising 500m in the process. The skiing here, and on the double drags off to the south, is properly graded blue. For much of the year you can also ski down a more challenging piste below the funicular station to the Leisse chair-lift, giving a total vertical of 750m.
Les Deux Alpes/La Grave
The combination of Les Deux Alpes' Glacier du Mont-de-Lans and La Grave's Glacier de la Girose amounts to one of the Alps' most extensive summer skiing areas. From Les Deux Alpes you travel on the Jandri gondola to the foot of an underground funicular, which then travels more than a mile, while climbing only 200m, to the Dome de la Lauze. The west-facing runs are, as you might expect, extremely gentle greens. But there are runs off to the north of the bottom funicular station that merit the blue grading and give a 400m vertical, with return by chair-lift. La Grave's connected north-facing glacier is more challenging, and is equipped with two drag-lifts - from the top of La Grave's own access cable-car, serving only 150m vertical, and the link lift towards Les Deux Alpes, serving 350m.
The summer skiing is on the Pissaillas Glacier above the Col de l'Iseran, which means that you have quite a drive out of town before you start skiing. It also means the area is accessible from villages such as Bonneval, in the Maurienne valley to the south of the col. The lower chair-lifts and upper drags combined give a vertical of 500m, with the drags going up to 3,300m and serving around 300m of good intermediate terrain, facing due west (and therefore slow to soften in the morning).
This area on the narrow Sarenne Glacier is rather unusual because the access lift - the Pic Blanc cable-car, itself reached by gondola from the resort - delivers you to the top (3,320m) rather than the bottom; and because it faces directly south, resulting in an even earlier end to the day's skiing than usual.
This may be one reason why the area is rather neglected, although the main one is doubtless the much more extensive glacier area at Les Deux Alpes. It is rather a pity because the skiing offers a worthwhile vertical of around 500m total and is much more challenging than most glacier areas. If you have skied the long Sarenne run in winter, you will probably remember that the top section deserves its black grading. There are three lifts: a chair and two drags.
The Funitel gondola gives rapid access from the village to the foot of the 3,300m chair-lift, which goes up over the main summer skiing area on the Peclet Glacier. This lift has a vertical of 420m, the nearby Glacier chair 300m; the total vertical is around 500m. Two drag-lifts supplement the Glacier chair.
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