Sunshine and powder at the Col Pers

Chris making fresh tracks in Pays Desert
Chris making fresh tracks in Pays Desert

Last week’s snow falls seem a long time ago but there is still some powder to be had if you’re prepared to get up early and break a bit of sweat on skins. This morning, Chris took us to the further reaches of the Pays Desert before hiking over to the Col Pers and across to the Lechoir for some fantastic skiing.

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Down Vallon du Clou to Le Monal

Vallon du Clou and its abandoned hamlet
Vallon du Clou and its abandoned hamlet

Le Monal is a magical site in the spring. On a sunny winter’s day, it’s an almost unreal wonderland. Last week I walked to the UNESCO-listed site from Sainte Foy following the last-minute cancellation of a planned ski tour to the hamlet.

Today I am back on skis with local guide Nicolas Borrel who took a small group of us to Le Monal via the upper part of the vallon du Clou – the stream that flows down from the small lake of the same name, through Le Monal and eventually into the river Isère 1,000m below.

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Le Monal: winter wonderland, for real

Le Monal in winter: wonder and peace

Le Monal: winter wonderland, for real
Le Monal: winter wonderland, for real

“Do you mind if we move our tour to Le Monal to Thursday?” the guide asks.

It’s a sunny enough day but apparently there is too much wind on the other side of the mountain, whereas the forecast for Thursday is sunny all day and no wind, which would be ideal. We could still do it today, but really Thursday would be better.

I got up at 6.45 and drove half an hour to get to Sainte Foy, the starting point for the trip; so I do mind a little. The only possible answer, though, is: “Of course, that’s no problem”.

But having come all this way and being so close to Le Monal, a place I have been meaning to see in the winter for so long, I’m not going to give up just like that – I am going to walk there instead.

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An infinite variety of trees: skiing the Laisinant forest

Laisinant forest: tall trees, steep slopes, soft snow
Laisinant forest: tall trees, steep slopes, soft snow

Powder. Lots of it. It was the news everybody in Val d’Isère had been waiting for after ten days of near-continuous sunshine and mild temperatures. Overnight, snow clouds drifting over from the Italian side of the mountain – known locally as the ‘retour d’Est’ – has deposited 15 cm of fresh stuff on the hill and 50cm on the Pisaillas glacier. But as snow hounds were reaching for their fat planks, further news came through: residual high winds meant the lifts on the upper parts of the resort would not open today and the glacier would remain shut. Perfect day, then, to rediscover nearby off-piste areas that had become tracked out and icy beyond skiable – and where else to go other than the magnificent Laisinant forest.

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Bonneval-les-Bains: tales of a failed spa project

Bonneval-les-bains: the pool with no swimmers
Bonneval-les-bains: the pool with no swimmers

The road that winds up the vallée des chapieux from Bourg Saint Maurice has been cleared as far as Bonneval-les-Bains. This is where we’re heading with former instructor M, who has suggested we go snowshoeing away from the Val d’Isère crowds and explore the lesser-known parts of the Tarentaise.

She tells me about Bonneval, a small settlement of scattered houses on the way to the Cormet de Roselend, a popular destination in the summer. Now, in mid-February, this is where the road stops. There is nobody else around apart from a couple of cars parked on the roadside opposite the ruins of a hotel that was never completed and a derelict open-air swimming pool.

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View over the glaciers du Mont Pourri from Le Monal

Early spring at Le Monal

View over the glaciers du Mont Pourri from Le Monal
View over the glaciers du Mont Pourri from Le Monal

In peak winter season Le Monal is a favourite destination for backcountry skiers in the Tarentaise area. Skinning up to the Unesco-listed hamlet you get breathtaking views over the glaciers on the Mont Pourri on the other side of the Isere valley. The site is also awash with walkers in the summer months thanks in part to the ease with which it can be accessed; a pleasant hike from the Echaillon parking area in Sainte Foy at 1500m, along a gently sloping path to reach the 1874m settlement. Even senior folk such as Godfather P can undertake it strain free. And the likes of Dr K can be lured aboard with promises of rural baroque chapels – even though most of them are shut or their pretty altars visible only from behind bars.   Continue reading “Early spring at Le Monal”