Courmayeur, Italy: February 2, 4 & 5, 2023

ChrisC

Well-known member
The selection of Courmayeur for a Guys Trip was done in June 2022. I am not keen on booking Europe trips that far ahead - especially Italy. However, Courmayeur (and La Thuile) are quite close to the Northwest edge of the Alps and get much more reliable snowfall than other Aosta Valley Italian resorts like Monterosa, Cervinia and Pila.

The other candidate was Lech. As it turns out, Lech and the Arlberg were under a massive Northern Stau storm during our stay that unfortunately did not extend westward past Jungfrau/Interlaken resorts. Oh well. Lech and Courmayeur were candidates since they had day heli-skiing available - to help celebrate a 40th and 50th birthday in the group.

Courmayeur ski area by itself is one of Europe's smallest that still attracts major press. However, it is one of Europe's best freeride areas due to easily accessible off-piste from the Arp or Youla cable cars, the SkyWay/Punta Helbronner cable car serving glacial routes to Courmayeur or the Vallee Blanche to Chamonix, and heli-skiing on the Mont Blanc massif. Also, La Thuile is only 20-30 minutes away which has significant off-piste terrain. Plus the setting under Monte Bianco in a well-preserved historic town - it's quite an attractive combination.

Some top 10 lists including Courmayeur for off-piste:
Ultimate Ski - Best Off-Piste Skiing in the Alps. here (I actually like this list a lot.)
57 Hours - Best Places for Backcountry Skiing in Europe here
Ultimate Ski and Snowboard has a special section regarding Courmayeur off-piste
Outsider Magazine - here

We stayed outside Courmayeur in the village of Entreves near the Skyway Cable Car, Val Veny Cable Car, and entrance of the Mont Blanc tunnel. I was a little disappointed to be outside such a historic town, but our inn, setting, and surrounding restaurants more than made up for it.

Day 1: February 2, 2023
Overview of Courmayeur: Courmayeur Resort and Monte Bianco SkyWay cable car
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East-facing Pistes: Checruit
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North-facing Pistes: Val Veny
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Arrival in Courmayeur. Mt. Blanc/Bianco alpenglow.
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Our lodging was at La Vallee Blanche Entreves. Relatively inexpensive $100/night split 2 ways. Breakfast was pretty amazing with eggs, bacon, lattes and all types of baked goods, fruits and cheeses. I was a bit out of control most mornings gorging myself:
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The rhythm of our resorts days became as follows:
  • Pile into the 2 rental cars
  • Head to Val Veny tram. Free parking and no crowds.
  • Ski Val Veny steep groomers off of the Zerotta and Bertolini lifts
  • Possibly some trees off the Gabba lift, Youla cable car bowl, or Gondola runs on Chercuit side
  • Sundeck lunch
  • Off-piste afternoon
We mostly ate around Plan Chercuit - specifically Chiecco (day 1) and La Chaumière (day 3/4). The food was top-notch, and always reasonable for the quality.

I didn't really take too many photos of the groomers since it was more of a Chinese downhill around the mountain. Overall, the snow quality was very good - no ice. And no crowds on weekdays. Much, much better than Monterosa. The top base was around 100cm/40 inches and coverage was not an issue. No protruding rocks or scrub. Some areas of powder could still be found in high bowls and trees.


Morning on Val Veny. Views of Mont Bianco.
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Day 1 Lunch
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After lunch on Day 1, part of our group ascended both the Youla and Arp cable cars to the summit of Cresta d'Arp. You have to love the Arp cable car - it's 1963 vintage and only holds 15 passengers. And most of its riders are just sightseers. Effectively limits who can get to the amazing off-piste.


