I’m in the highest resort in the Alps, skiing (mainly off-piste) behind someone called Aurelien Ducroz. “Choosing lines on the mountain is almost second nature to Aurelien” I was told. That was fine with me as long as the lines weren’t too severe for little old me, or indeed for my rather more aggressive colleagues!
The name Ducroz might not mean much to you, and I must admit it didn’t mean much to me. But he’s a ski hero in France – and no surprise there. He’s not the boastful type at all – and doesn’t ski with any kind of exaggerated, ostentatious “look-at-me” style. But I’d done my homework. Or rather the organisers of our visit to Val Thorens had done it for us. So we knew that Ducroz, 36, and the son of a Chamonix mountain guide (Aurelien was “born with his feet in the snow and his eye on the mountains”) and became one of the biggest stars of the Freeride World Tour (four times winner of the Verbier Xtreme). Oh yes, and twice the Freeride World Champion (in 2009 and 2011) – and an expert in ski jumping too.
After competing on the ski jumping World Cup circuit in his teens, and moving on to his extraordinary sequence of freeride victories and podium places, he would say: “The competition is getting tougher, the young riders instill a new way to express themselves in freeride but I keep learning, so I still want to defend my title!”
He was vice World Extreme Champion in 2005, took third place in 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2012 and claimed 10 podiums in World Cup races (including four victories). And as if that wasn’t sufficient, in more recent years (since 2008) he got the sailing bug too – and now excels in professional open-ocean sailing as well as snow. He’s described as “a modern-day adventurer, exceptional athlete, and father of two children, a boy, and a baby girl, and he combines these two careers with passion and dedication.” When I asked him if he had to choose between the two, he said: “My wish is not to have to choose between snow and sea”.
After only three years of sailing, Ducroz found himself taking part in the most extreme solo transatlantic race: the Transat 650.
But back to the slopes: somehow when you are following an instructor or guide it’s easy to miss detail as you leave all the decision making to the boss. But I couldn’t help noticing that Val Thorens has recently come up with some clever new technical systems to reduce lift-lines and generally make life easier and safer on the slopes.
A new ‘Ski Flux system’ – the first in the French Alps – uses sensors to measure the flow of skiers and provide real-time information on how busy the slopes are. This information is shown by way of easy-to-read icons on large vibrant multi-coloured screens at the top of some lifts. In theory this will allow you to make the most of your ski day and want to avoid the crowds and find the best snow conditions. Ten sensors are strategically positioned on the slopes and four giant screens broadcast “skiability” information.
And the resort’s new Gendloc system enables Val Thorens ski patrollers to pinpoint the position of skiers who call for help without necessarily knowing where they are. Skiers are located using a signal emitted by their smartphone or by sending a photograph of the surrounding landscape. Help is therefore able to arrive much more quickly thanks to real-time location-matching. All the resort’s ski patrollers now also carry a GPS locator beacon in their equipment.
Val Thorens has some exceptional skiing, particularly off-piste, but as it’s way above the tree-line, at 2,300m, it can seem a little bleak. And it seems slightly bizarre that it’s in the commune of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, the prettiest little village in the Trois Vallées. The scenery – or should I say the ski-nery – is breathtaking, particularly from the Col de Thorens and Col de Rosael( (both around 3,000m) and Cime Caron (3,200m) But to be honest it was something of a relief when Ducroz took us down to Méribel for a change of scene – a somewhat prettier scenario, including some welcoming trees!
Luckily we were staying in a comfortable hotel, the Fitz Roy – described as a “large family chalet” – which shielded us from the rather cheerless surroundings. The Fitz Roy is one of France’s “Hotels d’en Haut” – High Altitude Hotels group which includes hotels in Courchevel and Megève as well as two in Val Thorens. Ducroz acts as the hotel group’s ambassador. The group’s founder and CEO is an in intriguing character, originally from Chamonix, then Paris but now based in London, called Valéry Grego – a brilliant skier himself, who sponsors Ducroz.
“I design places that bring people together and make them happy” he says. “I specialise in introducing people to new places, music and dishes. Mountains, skiing, hiking, and Alpine holidays were part of my childhood. I wanted to take things a step further, to revitalise these amazing places (like Val Thorens, Courchevel and Megève) all with their own unique history, architecture and location. I want to encourage people to travel and dream.”