Category Archives: Winter Activities

Puy Saint-Vincent: don’t tell everyone…

Skier on piste with Puy Saint-Vincent 1600 visible below
Even the highest pistes filter safely back onto sheltered tree-lined return runs.

Why do I love skiing in France – apart, obviously, from having some of the world’s greatest mountain terrain from which to choose? Well, after having visited around fifty French ski resorts (and counting) I’m still surprised at what I discover along the way. A couple of seasons ago we decided to head over to the Southern French Alps, to discover just what most mainstream skiers, who tend to set their sights rather further north, might be missing. Great snowfalls, clear blue skies and unpressured pistes were just some of the things which bowled us over and convinced us that we’d stumbled upon a huge but relatively undiscovered area which deserves to be much better known among leisure skiers.

Places like La Joue du Loup, Superdévoluy, Pra Loup, Foux d’Allos, Les Orres, Orcières, Vars, Risoul, Montgenèvre and Serre Chevalier all revealed to us their own distinct characters, and we’d still only scratched the surface. Obviously it’s just not possible to press on and do it all at once (but we can dream..) and in any case we try to maintain a balance in our resort review coverage. So our first trip of this season would take in just two ski visits in the Hautes-Alpes area: one involved returning to complete unfinished business in Serre Chevalier, and the other would take us to somewhere much smaller nearby, and which had so far eluded us.

The phrase “small is beautiful” could have been penned with Puy Saint-Vincent in mind. The original village, clinging to the sides of a deep valley, is nothing if not authentic, with centuries’-old chalets at every turn. Continue up to the ski villages at 1400, 1600 and 1800m altitude, however, and things begin to look more like a serious ski resort should. Even so, first impressions give little hint of the vertical drop on offer: 1350m or around 4430ft, much of it below the tree-line, where safe glade-skiing opportunities beckon among silent larch and pine forests.
True, the lower villages have much of their accommodation in large units, but in their respective settings they’re not unattractive. Skiers staying in the 1800 village, though, have not only chalet-style architecture but also the welcome bonus of ski-in/ski-out convenience.

We enjoyed our time here, as you’ll see just as soon as our full Resort Review goes live. For now, though, I’ll merely say that while big-league Serre Chevalier grabs all the media attention, its near-neighbour Puy Saint-Vincent quietly gets on with offering great, high-value skiing in a truly beautiful setting…

Our base in Puy Saint-Vincent 1800 was a cosy piste-side apartment in La Dame Blanche, for which we thank SARA and our friends at French Ski Specialists Ski Collection.

Skiing another side of Serre Chevalier…

Skier on piste above mountain backdrop
The Parc National des Ecrins creates a dramatic backdrop to skiing in Serre Chevalier.

If you’ve seen our Resort Review of Serre Chevalier then you’ll know that although the stats, etc., are all there, my first visit (a great Press Trip kindly hosted by British ski operator Erna Low) had only allowed time to discover part of this vast ski area near Briançon, in the Hautes-Alpes. But I’d already seen more than enough to want to get back as soon as possible and see just what else I’d missed.

It took awhile, but a few days ago we finally drove cautiously over the windswept Col du Lauteret (freshly reopened after the huge snowfalls which had swept in during our stay in l’Alpe d’Huez) and dropped down through le Monêtier-les-Bains to the village of Chantemerle.

I’ll recount the story in more detail in our forthcoming update of the Review on mountainpassions.com , but I can tell you that we’re more than glad we came. Snow conditions had held up well, thanks to low temperatures, as we joined both new arrivals and locals alike and headed up the mountain for our own Ski Sunday. Nothing compares to being there, with the wind in your hair and the skis running smoothly beneath your feet.

Our plan was simple: head up above Chantemerle and work our way westwards across to the sector above Briançon. Getting around proved equally straightforward, thanks to clear new signage and a capable modern lift system. There’s even a smartphone app (for both iOS and Android, for once) to help you find your way, map your progress and more besides.

As it turned out, our route would be influenced by the steadily-strengthening winds blowing in from the southeast (Provence and le Mistral are not far away) which discouraged us from hanging around on higher, more exposed sections – just long enough to shoot some images of the literally breathtaking panoramas spread enticingly before us. So, while the weather held we took a bracing plunge down to join Le Chemin, a Green-graded cruise (one of the best scenic runs we can recall) all the way round to the Prorel gondola lift which hauls skiers smoothly up from one of our favourite French towns. So before heading back up and working our way back to Chantemerle we enjoyed the perfect overview during a relaxed lunch from the sun terrace of the Pré Loup restaurant, right beside the lift mid-station.

Our base in Chantemerle was a spacious 4* apartment in the Résidence L‘Adret, for which we thank our good friends at Ski Specialists Peak Retreats.

Epic snowfalls in l’Alpe d’Huez

View of exterior after heavy overnight snowfalls
The accumulations of twenty-four hours' snowfalls make the Cristal de l'Alpe an even more handsome addition to the heart of l'Alpe d'Huez.