Mont Blanc massif (heli-ski terrain across the valley)
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The goal of the outing was the large north-facing bowl to the Vesses Couliors. 3-D view
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2-D view
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Top of Youla Cable Car. Still need to ascend Arp. Looking out to the bowls. You can access the off-piste from Youla, but you miss out on a lot of vertical and cannot get to the untracked areas.
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Arp Cable Car. Like your own private freeride lift. Mont Blanc backdrop.
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The pass into the high Vesse Bowls. Wind-blown entrance but lots of protected powder far in the shade protected by the ridge.
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Entering the Coulior. This was skier-packed powder. Skied really well.
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We returned to the Zerotta lift after skiing about 4,000 vertical feet. Great skiing! Still powder on top 10 days after the last storm. Snow preservation on the Val Veny side is amazing. Note: There are substantial flats right before the Zerotta requiring some poling for about 5-10 minutes. Likely tough for borders.

Afterward, we made our way to Val Veny cable car for a beer before descending.
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Mont Blanc from Val Veny cable car base
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After dinner Limoncello at pizzeria. Always nice little freebie gestures in Italy.
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I really started enjoying the fast AM skiing - excellent lunch - PM off-piste. Followed by some Apres drinks with free snacks. Beers, Aperol Spritzes or Negronis ran about $5-6 USD. There is a lot to like about Italy. If only we picked up a few inches of snow......

Also, Cresta d'Arp is a special place. 5k vertical ft off-piste descents. Few skiers. Great views. Avalanche rating was either 2/5 or 3/5 during the week.
 

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This is an impressive TR, considering we were in the Alps during this same time and I had only one long off piste run in Montgenevre.

Our Courmayeur guided off piste in 2004 with NASJA was in the opposite direction of yours, probably into Vallone Arpetta. Snow conditions sucked.
 
If I'm not mistaken, offpiste conditions appear similar to what we skied in Serre Chevalier.

excellent lunch
Look at Mr. "I Don't Do Lunch" being corrupted in Italy -- after that monstrous breakfast spread no less. :eusa-naughty:

You and @EMSC seem to do yearly group trips. Is there usually one person (you?) who manages logistics and makes executive decisions about identifying the target region, lodging, transportation, where to ski and for how many days, etc.? I'm curious how I'd do juggling the various personalities in such a situation. Are there ever, euh, "challenging" group members who cause you to say "well, he ain't coming next time!"?
 
If I'm not mistaken, offpiste conditions appear similar to what we skied in Serre Chevalier.
We did not ski anything off piste in Serre Chevalier over maybe 1,500 vertical feet. When you go off the back of Arp, you're committed 5,500 vertical to the valley floor. The 2,500 in Montgenevre was the longest continous off piste I skied on the entire trip. Qualitatively, the Sansicario day was the standout since it was in 18 inches fresh snow, but those powder runs were in the 1,000 to 1,500 range.
 
Look at Mr. "I Don't Do Lunch" being corrupted in Italy -- after that monstrous breakfast spread no less. :eusa-naughty:

There are places to make an exception - Italy - and perhaps Courmayeur in particular is one. I think I read that there are more restaurants than pistes on the mountain.

Zermatt/Cervinia is another obvious place to focus on food. And I liked the mountain huts at Verbier and Corvatsch/St. Moritz.
 
There are places to make an exception - Italy - and perhaps Courmayeur in particular is one
For the record, I understand your overall point. During my two days at Les Trois Vallées last week, lunch was a very American-style 15-minute pannini break at a takeout hut, simply because I wanted to see as much as possible in a very limited timeframe and didn't want to spend 90 minutes at La Folie Douce or other such expensive F&B joint.
 
You and @EMSC seem to do yearly group trips. Is there usually one person (you?) who manages logistics and makes executive decisions about identifying the target region, lodging, transportation, where to ski and for how many days, etc.? I'm curious how I'd do juggling the various personalities in such a situation. Are there ever, euh, "challenging" group members who cause you to say "well, he ain't coming next time!"?

I have 2 groups of friends that I ski with: 1. My brother's Telluride contingent (many who left town) and 2. UK-based friends via business school connection.

Generally, I let other people plan/take the lead. I can be a bit 'too much' in what I want to accomplish. So I just try to guide the decision-making process. But there are enough very good skiers in both groups that I generally do not have any issues with choices. Sometimes I will play mountain guide to go to the terrain I want to ski - or where the best conditions might exist. Like the backside of Niseko, certain off-piste in Europe, bowls of Lake Louise, hiking at Revelstoke, etc.... That's the only time where I really take any control since most have not looked at a map - and ignore side country/off-piste.

