The ingredients for our France freeride snowboarding road trip included: one Kia Sorento, two snowboarders, four ski resorts, seven snowboards, eleven days and 1700 miles. Missing ingredients were road maps, French language, peak fitness, apres willpower, and snow chains. What could possibly go wrong?
The plan was simple, ferry across the channel, drive to the alps, snowboard off-piste for ten days in four different resorts, then drive home. This is a day by day account of our France freeride snowboarding road trip which was kindly sponsored by Pathron Snowboards.
Obligatory warning: freeride snowboarding off-piste is dangerous, you need to know what you are doing, have the right gear and go with someone who knows the area and preferably a qualified mountain guide.
Day 1: Rude awakening in the English Channel
We expected the first day to be uneventful and for the most part it was. The top of the range AWD Kia Sorento arrived on time, the drive from Lichfield to Newhaven was only hampered by ‘normal’ M25 traffic jams, we made it to the ferry terminal an hour early and were asleep in our cabin before the ferry set sail.
The DFDS ferry crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe only takes four hours, so determined to get some sleep before the long drive ahead we had switched off the announcements in our room. As such we did not know the departure had been delayed due to bad weather.
The first we knew of the rough crossing, was simultaneously falling out of our respective beds, due to a particularly large wave somewhere in the English Channel.
Day 2: Paris traffic and grassy Megeve
We arrived in Dieppe at 6am a couple of hours later than expected. Surprisingly we got plenty of sleep despite a rather rough crossing – the clean cabin, comfy beds and functional bathroom helped, as did a lack of seasickness. On exiting our cabin it was clear others had not had such a good crossing.
The drive from Dieppe to Megeve should take about seven hours. However the delay meant we caught rush hour around Paris. The excellent Kia SatNav kept beeping at us and offering alternative routes, which we ignored, as such we have only ourselves to blame for not arriving in Megeve until 2pm.
Seeing no snow – and people in town wearing t-shirts in January – was not a promising start. But once we got up the mountain there was enough snow on the piste to have a good blast. We snowboarded until the last lift on rather thin and slushy pistes, having fun on our jib sticks – for me a Pathron Slash and Nathan a Bataleon Evil Twin.
It has to be said at this point we were very concerned that this France freeride snowboarding road trip would be dropping the freeride element. Over dinner we took it upon ourselves to drink as much wine as possible, regularly toasting the gods of snow, after dinner we continued the theme with a few beers.
Day 3: The gods of snow delivered
Overnight a smattering of snow was forecast. But the snow gods defied the weather forecasters and delivered 40cm of fresh powder. Repeatedly toasting the snow gods worked, but left us slightly less able to enjoy it…
When we reached the top of the first lift our guide was very surprised, as we had more fresh snow to play in then Megeve had seen all season. We were pleased to have swapped bindings from the jib sticks onto something more appropriate – Nathan the directional twin Pathron Flaxer and me the Striding Edge Ponya.
We started in the L’Alpette and Rochebrune area, where the only tracks before us had been made by ski patrol. Hangovers were quickly left behind and we did four or five powder filled runs before we saw anybody else. Our guide explained that in Megeve most people don’t get on the mountain until 11, so we would have the powder to ourselves for a while.
We took a couple runs that were closed due to lack of snow, ironically enjoying the untouched knee deep powder. We then took the Rochebois Funicular across the valley to explore the St Gervais side of the ski area. As it’s higher the runs start above the treeline and we were able to freeride between the pistes – our France freeride snowboarding road trip had begun.
After lunch we headed to the Cote 2000 area, which gets extra snow due to its position between two peaks. Being late afternoon we were surprised to find patches of untracked powder on the piste and enjoyed some great runs between the trees in noticeably deeper powder than elsewhere.
We finished the day with a few beers to thank the snow gods and to celebrate awesome snow and actually getting to freeride.
