Vars, FR: 02/03/23


For what ended up being my seventh and final day of this visit, I drove less than 20 minutes from my B&B in the village of Guillestre -- a very convenient and charming headquarters for this region -- to the large interconnected circuit called the "Forêt Blanche" (White Forest) consisting of Vars (pronounced VAHRSS) and Risoul (pronounced Ree ZOOL). It's the second southernmost French megaresort following the Espace Lumière with easily five days' worth of exploring between the two sides.

I started out at the Vars Sainte Marie parking lot at the bottom with only a short walk from my car.
Trail Map.jpg

From there, you take two high-speed chairs to one of the sub peaks. Here's a wide angle view of the main bowl with about two-thirds of the Vars terrain in view. From the top down to Vars les Claux village out of frame to the left is a solid 3,000 verts.

Further down. The patroller sitting next to me on a chair said that most of the terrain along that ridgeline is accessible via lifts along with bit of bootpacking for the top peaks:

Reverse shot:

Wider view:

Lots for piste-bashers (British for "groomer lovers who like to rack up miles/kilometers"):

Now we're getting to the big disclaimer for this season -- due to a disagreement between the two resorts about revenue sharing, the liaison between the two resorts (in place since 1976) is closed. Of course, you can go around the "closed" signs; however, your ticket from the other side won't be valid and you'll have to pay another 47 euros to ride the lifts.

Any signs indicating crossover points to the other resort have been removed! It felt like a ski version of the East Berlin/West Berlin situation from the cold war -- like being teleported back to the divided German capital when I lived there in 1986/87. It's especially fascinating given that France has always led the way in creating huge interconnected circuits, even more than the other Alps countries

Around 11:45, I stopped for an early lunch at Restaurant Barjo (barjo is French slang for nuts, crazy, insane):

To the left of the sign, lots of intermediate terrain on the lower mountain that was skiing well.

To the right of the sign, the main village Vars les Claux down below:

There are certainly more unsightly villages in the French Alps but still, a fair amount of 70s/80s buildings. Understandable that they need to build out the bed base to accommodate destination visitors, but not what you want to see in such a gorgeous environment:

On the other side of the village is the Peynier sector with north-facing terrain. Tree skiing + a few fun cruisers:

Similar to the other ski areas this week, the most enjoyable offpiste was where it'd been skied in and the sun had warmed it by early afternoon. Somewhere between chalk and sugar is how I'd describe it.

Throughout the week, I noticed a lot of these areas for brown baggers so the privately-owned and -operated F&B establishments don't need to throw them out. A nice compromise:

Returning to Guillestre: the interestingly named "Arroyo of Cow Piss"!! :icon-biggrin:
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Looks great. Another area I haven't been to but have always wanted to. Used to feature prominently in UK holiday brochures 20-30 years ago, or at least Risoul did, but no longer. Not sure why - perhaps the 3hr transfer from Turin didn't help, especially as the resort is not a household name. As for its snow reputation (for those interested) steady rather than spectacular I would say. The climate here is relatively dry but it's not quite as boom or bust as the nearby Queyras. Risoul/Vars get most of their snow from a southerly/south-westerly steer rather than from the "Retour d'Est". Preservation is good.
Risoul/Vars get most of their snow from a southerly/south-westerly steer rather than from the "Retour d'Est".
Interesting. Do you have a list of which ski areas are fed pretty much exclusively by the Retour d'Est? I pulled this explanation from Ski Club of Great Britain as a reminder:

Retour d’est occurs when cold air from the Arctic makes it way south through the Rhône Valley in France and collides with relatively warm and humid Mediterranean air over the Gulf of Genoa. The cold air is forced below the warmer air forming a small but potent depression, or area of low pressure, often called the Genoa Low.

The unstable storms that form in this area tend to stay put for days due to stable high pressure zones to the east and west, or more commonly due to the absence of any strong prevailing jet stream across this area of the Mediterranean.

Radiating from the epicentre over the Gulf of Genoa, the storm fronts move anticlockwise on to the planes of the Po Valley. The counter-clockwise movement then continues over the low elevation Po Valley from east to west with high velocity, this wind is often called the Lombarde (illustrated on the above map).

The humid Mediterranean air is funnelled up the Po Valley, unable to escape to the south due to the Italian Apenine hills, the north is blocked by the Alps and the Lombarde pushing from the East, the humid air hurtles towards the high altitude Italian Piemonte range in the western Alps. As there are no foothills when approaching the Alps from the Po Valley, the Lombarde backed humid air must rise exceptionally quickly to squeeze over the 3000m+ Italian Piemonte mountains. The damp air rises over high altitude ranges like the Gran Paradiso, cooling and condensing as it rises, until it eventually gives and releases monumental amounts of moisture.

Et voila! Heavy localised precipitation on the France-Italy border. Due to their location, Italian Piemonte resorts bear the brunt of the snowfall, as well as parts of the Tarentaise, in particular Tignes/Val d’Isere, where the retour d’est spills over the border in to the fringes of France via the Isere and Arc river valleys.
The resorts of the Milky Way (e.g. Sestriere, Sauze d'Oulx), nearby Bardonecchia, the French Queyras (e.g St Veran, Abries) the upper Maurienne (Val Cenis, Bonneval sur Arc) and sometimes Val d'Isere/Tignes can all get clobbered by what I call the classic retour d'est. But in answer to your question, it would be the Italian side of the Milky Way, Bardonecchia and the Queyras that rely on it most. A variation on the retour d'est also gets Isola 2000 and across the border the Ligurian resorts of Prato Nevoso, Limone etc. This variation can also get the eastern Aosta and western Lombardy (e.g. Monte Rosa region) for reasons I won't go into here.

I mentioned the boom or bust nature of the climate in the Queyras on another thread. But actually, of all the above mentioned resorts it is probably Limone and Prato Nevso that are most reliant, indeed almost totally reliant, on the retour d'est, albeit a variation from the classic.
Nice report. It’s amazing how many seemingly quality ski areas there are in France. I’ll book accommodation for next week today or tomorrow. Still a little undecided but if we stay in the Briancon area we might even take a drive to this hill.
It’s amazing how many seemingly quality ski areas there are in France.
That's been my across-the-board experience in Austria, Switzerland, and France. I'm sure I'll say something similar about Italy when I start going there.

BTW, this article from early November says that the connection between Vars and Risoul is open again. I'd certainly go back.
That whole region has plenty for a ten-day visit. Big resorts Serre Chevalier and Vars/Risoul along with the interesting smaller areas noted on the map.

I ran the White Forest article above through Google Translate (link). Fascinating to see some of the considerations that are involved when ski areas merge into a large interconnected resort.