Stag party: A beast on the piste in Courchevel (the deer, not Rob)

Courchevel, the resort with perfect grooming in its DNA

It was the biggest treat of the season so far – first tracks on the meticulously- groomed corduroy of Courchevel. And corduroy – particularly just after sunrise before anyone else has ventured on it – doesn’t come more perfect than that of Courchevel.

Even the steepish black runs heading down from La Saulire – Pylones, M and Telephone – looked like they’d been brushed, combed, blow-dried and presented to us for our approval. And at about 8.30am with the peaks awash with early morning rays, the slopes untracked and totally empty, the sensation of high-speed isolation was intoxicating.

In the ride up from Courchevel 1850 via the Verdons telecabine and the Saulire cable car, shared with ski patrollers, pisteurs and an avalanche dog and his master, I learned something of the obsession this French haven of hedonism has with piste preparation.

Here comes the groom: A piste-basher in action at Courchevel

‘Perfectly groomed slopes are in the DNA of Courchevel,’ the Société des Trois Vallées commercial director Jean-Pierre Lalanne told me. ‘There are 21 piste grooming machines in Courchevel, more than any other resort in the Three Valleys, and they work in shifts all night to make sure the runs are in the best condition possible. Regular guests in Courchevel know they will be getting nothing less.   

‘The operators take a real pride in creating the most perfect runs. The secret is not to groom the snow too quickly. It’s a job that can’t be rushed. So the schedule is organised so the drivers can do the job at not too fast a speed. Too fast and the result is not so good.

‘And there is another element that Courchevel prides itself on that you don’t see at many resorts. We don’t have any ”ledges” here down the pistes. Our machines carefully overlap their tracks so the pistes are smooth the whole way across – in many resorts you’ll find little ”ledges” running down the newly-groomed slopes. Not here.’

What we call a piste-basher is in French a chenillette, and we’ve all looked up the slopes from a hotel window or balcony late at night to see their twinkling lights perform a bizarrely choreographed and strangely beautiful ballet across the mountain. It’s not just a case of driving their mighty machines over the snow – there’s an art and a science to it all. They have an array of armaments fore and aft with which to create the perfect non-ridged corduroy. 

The technique varies depending how much snow there is to play with. The wide scoop at the front might gather loose snow from the edge of the run and push it back onto the piste in huge mounds – ‘remonter la neige’, pushing it back uphill. This is to counter the tendency of the constant passage of skiers to gradually push snow downhill during the course of a day.

There are also two flipper-like attachments at the front which can be angled to re-direct the snow onto the parts of the piste where it’s most needed. Only when large quantities of snow have been positioned where it will do most good is the actual grooming done – the aluminium caterpillar tracks tamping it down before the giant comb-like attachments at the rear are dragged through it, resulting in a spectacularly rippled surface that is so flattering on which to ski.

It’s astonishing how steep a slope can be without defeating the capability of a chenillette – and there are anchor-points for the machines to be attached to for safety at various places on the most precipitous runs.  At really steep spots two machines might work together to counter-balance each other, much like a funicular railway works.

The runs down from Saulire, above Courchevel

We made two high speed runs from the top of La Saulire down Combe Saulire – with just the four of us on the run each time. Reaching the top again the third time, with, horror of horrors, early risers from the general public in the cable-car too, Jean-Pierre announced: ‘I’ve just had a top tip from ski patrol. Pylones is the place to go…it’s tucked away so not many people think of skiing it…and some are put off because it’s a black run and they think it won’t be pisted….but it is pisted and they say it’s wonderful at the moment. ‘

So that’s where we went and we had Pylones entirely to ourselves – steep, smooth and super-exhilarating.

The chenillette drivers would have been creeping into bed after whatever meal you have when you finish a shift at dawn – but I hope they know how much fun their nocturnal labours give us.

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Useful info: More information on Courchevel can be found at www.courchevel.com, along with an excellent interactive piste map of Les Trois Vallees.

Inghams have packages to Courchevel, including the Fahrenheit 7 hotel right beside the main gondola at Courchevel Moriond (1650) as well as a range of accommodation at 1850, and Crystal have the new Ecrin Blanc hotel at Courchevel Village (1550) and the Hotel Portetta and Fahrenheit 7 at Moriond. Manali Lodge is a luxurious ski-in ski-out apartment option near the lifts at Moriond.

Browse Rob Freeman’s other ski blogs and resort features here.