Ken Roberts - - Ski Backcountry

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France backcountry skiing compared with Utah


France Alpes du Nord backcountry skiing has

  • more backcountry ski tours with reasonable road access during normal winter + spring ski season (withing 1.75 hours driving time from center of Alpes du Nord.

but average driving time per tour might be longer than Utah, depending on where in France you are based, and how picky you are about tours.

It's not that Utah lacks mountains with snow on them, but lots of them lack reasonable road access late December thru early May. And some of them are a long distance from Salt Lake City.

  • most backcountry ski tours are longer than most Utah backcountry ski tours.

  • more "side-country" tours with ski-lift access; and more side-country tours that are longer than Utah side-country tours.

  • more detail in guidebook descriptions of backcountry skiing (mostly in French, but some in English).

  • more steep couloirs; and longer couloirs.

  • more dramatic-looking mountain terrain.

  • way more glaciers; and way more crevasse-fall risk.

  • way more mountain huts (called "refuges")

  • not as good tours thru the trees as Utah; and less clear where to find decent tours thru the trees.

  • similar kinds and levels of avalanche risk; and similar kinds of avalanche forecasts (except that the ones on the web only in French).

  • ? possibly ? not as frequent or as deep or as light snowfalls of fresh powder -- ? or maybe the powder is not as easy to find in sheltered places for as long after the last snowfall?

Some French skiers get indignant hearing even suggestions of anything like this.

This is tricky to argue, since powder snowfall and preservation varies widely in both regions, so it's hard to know which specific locations are "fair" to select to try to compare + contrast data.

  • likely not  as many bright sunny skiing days as Utah.

Since Utah is mostly desert, it tends to have drier air.

On the other hand, down in the valley of Salt Lake City the air in winter can sometimes get bad in inversion conditions (with particulates). France Alpes du Nord sometimes gets this condition in the lower valley too, but not as often as Salt Lake City.

  • France Alpes du Nord is pretty close to skiing in Switerland and Italy - (unlike Salt Lake City is not that close to good skiing in Colorado or California or Wyoming.)

France Alpes du Nord also has

  • more lift-served downhill skiing terrain; and longer lift-served downhill ski runs. And in some resorts the fresh snow does not get "skied out" as fast as at most downhill skiing resorts in Utah.

  • more cross-country ski trails, and more interesting XC ski trails (if you're based close to La Feclaz, Les Saisies, or Bessans).

  • more vineyards

  • more cows and more grass

  • more little mountain villages

  • better road bicycling

  • much less open desert country

Utah skiers visiting France for backcountry skiing

  • French language (especially some sort of reading ability) is needed to read avalanche forecasts and trip reports and guidebooks and other important things. This is one of the big commitments required to play the great game of backcountry skiing in the Alpes du Nord.

(unless you're hiring a guide most of the time, or you're connected with some local backcountry skiers)

  • for spring touring, having equipment and skills and judgment to handle steep hardpack and ice both on and off skis can be important for France - (while it's often avoidable in Utah).

  • When?  Later in the season is often better for Utah skiers to visit France, if they're looking for something different from Utah.

The winter powder experience in France may have longer runs, and at some lift-served areas it might not get tracked out as fast, but the experience of chasing powder in France is not going to be fundamentally different from Utah -- except that in France the range of choices on any particular day could be overwhelming.

Also lots of local French residents have discovered how good the backcountry skiing is, so there's plenty of competition for untracked snow in winter. As spring season begins, more of the local skiers have done lots of their favorite tours, and get eager to start into the summertime mountain activities.

Many things (especially lift-served downhill resorts, and especially on Saturdays the mountain roads) are rather crowded in February because of the French national school holidays.

I'd suggest not arriving before mid-March. Lots of the greatest most spectacular high-mountain tours can be done thru early May, some even later.

  • Who and How to connect with local backcountry skiers. Basically it works pretty much like in Utah . . .
    Best if you have . . .

(a) car (cheaper and easier to rent if you can drive a manual transmission), knowledge of special French driving rules [ some ideas ] - (e.g. "priorité a droite" is often relevant in towns near the mountains), ability to navigate to mountain towns and trailheads.

Having a car matters less if you don't have French language + web access to the latest best info for selecting tours.

(b) mobile phone (that works in Europe, unlike lots of American cell phones) - (doesn't hurt to have a SIM card with a French phone number so your ski partners don't have to pay long-distance phone charges in order to call you).

(c) net access for avalanche and weather forecasts, trip reports, etc. - (some sort of WiFi device is pretty useful -- or some sort of "smart-phone", but check the charges for net access through it while "roaming" in Europe).

Or . . .
if you do not have French language and car . . .
can spend lots of days hanging around Chamonix, where there's lots of other English-speaking skiers, and a wide range of ski tours readily accessable by bus and train.

For those who just don't like the Chamonix scene, there's other resort "stations" to try -- but without a car they don't come close to Chamonix for range of touring options.

  • To justify the commitment in learning the language and sorting out the touring options, it makes sense to plan on backcountry skiing in France Alpes du Nord for lots of weeks -- could be either spread of lots of years, or one intense season.

  • If only can justify a week or two, much better to do it with a guide for at least the first several days . . .

. . . a guide who is local in France. There are lots of good guides in France who speak good English, and their local knowledge + connections really help for doing some interesting tours in the midst of tricky avalanche + crevasse risk situations.

other thoughts:

  • I'd suggest not limiting yourself to a list of places and touring objectives from American magazines and web forums.

A few places in France keep getting named again and again, but that's mostly just "herding" or "cascading" of opinions (as happens in lots of non-skiing activities). Actually the French Alps are so rich that there are lots of other great places and tours. Somehow it never seems to cross the minds of American magazine article writers to ask local French backcountry skiers where they like to ski -- or to check the French-language guidebooks -- it's surprising when they show signs of having read any of the several English-language ski guidebooks for France.

Of course if you want to meet other Americans and English-speaking tourist skiers, then you have to follow the herd.

  • hut-to-hut tours

France tends to have steeper pass crossings between huts than some other regions of the Alps, and huts in France tend to be less luxurious than in Austria. On the other hand, some single huts (or "refuges") in France have lots of interesting single-day tours nearby, so there's less need to visit lots of huts during a week-long trip. Paul Henderson's guidebook, Vanoise Ski Touring, has lots of ideas for hut trips.

more . . .

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backcountry mountaineering randonnee rando off-piste tour tours touring route routes

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