We were brand new to skiing, having spent only a few hours under the help of very lovely friends, recently moved to Les Houches – Menna and Steve (see A winter Week in the Alps) plus 3 or 4 lessons indoors at the excellent Snow factor facility in Glasgow under the expert tutelage of ex freestyle pro Mark.
Our aim was to head out there, find out what’s what, just gain experience, try a few things out – get to Blue if ready – all with a big focus on fun !
We grabbed a great low cost Jet2 flight from Glasgow to the main Chamonix access airport Geneva, met our transfer bus (Alpybus) and an hour and a half later we were in Les Houches Mairie only a couple of short bus stops from Prarion ski lift.
As before we used Air B&B and found a great room in Mairie Les Houches above Restaurant Chevanne, self catering , bog room, plenty of storage for gear and a balcony with a fantastic view of the Mt Blanc massif. I can highly recommend it and the host Mary (tell her Alan sent you ).
It has a Carrefour (think Tesco local but with quality meats, cheese and patisserie) across the road to buy breakfast or lunch items, beer , water etc , 2 or 3 small local restaurants and a lovely little fresh basked pizza take out just up the street, tourist information, patisserie and importantly, bus stops (Chamonix 01, 16 & night bus).
It’s a quiet place great for chilling and undisturbed nights sleep to recover, but for bigger nights out or more variety, as well as the experiences always on offer head into Cham and get the night bus back (or a taxi for later partying).
Now onto Skiing.
In Les Houches there are two main lifts/piste areas – Bellevue + Prarion.
Coming from Chamonix /Les Houches direction you arrive at Bellevue first , and it was here we had arranged ski hire but Prarion is the main area and a couple of minutes further by bus. This link takes you two a great piste map for both however I recommend the very impressive FatMap app.There are also ski hire shops here , as there are around all the lift areas.. the ski infrastructure for those new to it is amazing – everything you need to hand and very helpful and used to beginners as well as experts.
In advance we had rented Ski’s and poles online from Sport2000, taking out own boots, helmet and goggles and for 6 days it was €64 each for what looked like almost brand new Dynastar 97’s, for a beginner – get beginner ski’s – better ones will do nothing for you as you are turning at lower speeds and will most probably be on pistes not the extended mountain. We turned up, the owner checked our weight and boots and set up the ski’s and off we went.
A daily ski pass runs at around €43 so multi day buying offers good savings. We opted for a 6 day pass at €215 saving us €25. You just buy at the ski lift itself , same price as online. This pass gives access to both the Bellevue & Prarion lifts , keep your receipt in case you lose it !
Bellevue has a great big, long, wide beginners green area, perfect for getting the absolute basics locked in if you don’t mind the slightly repetitive slow ski down, slow poma up. If you are an absolute newbie though its ideal as there are no corners, steep sections or even too many other skiers to worry about.
Top Tip : Once after 2 hours you think you’ve mastered this level and decide to head onto Prarion for a much wider range of options I suggest you take the ski lift down the hill, jump the quick (2 minutes) bus (or walk) to Prarion and head up by lift.. instead of thinking the pretty benign looking connecting Blue run between them is “probably very doable”.. its wasn’t ! It was bloody terrifying!!.. after snow ploughing for what felt like a mile we arrived at a very steep (for a newbie) run out which saw us de-ski and walk the last 100 yards! #LessonLearned
So now we arrive at Prarion where the real fun begins and where we spent the remainder of our week, typically heading up the lift at around 9.30 and back down around 3.30 or 4.
At 1,900m the top station opens up into a wide easy, Green area for beginners flanked on the left by an easy Blue area with slightly tighter turns, undulating runs and a few steep sections to help you gain confidence as you prepare to take the next step onto the official Blues like La Cha and Abbaye.
Our week started with beautiful blue skies , almost no wind and actually very few people so its was like paradise as slowly built our skills, gaining speed, turning with more control, turning faster lines. Watching the kids at 3 and 4 learn is amazing, their confidence high they are soon whizzing by you with ease!
There are of course places to rest and eat on the piste itself . There is the large restaurant/Bar /Hotel at the top of Prarion, easy to access and with a large option of food and drink however the prices match the beauty of the views and scale of whats on offer.. think €25 for a simple pasta and slice of pizza, €10 for 2 coffees etc.
The better option for us was to head back down to the bottom at lunch, head into the patisserie and enjoy soup or a roll an a nice coffee at a fraction of the costs. Your lift pass offers unlimited runs up and down so take advantage!
La Cha Restaurant, nestled between the trees below the top station and accessed by the Blue run by the same name is an alpine experience all of its own. Skiers sipping Vin Chaud, hot chocolate with rum or eating delicious lunches before heading back out – its so clear that off piste relaxation is just as important a part of the experience as on and its not a chore we struggled to embrace !
As I mention it, La Cha (the restaurant) is half way down a blue run of the same name (although also via Abbaye which is a bit easier), so we had to bite the bullet and, with the great and friendly “coaching” from a lovely lady we met over breakfast – Doctor Jackie, we headed down, steeper and faster terrain through narrower pistes which were a departure from the serenity of the beginner area but easily tackled if you control your speed with turns or if needed the odd snow plough.
The feeling of progression to “real skiing” is awesome and for any readers that know me you know I need to challenge myself and do more all the time so making it to Blue was both exhilarating but also in a way a relief that ” we can do it”. Feeling much more confident I go into tighter turning, better control but also enjoying a bit more speed that before.
As the week progressed I took a day out for a trip to Cogne to climb at Cascade Lillaz , for more on that look out for my next post and then returned with Sam to have 2 final days on the slopes. The weeks weather degraded a little, more wind, more cloud so with it less sun. The effect this has is to flatten the light – meaning its a lot harder to pick out the terrain, its contours etc so you need to be able to ski with more awareness an react to unexpected changed underfoot but the fun is by no mean any less!
Coming to the end of the week we had time to reflect. This has been one of the most fun weeks holiday for some time – often we climb, hike and generally push ourselves hard , being excited and enjoying it and recharging in some ways but not truly relaxing. While skiing is a sport there is a great sense of fun and the aprés activity is all part of it. No pressure, no stress and it was with real sadness that we took out final run down the piste before getting the teleferique back down to the valley, proud at what we had achieved and smiling broadly at the weeks memories and escapades!
Oh and big lesson – no matter how well you ski, look good doing it!
For information on all aspects of Chamonix valley and its varied activity opportunities as well as weather and lift reports see Chamonix.net
The local Tourist information offer bus timetables or they can be downloaded here – for Les Houches ski are its the Chamonix 01, 16 and at night the bus Nuit