Day 4: France freeride snowboarding road trip gets serious
The drive from Megeve to Sainte Foy was due to take just under two hours. Everything was going smoothly until the SatNav took us on a shortcut just before we arrived. In hindsight the red ‘Ferme’ signs, waving locals and lack of traffic going that way should have clued us up.
After winding our way up a few hairpin bends on a treacherously narrow and icy road we came to a dead end. There was no room to turn so we had to reverse our way back down the treacherously narrow and icy road. Fortunately at the second hairpin we were able to do a 27 point turn, so at least we didn’t have to reverse back past the locals (who were no longer waving).
We arrived in Sainte Foy to sunny skies and around 50cm of fresh snow in the last 48 hours. We stuck with the all-mountain Pathron Flaxer and Striding Edge Ponya.
After a couple of warm up runs we met our ESF guide for the day. He had been working in Sainte Foy since the resort opened 24 years ago. Unfortunately the avalanche risk was too high to do any of the serious backcountry routes, but there was still fun to be had.
We headed to the top of Aiguille lift, then hiked and traversed a short way across a ridge towards La Foglietta. The drop in was steep, icy and rocky – about as inviting as the earlier road – but soon opened up into a wide powder field, it was in great condition and pretty much untouched. We enjoyed the run so much we did it twice.
After lunch we went to the top of the Marquise lift and headed off to the right hand side of the blue run. This was easier to access and far less challenging off-piste, which meant I went a bit faster and start trying tricks. Cue clipping a rock and having my first big powder fall of the france freeride snowboarding road trip.
After a few more runs in the area, our guide took us to the funky Chez Leon for a cheeky beer. We continued the theme with a few more cheeky beers in the hot tub at the Black Diamond Lodge, overlooking the mountains we had been playing on earlier.
Day 5: Sainte Foy freeride heaven
On the second day in Sainte Foy we had a guide from Evolution 2. Nathan stuck with the Pathron Flaxer and I swapped onto the Pathron Sensei which is officially a freestyle board but I use it all-mountain and find it great in powder.
Again we started with the Aiguille lift, but this time took the red a short way before ducking under the ropes. A long traverse below Rocher de Pierre d’Arbine followed, part way I fell – trying to avoid some skiers that stopped in the middle of the traverse – then struggled to get up because the powder was so deep.
We traversed further than anyone before us, and enjoyed untouched powder on an very technical route through gullies and rock gardens. This snowboarding was not about pace and tricks but riding precisely. When you’re in the flow it is a lot of fun, or – as Nathan found out – a long wade through powder when your flow deserts you.
We rode all the way to the bottom of L’Arpettaz, barely touching a piste along the way for what was some of the most rewarding freeride I have experienced. After we did a couple of shorter runs that were more between-piste off-piste, before tired legs meant stopping for lunch became a requirement rather than an option.
After lunch the wind picked up meaning the Aiguille lift was shut. From the top of the Marquise lift we did a 30 minute hike towards Vallon de Mercuel. Eventually dropping in a couple of ridges over to find plenty of untouched powder, although with the change in conditions a crust had formed in places.
The off-piste this side was less steep but had nice undulations that were perfect for tricks. What I found incredible was that nearly three days after it had snowed there were still plenty of fresh lines to be had in Sainte Foy.
After a couple of runs snow started to fall and we retired to the Chez Leon again. There we met a group of mountain guides, including our guide from the day before, and preceded to have a few more drinks. They felt there would be a substantial amount of snow by morning. It was at this point we realised we had forgotten the snowchains.
We stayed at the stunning Black Diamond Lodge which is part of Venture Ski. Here is a detailed review of Sainte Foy freeride snowboarding. Visit the tourist boards website to find out more about Sainte Foy: www.saintefoy-tarentaise.com
Day 6: Ice chainless drive to Tignes
With another 40cm of fresh snow overnight we were kicking ourselves for forgetting the snow chains. But at the same time gleefully set up our directional powder boards; the Pathron Missile and Borealis Drakkar before setting off for Tignes.
