Serre Chevalier: Too Many Options

Serre Chevalier, France - It wasn’t looking good. Our flight went well,
the hire car was OK and we’d managed to find our hotel without getting lost. Then
it all started to go wrong. It was pouring down with rain when we got out of the
car, all the shops were shut for lunch and we were tired and hungry. The four
of us (now soaking wet and slightly miserable) checked into our hotel and realized
that we’d have to share two double beds, in what can only be described as the
most depressing hotel room I’ve ever been in. The prospect of living in this dump
for a week would have been enough to persuade me to drive straight back to Turin
and jump on the next flight home.

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Needless to say, we decided to leave the hotel and find somewhere
else. We wandered into the tourist information office and explained to the
very helpful (English speaking) woman behind the desk that we needed somewhere
to live. She instantly started looking through books and jabbering away on
the phone before telling us that a lady would meet us by the church in 15
minutes to show us an apartment. A bit strange we thought, but we waited anyway.
Sure enough, a diminutive French woman dutifully appeared and shuffled off
to show us the apartment. The moment we walked through the door we knew our
luck had changed for the better. The place was a palace. Better than where
I live and a complete bargain at 2400 FF for the week (£10 per person per
night, $15 US). Things were looking up.

Absolutely soaking wet, we went to buy our lift passes, still
concerned about the effects that the torrential rain would be having on the
snowpack. Of course we’d never been to Serre Chevalier before and didn’t know
what to expect at the top of the mountain, so all sorts of thoughts go through
your head. “At least we’ve got that great apartment if there’s no snow.” The
moment we entered the lift pass office however, our whole week suddenly changed
for the better and the most epic holiday of my life was about to begin. “There’s
80 cm of fresh at the top and it’s coming down fast!” yelled Lee.

(photo Bob Holt)

(photo Bob Holt)

(photo Bob Holt)

Over the next six days, five feet of snow fell, providing us with
five outstanding powder days and some of the strangest weather conditions that
I’ve ever encountered. During the day it would sometimes reach 18 or 19 degrees
celsius on the valley floor, making the final run of the day pretty slushy.
As a rule, it seemed to cloud over and snow during the night and the morning,
then steadily clear by lunchtime before baking us with sunshine for the afternoon,
sending the avalanche risk soaring on certain (sun facing) slopes. Avalanche
risk was high all week: the report graded it as 4 for every day except for one
when it dropped to 3. This obviously affected our choice of route on several
occasions (up and down), but didn’t really affect the trip in any other way.
By the time that we left there were five meters of snow at the top and the lifties
had to dig out a trench in the snow for the top chairlift to pass through.

It’s the sort of holiday weather you dream about all summer long.
Long, warm bluebird days in endless virgin powder, then overnight the powder
gods hit the “reset” button. Every morning we choked down our breakfast and
raced to the lift so we could be on the slopes before anyone else, knowing that
this sort of weather is a rare thing.

The resort of Serre Chevalier consists of four small villages
spread along the valley floor, with all of the slopes located on one side
of the valley above. All of the runs are interlinked by lifts and there is
a free bus (available with lift pass) that connects all four villages.

The first and largest village is Briancon, which is located
at the extreme left of the resort. Despite being livelier than some of the
other villages, it’s a bit too far away from the slopes for my liking. Chantemerle
and Villeneuve seem to be the more popular choices, especially amongst the
tour operators. These two villages seemed quite similar to me, both having
a good atmosphere and located quite near the lifts.

The final village where we had chosen to stay was Monetier. It 
was fairly similar to all the others, maybe a little smaller, however it had
plenty of small hotels, shops and bars to keep us amused. Monetier was reasonably
cheap when it came to bar prices and supermarket food. The restaurants, however,
were quite expensive, although there were two cheaper places selling pizza and
crepes. These were quite enough for a week, but we were glad of the kitchen
in out apartment. There are a couple of bars in the village, but we spent most
of our time in the English-run bar on the main street (predictable – I know
…). There seemed to be more nightlife in the other villages, so if you want
your choice of bars and nightlife I’d consider staying somewhere else.

