The weather forecast isn’t overly encouraging when we set off for Les Contamines, but we’ve heard so much about this place that we’re not going to pass up an opportunity to ski here at long last. The drive round from our base in Combloux proves to be pretty undramatic, unlike the scenery which greets us as we make our final climb to the village. We normal resist using words like ‘cute’ to describe ski villages but in this case there’s no escaping the fact that this is how it looks and feels at a first encounter. Judging by the beautifully-restored Baroque church rising from the skyline, it’s also very much a living and working mountain community with a lot of history. For now, though, we press on, driven by a desire to get up to the ski area and cram in what we can before a fast-approaching depression stops play.
We have no problem at all parking at La Gorge, and are soon riding the gondola on a steep haul up through the forest to Etape 1470. From here we could take a Red-graded return run through the trees back to our starting-point, but instead transfer to a second gondola for a gentler ride up to Signal (1900m). With so far little more than a gentle breeze, we decide to ski down to pick up the Roselette chairlft for a look at the liaison with the Hauteluce sector. At the top it’s already feeling more unsettled, but the scenery falling away both ahead and behind us is simply amazing, so we decide to take the plunge and go for it on Choton, a steep but wide Blue cruise which takes us all the way down to La Ruelle (1600m).
It’s literally a blast, thanks to having to ski against a strong headwind, so at the bottom we decide to take a chocolat-chaud break and make the most of the views. Once we’re suitably revived we snap back into our skis once again and schusse down to the Col chairlift. From here we have the option of continuing down to Belleville 1200 for a return gondola-ride, but decide instead to take the high-speed four-seater up to the Col du Joly. At the 2000m ridge the wind has risen still further, giving us a real sense of achievement for having made the return trip. Somehow we just know it must all be so different in fine weather, but sometimes the sense of adventure of skiing in less-than-perfect condition brings its own rewards. Today has already proved the point.
As we drop back down from the Col visibility comes and goes, but so far hasn’t decided to clamp-down. Taking this as a good omen, we join the Jonction four-seater chairlift at its mid-point (the lift operates in both directions) for the first stage of a ride all the way up to Aiguille Croche, at 2487m the highest point in the ski area. The next is the four-seat high-speed Tierces lift, which, believe it or not, replaced an almost 2km-long haul by drag-lift (originally a T-bar). In 1995 the new lift opened this rewarding area up to intermediate skiers, along with the topmost terrain, served by a four-seat fixed chairlift.
At the top we get little more than fleeting glimpses of the vastness all around us, but it’s still hugely impressive – and becoming windier by the minute, so the nearby drag-lift up to the Black-only terrain below Veleray (2450m) is closed. In these conditions we’re hardly complaining, and set off on a long Red- and Blue-graded descent which eventually brings us right back to the Col lift mid-station. This time we join in the opposite direction and find ourselves heading calmly back up to Signal (1900m).
At the top it’s sunny and feels a lot less exposed, but gusting winds have nevertheless closed the gondola, which runs along a ridge. Sadly we haven’t managed to take in the Gentianes piste, as we’d planned, to explore the gully between here and the Aiguille de Roselette, but on the gentle cruise back to Etape 1470 we know we’ve crammed a lot into a very unpromising day’s skiing.
During the gentle gondola ride back down to La Gorge our cheeks are burning and our hands tingling. But it’s as nothing compared to the highlights we replay in our minds – it all adds up to the kind of tantalizing glimpse into just what this place offers skiers with the desire and imagination to try something just a little away from the mainstream. One to which we’ll be returning, in fact.
See our full resort review for Les Contamines-Montjoie.