Although the Kia Sorento is a AWD it did not have winter tyres so the lack of snow chains was a worry. Nathan – being from Cumbria – had plenty of snow driving experience, so he got the nod behind the wheel rather than myself – the soft Southerner.
However we needn’t have worried, the Kia Sorento handled the snow brilliantly with nothing more than a minor skid when the snow was at its deepest. The road out of town had been cleared relatively recently and the main road towards Tignes was even clearer.
Our concern now turned to the fairly frequent snow chain signs, there is a fine to pay if you don’t have them – even worse you can be turned away. At one point all non-4WD cars were being pulled over to chain up, but we were waived through and had no problem getting to Tignes Val Claret.
With so much fresh snow in town, new powder boards to ride, and two friends to meet up with any rational thought of where to park was replaced with ‘dump the car and get shredding’. That one decision delayed us by 20 minutes as it turned out the first car park we came to was the opposite end of town to our accommodation, and where we were meeting the ESF guide.
After trudging across town we met our guide, he went to great lengths to explain that although there was lots of fresh snow there was a very poor base so we had to take things easy. I thought fine by me as visibility was pretty poor, but I wasn’t prepared for how slow the guide was going to go – it turned out it was the first time he had snowboarded that season.
He soon warmed up and although visibility was poor he found us good untouched powder in the Lognan area, from Le Murs run to Grand Huit and from the top of the Percee Chair into Tignes 2100. We then popped over to Val d’Isere for a blast down Le Face and a spot of lunch.
After lunch visibility improved and we did a few excellent runs in the Lavancher area, accessed by the Solaise Express. Legs were starting to tire – that 20 minute walk through town coming back to haunt us – when we arrived at the Envers de Campanules unpisted area, it turned out to be the best visibility and powder of the day in a steep hidden bowl.
Saying goodbye to our guide we went into the nearest bar to sample the Tignes apres in a manner befitting our age – for the first two pints. After that we rolled back the years and pints came with Jägerbomb, Jägerbomb came with chasers, and the chasers came with bets to drink the contents of the drip tray – fortunately the barman stopped us. Great to see we’re not the only ones still in our ski gear come midnight.
Day 7: Clear skies and unclear heads
Of the four of us two made it back to the apartment, the other two couldn’t find it and ended up kipping in the reception of another hotel. Waking with a hangover to realise that my bags were still in the car the other side of town was bad enough, but one of our group woke to realise he had lost his thermals…
Cue a long groan filled breakfast, lots of caffeine, greasy baked goods, a thermal shopping trip, more caffeine, more groaning and we were ready to shred. The first lift resonated with our groans, luckily no one tried to share it with us as the dismount was a hungover tangle of snowboards.
It is funny how within one or two turns a hangover can completely disappear when snowboarding. Once our brains returned we returned to experience Le Murs to Grand Huit in good visibility. We also went back to Envers de Campanules and did three or four ‘steep n deep’ runs that were perfect for the Pathron Missile and Borealis Drakkar.
Day 8: Freestyle on a France freeride snowboarding road trip
With the other guys heading back to Geneva for work it was down to Nathan and I to continue the France freeride snowboarding road trip on our own. As the fresh snow was getting a bit tracked out we decided to hit the mountain with freestyle in mind.I busted out the Pathron Sensei and Nathan chose his Bataleon Evil Twin.
But after two days of riding the big directional Pathron Missile Nathan was struggling to come to terms with the differences. It was clear from one run through the park that Nathan was a danger to himself, so we stuck to the piste while he refound his snowboarding ability. This look most of the morning and he took a couple of big spills.
I on the other hand was riding like I owned the mountain. Popping grabs and 3s off every little lip, lump and bump. I was snowboarding about as well as I ever had and felt invincible.
Late in the afternoon we found ourselves in the Tignes snowpark between the Col Du Palet and Grattalu lifts. Despite visibility not being the best I was hitting the kickers with progressively more speed, getting in some big 360s, grabs, and even pulled off – what felt to me but was unwitnessed – a huge Method.