The terrain above Monetier is the best (according to the locals
and seasonaires anyway), so it makes sense to stay either in Monetier or the
next village, Villeneuve, to avoid a long haul to get to the good stuff in
the morning. The terrain above Chantemerle and Briancon is probably not that
different to that above Monetier, but it is served by a horrendous collection
of draglifts. And believe me, they’re no ordinary draglifts. Firstly, they
move at about twice the speed of a normal drag, and the acceleration at the
start is enough to send even the most seasoned skier crashing to the ground.
They also have a tendency to go up very steep slopes and occasionally even
go around sharp corners. If you can handle the draglifts in Serre Chevalier,
you can handle any lift in the world. No, all in all I’d stick to the right
hand side of the resort, there’s plenty to keep you amused over there anyway.
A lot of the people who live and work in the village have lift passes that
only cover this side of the resort, which works out to be slightly cheaper.
I would definitely consider this when I return next year, especially if the
weather was similar.

(Click on image to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window)

(Click on image to open a full-size trail map in a new
browser window)

The ski area itself is huge, but the lift system is easy to work
out and it’s quite difficult to get lost. The whole area is basically divided
into tree runs at the bottom and wide-open powder bowls at the top. The groomed
runs are all well maintained and most are groomed every night, which will suit
beginners and those of you who like to go fast. There are some moguls if that’s
your thing, however they didn’t really get a chance to develop the week that
we were there because of all the snow. The tree runs on the lower part of the
mountains are outstanding, and again it’s difficult to get lost because you
always come out onto the nursery slopes at the base of the lifts. The powder
bowls at the top are amongst the best that I’ve ever ridden, and every time
you turn a corner there’s another one that you’ve not seen before.

The terrain you can reach off the Cucumelle, Balme, Ciboit and
L’Eychauda lifts is enough to keep you amused for a long time. The beauty
of this area is the immense amount of “backcountry” runs that you can access
from the lifts, usually via very short hikes. The management even marks these
with massive yellow signs to warn you that you’re on your own, but they just
served as a magnet for powder hounds like us. The terrain accessable from
all of the lifts is amazingly diverse, ranging from gentle powder bowls to
full on steeper-than-steep gullies. Most of these are in sight of the lifts
as well, so you’re never truly on your own.

(photo Bob Holt)

(photo Bob Holt)

(photo Bob Holt)

The only exception to this is “La Montagnole” which is an off-piste
route that runs from the top of the mountain all the way to the base, and takes
you well out of sight of the lifts. For this reason we decided to give this
one a miss, but it’s meant to be great. The number of cliffs and cornices is
mind blowing. You could spend all day dropping off different ones and you’d
still not have done them all – this place has everything.

Serre Chevalier is probably not that good for beginners, though,
especially in the conditions that we encountered, as most of the novice slopes
are at the base of the mountain.

Food facilities on the mountain were good, but the restaurants
could do with being about twice the size that they are to avoid the queues that
developed during lunch.

The most troublesome part of the trip was deciding which run
to do next. It’s traumatic having to choose between three or four runs off
each lift, knowing that the next time you go back they could be all tracked
out and you’ll have missed out on another opportunity. I’ve never had such
heated debates on chairlifts, and we quite often ended up going our own separate
ways and meeting up at the bottom. The locals were always eager to offer advice
and point out the more out-of-the-way routes, which we otherwise wouldn’t
have known about.

As with most of the resorts in the Alps, it’s only a short drive
to several other resorts, both in Italy and France. The best of these has
to be La Grave, which is essentially a mountain with lifts to the top and
no marked pistes down. The place is a haven for off-piste enthusiasts, but
you’ll need a guide to avoid dangerous areas and to assess avalanche risk
for you. Several of the guiding companies in Serre Che organize trips to La
Grave as well as heli trips and extensive local guiding trips for either full
or half days. We had planned a trip to La Grave during our stay, but were
told that the snowfall in Serre Che was better than that at La Grave and decided
to save that particular pleasure for our next trip.

My World Snowboard Guide describes Serre Che as “the best place
to ride in France.” This was true for us the week that we went, but in my opinion
there are 6 or 7 French resorts that could rival Serre Che on a good day. Lee
went back a few weeks later and said that it was nowhere near as good. Proof,
if proof were needed, that almost any resort has the potential to provide the
best trip of your life, given the right weather and a good group of people.
Having said that, I’ve never seen so many people with fat skis and swallow-tailed
boards in one place. This, combined with the hardcore off-piste locals, suggests
to me that they must get a serious amount of snow on a regular basis.

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