Lodging - I don't really care, but I don't want to overspend since we are gone from 8 am-5/6 pm....and possibly out to dinner.
Cars - bigger is better due to gear and distances for Americans. The Euros like anything small that will get you where you need to go.
Ski resort choice - with heli and cat skiing, resort choice is moot.
Europe? I don't want to return to Zermatt/Cervinia because I've done that 3x now. And I had such a great week in the Arlberg that it's not high on the return list. And perhaps I have hit all the highlights at Engelberg, Davos, and St. Mortiz. But there are off-piste descents and unskied terrain at many places that I would return to: Verbier, Chamonix, Ischgl, Andermatt, Val d'Iser/Tignes, 3 Valleys, La Grave. Japan? Anything is good. Alaska? Anything is good. British Columbia/Alberta? I'd go back to most ski resorts, and every cat/heli operation (no RK Heli).

Group Dynamics - The Euros are fine. No one is a PITA. Some like to go off-piste with ABS packs, some want to stop for a morning coffee on a sun deck, and some have 'injuries' that get referenced at certain times. Groups break up and later meet up.
Americans - they are fine too, but some can be a little out of hand some nights. They get ribbed. One was asked to behave for future trips after drunken Japan trip behavior.
 
Day 3: February 4, 2023

Today we primarily played up high on the north-facing Gabba, Youla, and Arp lifts but did some early cruising on the sunny east-facing Checrouit sector.
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The Chercruit sector is big wide open cruisers overlooking the village of Courmayeur. There are little areas of off-piste that can bump up for a change of pace. Overall, Courmayeur was very busy on Saturday - it's very much a weekend place. More like a Saturday AM place until lunch.

During this trip, I think I read somewhere that Italy does not have week-long school breaks. Therefore, crowds are mostly weekend concentrated.
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The big highlight of the day was getting a table at La Chaumière a little above Plan Checrouit. It has an outdoor Bistro on the top level and a more Gourmet restaurant on the lower level. Definitely one of the best on the mountain. Here

Anchovy appetizer
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Pork fillet with CBT cocoa, rennet apples and black cabbage
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House Dessert: Monte Rosa | Brossa namelaka, creamy raspberry and crumbled meringue
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Pistachio parfait, strawberries with crunchy white chocolate icing
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Bombardino
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After this lunch feast, we decided not to head out for a big 5k vertical off-piste. Not enough time if something went wrong. Instead, we focused on all of the couloirs off the Youla and Arp cable cars. We (3 guys) did about 3-4 runs from the Cresta d'Arp to the base of the Gabba lift. The highlight was the Goat Couloir (very vertical entrance, could have used rope), but Youla Nera and Youla Bowl Skiers Right to Gabba Woods were quite good. Some areas were wind buff and more protected spots were powder. Few skiers to track things up. Vertical was around 2.5k vertical ft per run. The Arp couloirs were shorter and kinda scary.
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Youla Cable Car and couloirs above. Goat Couloir in center. Youla Nera further right - couloir and open areas.
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Always time for a Mont Blanc shot from a Gabba piste.
You needed to be careful to cut hard right onto the Gabba terrain from Youla or else you would cliff out in the forest below. (see red area on Val Veny trail map).
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Goat Couloir entrance
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Nice wind buff below with powder areas further down
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Youla Nera
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We actually parked at the Dolonne Gondola near the village of Courmayeur. The goal was to do Apres-ski in town. We wound up at a British Sports Bar showing rugby - Wales vs. Ireland. Courmayeur village photos:
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Needed one high-end shopping photo. The residents of Milan and Turin are well-represented on the weekends. There are plenty of alpine sports shops too. Courmayeur is an interesting combination of alpinism and materialism.
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Hotel bar pre dinner drinks. I was obsessed that a $5 USD Aperol Spritz could get you all these free snacks of prosciutto, cheese, chips, crackers, breads, etc.
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Dinner at a local restaurant. Ristorante Brasserie D'Entreves. Gnocchi and Trout.
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We were averaging about 22-25k vertical feet per day. Not bad with lunch and drink/coffee stops.
 