It all came to an end when I did a small, innocuous frontside 180 and felt like I had been shot in the leg. It turned out I had torn a calf muscle. My France freeride snowboarding road trip was over, well not quite I still had to get off the mountain with only one working leg.
The pain was just about bearable on my heelside, so I ploughed the slope looking like a petrified beginner. Initially the liftie didn’t want me to get the chair down – apparently you can get it down as long as you are NOT injured. She suggested mountain rescue, which for a muscle tear would be a waste of time and money.
She eventually let me on the chairlift and I hobbled back the apartment with Nathans assistance.
It Tignes we stayed at the Belambra Clubs Borsat IV, it is one of the cheaper accommodation options in Tignes. Read the full Tignes freeride snowboarding holiday review to find out more, or visit the tourist board website: www.tignes.net
Day 9: Hopping mad in La Plagne
We were due to spend the day riding in Tignes before driving to La Plagne for the final leg of our France freeride snowboarding road trip. However my calf injury meant I would not be snowboarding the rest of the trip.
Nathan had also woken up injured. During one of his falls during the ‘forgotten how to snowboard’ period the day before he had landed heavily on his arse and his coccyx was sore. So he decided to take a day off and drove to La Plagne with his injury getting worse and worse as the day wore on.
From our room in the Terra Nova Hotel in La Plagne we could see untracked lines through the trees, and lots of freeride opportunities. This lead to a desire to have a couple of beers to wallow in injured self pity. We slowly made our way over to the main village of Plagne Centre and snagged a slopeside seat in a bar.
On the way back to the hotel the previously dead undercover area of Plagne Centre was now heaving with a really good vibe. So we joined the apres crowd in a bar and wallowed a bit more.
Day 10: Being shown the freeride we could have done
Nathan had hoped to be fit to hit the slopes after his day off, however the day dawned with him in so much pain he could barely get out of bed. So we had to cancel our off-piste guide – Francois Allemoz of Hors Limit – but he kindly agreed to meet with me to discuss the freeride we could have done.
It was almost as painful listening to Francois and looking at his pictures as it was injuring my leg. There were great snow conditions to be enjoyed with low avalanche risk so all options were available. He showed me ten different off-piste areas including easy spots for beginners to very difficult couloirs, and high open areas to low tree lined routes.
But the off-piste de résistance (sorry couldn’t resist it) are the epic routes from the top of Bellecote. You can take the north face down to Peisey Nancroix or the south Face via Col du Nant into Champagny. Both options offer over 2000 meters of backcountry descent without a piste in sight.
After that the highlight of my day was a French pot noodle for lunch.
We stayed at the Terra Nova hotel in Plagne Centre, four years before I stayed there on a week holiday, here’s an article about my snowboarding holiday in La Plagne. For more information visit La Plagne website: www.la-plagne.com
Day 11: No snowboarding & homeward bound
Our respective injuries were both quite a bit better on the final day of our France freeride snowboarding road trip. I was able to put my full weight on my leg and Nathan was no longer walking like John Wayne. However we were still not fit to snowboard, particularly with a long drive home ahead of us.
Our ferry was not due to depart Dieppe until 5am so the plan was to snowboard all day before driving through the night. Instead we sat in the hotel and did a bit of work. Unfortunately they were out of pot noodles at lunch time.
With both of us fit enough to take a stint behind the wheel the drive home was uneventful. The Kia Sorento SatNav chucked up a couple of traffic warnings, this time we allowed it to divert us and we avoided all traffic delays. Driving in France is very easy compared to the UK and if there are two or more of you it saves you money getting to th Alps.
On the journey home we had plenty of time to reflect on our France freeride snowboarding road trip. Although it had been cut short through injury we had enjoyed seven days of amazing snowboarding. It had been great visiting different resorts and having guides take us to all the best spots was incredible.
Special thanks to Pathron Snowboards whose sponsorship of the France freeride snowboarding road trip helped make it happen.