Being back on the ski slopes of La Balme, above the French village of La Clusaz, reminded me of an earlier visit to the area and a memorable ski with local instructor Olivier Mermillod. It also reminded me of Mark Twain (I’ll explain shortly).
When I skied with Olivier the snow, although fine for piste skiing, wasn’t in great shape off-piste – it looked choppy, heavy and difficult to ski.
‘Let’s try the off-piste, there’s some great terrain here,’ said Olivier.
‘Yeah, but the snow isn’t so great is it,’ I ventured, in a slightly whingeing tone, hoping to curb his enthusiasm.
‘No, but we will imagine,’ said Olivier, brimming with excited anticipation. ‘The slopes are so good that we will still have fun even though the snow isn’t perfect. Come on Rob, we must imagine. Let’s head for those cliffs! Just imagine!’
Yes, OK Olivier, I’m coming. Cliffs, fine. Gulp. Not wanting to appear totally wimpish I could only follow in his tracks. And, surprisingly, a vivid imagination can take you quite a long way on hard and bumped out off-piste when you have such spectacular surroundings as the Massif de Balme and the Massif de L’Aiguille to distract you. It turned out to be fabulous fun, if tough on the leg muscles. If it was enjoyable then, what must it be like skiing La Clusaz with snow fresh and deep I wondered…
Well, no imagination was needed on my latest visit to La Clusaz, with heaps of new snow on the steep slopes of La Balme. And the unusual and dramatic multi-layered rock formations help make this some of the most remarkable off-piste terrain in the French Alps.
La Clusaz, in fact, is rather remarkable in many other ways and full of surprises. It’s an oddity in that it’s somewhere you feel an urge to return to time and again – despite it being possible to compile a list of reasons why this should not be so.
Figures will tell you that its modest altitude cannot guarantee good snow, that it gets crowded at weekends (because of its proximity to Geneva) and that it doesn’t have many tough runs. I voiced that latter point to the aforementioned Olivier – and lived to regret uttering such calumny. ‘Put your skis on,’ he said, a glint in his eye. ‘And we’ll see how true that is.’
He showed me the pleasant black runs of La Noire, through the trees on Beauregard (which by the way has at its top plateau one of the best little beginners’ areas you could imagine), and Tetras, below the Massif de L’Etale. We cruised around Manigod, the Col de Merdassier and the Col de la Croix Fry.
Already I could see there was a lot more to La Clusaz then meets the eye – it’s spread across five peaks and conveniently categorised across the landscape from right to left, the easy runs on the right.
And then, of course, he tested me on the towering off-piste of La Balme. There are also some great black pistes here, including Vraille and, below L’Aiguille, Lapiaz.
Despite its conservative altitude, the area does have a good snow record, being at the centre of a snowy micro-climate, and also has a comprehensive snowmaking system. And because so much of the terrain is pastureland in the summer, not a lot of snow cover is needed to make the slopes skiable.
And quite apart from all that, the number and quality of the mountain restaurants is good enough reason alone to ski here.
Another thing the statistics don’t tell you is that La Clusaz is a perfectly charming, quintessentially French village that has successfully refused to have its character and atmosphere ravaged by the march of time. Few French villages are more picturesque, with its traditional village square and Savoyard church. Bustling streets fan out from the square, each boasting a collection of excellent shops, bars and hotels – and all with a very French feel. There is no more atmospheric a sight than La Clusaz in mid-winter, cocooned in snow.
There are cleared walks, snowshoeing, tobogganing, an ice-skating rink and an aqua-centre with indoor and outdoor heated pools. Or, if you feel daring, you can take a bungee jump with a difference – plunging into a chasm on a bike, toboggan or even a shopping trolley.
Many of the shops sell local produce. Holidaymakers have been coming here for well over 100 years, and those early visitors would still recognise the village, with the chalets sporting hand-cut wooden shingles and the production of Reblochon cheese going on much as it has done for generations
Which all goes to show that you should be wary of statistics – which brings us to Mark Twain. Statistics is a subject on which he had strong views, in that he cursed them as being worse than lies or even damned lies. He would have seen eye to eye with Olivier I’m sure.
I haven’t, incidentally, just thrust Mark Twain into the mix completely at random. The author travelled extensively in France and loved the Alps, and there is strong evidence that he may have visited La Clusaz or at least passed close by. As a matter of fact, he became quite a significant statistic himself at the time, as he took part in the first ever tourist package trip from the New World to the Old and was by all accounts captivated by the area. Now, not a lot of people know that.
La Clusaz is a few minutes by bus from Le Grand Bornand (free if you have the Aravis area ski-pass).
I’ve been staying at Village de Lessy (above the main Le Grand Bornand village at Le Chinaillon), a complex near the ski lifts with apartments from studio size to four-bedroom units. Book through Peak Retreats, 0844 576 0170.
Brand new ski gear has been rented from Intersport, which has branches in Le Chinaillon and Le Grand Bornand main village.
More information on skiing La Clusaz, Manigod, St Jean de Sixt and Le Grand Bornand at www.lakeannecy-skiresorts.com
The Aravis resorts are very easy to drive to, with autoroute virtually all the way. The Dover-Calais Channel crossing was by DFDS Seaways (Tel: 0871 574 7235, 0208 127 8303), who also have frequent sailings from Dover to Dunkirk and Newhaven to Dieppe.