Day 3: February 5, 2023

After some early warmups on the Zerotta, Bertolini, and Youla lifts, a group of us headed to the Col d'Arp summit before lunch.

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Early morning cruising/light off-piste off the Youla Cable Car:
Mt Blanc - again
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Upper Youla Bowl - note avalanches. Many of chutes are skiable and there are openings in the netting.
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Youla Bowl - Lots would take the cable car to do the single red piste.
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Today's off-piste goal was one of the east/-facing routes that end in the village of Courmayeur. They are a remarkable 1500+m/5,000 vertical feet. There are two main freeride routes (really they are bowls/valleys) on this side of Courmayeur:
  • Dolonne - access from Youla cable car here
  • Arp Vielle - access from Arp cable car here
We elected Arp Vielle since it's longer, more remote and hopefully less skied. However, it ends in the village of Dolonne, and we were not sure how the lower part would ski (coverage/walking?): (from FatMap)

When you reach the wood part of the descent start going leftwards and reach summer farm and few huts. Keep going down in the woods and after you've passed other 2 small houses locate a traverse leftwards in the woods. Follow it entirely until more open and skiable area that leads you to Dolonne village. Walk few minutes to join Dolonne Gondola

We could see access to the lower Dolonne Valley via another route Finestre here and good coverage from Dolonne, so we planned to cut over about halfway down. (I did not want people complaining if we ran out of snow lower down and had a long slog. Joys of playing mountain guide). Overall, an epic Alps run.

(Not sure which valley Tony skied at Courmayeur here - if it was from the lower Youla tram it was likely Dolonne, if it was from the Arp cable car it was Arp Vielle. The runout looks like Dolonne to me).

Our route in red
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Arp Vielle (lots of different names for this itinerary)
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Finestre cut over from Arp to Dolonne
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Off-piste pics of Arp Vielle:


Arp Cable Car - one of the best free-ride lifts in Europe. With only 15 passengers per car, it only has a 300-person/hr capacity. Perfect.
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Right outside the Arp cable car. This is the south-facing Arp-La Balme route. Here Looks beautiful but it does flatten after this initial bowl. Also, ends near La Thuile - a 20/30 minute bus ride back to Courmayeur. You need to ski the top section and turn either right/left to North (Vesses) or East facing (Arpetta) off-piste routes.
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The Arp Vielle
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Beautiful Skiing on both the north and south faces of the Arp Bowl. Softening powder or winter powder.
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Finestre variant into Dolonne Valley. North-facing mid-winter conditions. Still powder, very little wind effect.
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Lower Dolonne Valley/Runout. Plan Checrouit of Courmayeur ski area visible (upper left) and Courmayeur village down below.
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Upper Dolonne Couloir/Valley
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The Dolonne Runout was a bit of a hellish traverse along a creekbed. I assumed it would be a well-established path, but not really. Had to dodge avalanche debris and water in places. A lot more work than expected.
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More to come
 

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How were the lift lines on Thursday/Friday vs Saturday/Sunday with all the Italians? Courmayeur has been at the top of my list for a while based on ease of access from East Coast, quintessential village vs French purpose built resorts, and easy off piste. The flight from Newark gets into Geneva fairly early making a quick trip over there fairly simple.
 
We used the Dolonne Gondola to ascend to Plan Checrouit/Courmayeur to the restaurant La Chaumière (2nd time).

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Lots of Polenta today:
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We figured out how to ski to the base of the Val Veny cable car.
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On Sunday, we were going to get a guide and ski the Toula Glacier off of the Skyway Cable Car / Pointe Helbronner Here - however, there was an issue.
Toula Glacier - 2D View
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3D View
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There are (were?) 2 sets of stairs to descend to get to the Toula Glacier:
  • One to get off the Helbronner cable car top station. New and modern.
  • Second set to get on the Toula Glacier. Not so new - and a gap was forming as the glacier receded. The village of Courmayeur finally condemned the Toula stairs in 2019 since they could not guarantee their safety - and finally removed them in 2020.
So instead of getting a guide and splitting the cost among 4-6 skiers and simply doing stairs, you now have to rappel onto the Toula Glacier and the skier-to-guide ratio can only be 2:1 with a new price of 500 Euros. Yikes! Therefore, we bailed on the Toula Glacier. I might do it someday and add the Marbree Couloir - also accessed by the Skyway Cable Car....when Chamonix/Grand Montets gets its Cable Cars/Funitels back. From FATMAP:

The ladders which used to access the Toula Glacier are no longer in place. The run can still be accessed via an awkward set of rappels, or by skiing the shoulder of the Aiguille d'Entrêves, or via one of the very steep couloirs beneath the Pointe Helbronner. We have left this route description as it is because the ladders may be replaced one day, and because the lower part of the route description could still be useful to skiers.*

Pics of the now-gone stairs to the Toula Glacier. And a great trail report when the ladder existed Here
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Overall, I would return to Courmayeur again since it has easily accessible off-piste, Skyway cable car, good snow preservation in winter, closeby resorts (Chamonix, La Thuile, Aosta Valley), charming village, good food and relatively lower prices (vs. Switzerland/France).
 

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The Dolonne Runout was a bit of a hellish traverse along a creekbed in places.
I remember that. I'm sure that was very close to the route we skied. But the upper shaded part where ChrisC had good snow was mess of breakable crust and hardpack. Overall I'm astonished how good these TR's are given the not great snow year in the Alps. During this time frame the only long off piste run I skied was in Montgenevre but it was not as much vertical and particularly not very much steep vertical.

I'm perhaps less critical of that off piste run at Courmayeur in 2004. Logic said it should have been good, and to this day I have no idea why it was not. There was zero evidence on our Chamonix days of any recent rain.
 
How were the lift lines on Thursday/Friday vs Saturday/Sunday with all the Italians? Courmayeur has been at the top of my list for a while based on ease of access from East Coast, quintessential village vs French purpose built resorts, and easy off piste. The flight from Newark gets into Geneva fairly early making a quick trip over there fairly simple.

Lift lines are non-existent during the week, and quite negligible on Sundays. It's kinda a Saturday crush. The crowds (Milan, Turin) seem to arrive Friday night, wake up early to ski on Saturday, then take a late lunch on the various sundecks and leave before 4pm to change into Streetwear/Fashion to promenade on Saturday evening before dinner - perhaps stopping for an apertivo, glass of wine and some free snacks.
Sunday is half as crowded as Saturday.

On-mountain restaurant reservations are perhaps more important than liftlines since most places with either good food or a sundeck will book up even on a weekday.

You would need to mix up Courmayeur skiing with another area - either a road trip or move bases. La Thuile is an easy day trip - 20/30 min. Same with Chamonix. It is possible to ski the Vallee Blanche from Courmayeur with a bus back to Courmayeur from near the Aiguille du Midi tram base.

I might recommend adding Cervinia/Zermatt to a Courmayeur trip - about 1.25 hrs away - and fly into Milan. Or add Chamonix or another Geneva resort and fly into Geneva.
 
I'm perhaps less critical of that off piste run at Courmayeur in 2004. Logic said it should have been good, and to this day I have no idea why it was not. There was zero evidence on our Chamonix days of any recent rain.

I would have liked to have skied the upper Dolonne Couloir/Valley, but timing and meetups did not allow it. And no one wanted to repeat the runout - one of our guys fell into the creek - a bit.

I am not sure if east-facing exposures (Arp Vielle, Dolonne) become a problem after mid-February? However, I have now been to Courmayeur 3x (2004, 2018, 2023) and the snow on north-facing routes have always been very good/excellent.

Will likely return to Courmayeur again. You can make heli reservations just a few days out - and there is plenty of off-piste. Also, it's very close to other meccas like Chamonix, Verbier, Grimentz/Zinal, etc.

My UK friends quickly marked up my Mont Blanc guide book (covers Courmayeur/Chamonix) of other off-piste lines they have skied and would recommend.


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