If anyone tries to tell you that this season’s snowfalls in the French Alps are less than gratifying just point them at the live images from the various webcams dotted around les Grandes-Rousses (Isère). In fact, conditions were already good when arrived in the major-league ski station of l’Alpe d’Huez to fulfil an invitation to join the press launch of MGM Constructeur’s latest creation: the Cristal de l’Alpe. Both the elegant new self-catering apartment development and its high-altitude setting looked a picture beneath the kind of cloudless skies which tell skiing photographers to make the most of conditions while they can.

So it was that we climbed aboard the cable-car and headed up to the windswept summit of the Pic Blanc to take in the surroundings from a heady 3320m. The Pic also provided us and a steady stream of other like-minded skiers with the launch-point for a truly unforgettable run on the legendary Sarenne piste. Sixteen km and almost 2,000m of vertical drop later, we cruised through the Gorges de la Sarenne with a sense of considerable  achievement. I’ll describe the adventure in more detail in due course, but in the meantime I can look at the images we shot along the way, in perfect conditions, to confirm that we really did do it.

Why? Because the following day things changed dramatically, as a weather front moved in, bringing with it heavy and sustained snowfalls for the next twenty-four hours or so. Needless to say, Sarenne closed while the grooming crews prioritised the more-frequented terrain closer to the village. So, a classic case of ‘use it before you lose it…’

Published today, on Amazon and Apple iBook Store: ski writing par excellence…

Today sees the publication of Skiing The Edge, a compilation of what Editor Jules Older describes as the work of:  ‘great writers, not just great ski writers, and they’re at the top of their game…

As Editor of MountainPassions.com I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute a chapter. Not being, if I can help it, a near-to-death skier, I hesitated initially, unsure of precisely what I could bring to an exacting brief. And then I recalled an experience which happened to me years ago, while  en-route to an appointment with fate in Québec. Or, more precisely, a few days spent learning to ski from zero.

I’ll spare you the details (I know, I’m such a tease), except to report that along the way things didn’t turn out quite as planned. To say the least. Despite which, the trip was a turning-point – once I’d learnt to turn – in my life, for I did indeed become a skier.  And at last I’m coming clean about how I very nearly didn’t.

In the book you’ll also share other people’s life-changing moments, whether humorous, humiliating, heart-stopping or bordering on the holy. In short, it’s a great read…

Skiing The Edge is available from Apple iBook Store and Amazon

Silent Running

Outside it’s struggling to make -15ºC and there’s an added wind-chill factor we don’t even want to think about, but our rented 4×4 is pushing purposefully through the whiter-than-white landscape of a typical Quèbecois winter, taking us to see a man about a dog.

Dog-sledding, Quebec, Canada

Or rather a whole pack of them; we’ve decided to take the adventure activity option while we’re here and go dog-sledding. It felt like a good idea at the time, but as another flurry of needle-like snowflakes crackles against the windscreen, I’m having doubts. Seconds later I know it’s too late to back out, as we pass a sign marking the turn-off to our destination: ‘Aventure Nord-Bec – Traineau à Chiens…’.

After a sharp right turn we roll in near-silence along a snow-rutted track which leads to a timeless picture of frontier life: a cluster of cheerful, match-boarded cabins (some sporting long racks of traditional snowshoes) and a curious collection of miniature shacks spread across a large clearing. No sooner have we parked than a succession of furry outlines begins to rise from the snow surrounding each little refuge. The unmistakable signal of maybe a hundred wagging tails tells us that we’ve not only found the dogs, but they’re also well aware of our arrival. Killing the engine produces a momentary silence, before an extraordinary chorus of howling strikes at something deep inside which we never knew was there. Until now. The effect is both startling and somehow deeply moving, and I know immediately that this is going to be an experience like no other. I’m glad we came.

Husky dogGo and say Hi!’ says our host. ‘They’re all totally friendly, I promise you…’. ‘Friendly’ turns out to be something of an understatement; the dogs are just desperate to make contact, and are straining at their chains, thick tails wagging like demented windshield wipers. We move among them one by one, returning the compliment and noting the names daubed on kennels which they seldom use, apparently preferring instead to curl up outside in a furry ball whatever the temperature (as the snow builds around them it creates all the shelter they need against the bitter winds).

Playtime finally stops when we’re directed towards a line of large ethnic-looking craft sculptures which turn out to be our dog-sleds. After admiring the authentic construction – a time-honoured combination of lightweight ash framework held together with thick twine bindings – my next thought is ‘Are we really going to drive this thing?’ It seems that this is indeed the general idea, although before anyone climbs aboard we’re given a brief crash course in the rudiments of dog-sled driving technique. I hang on the instructor’s every word, particularly the bit about ‘braking’, achieved by pressing on a large pedal to drive a mean-looking pair of spikes downwards into the snow. Simple, but effective.

Suitably briefed, we rejoin our respective sleds. ‘You’ll be driving’, says the instructor, pointing at me. My companion gets off lightly: hearing ‘You can make yourself comfortable here’ she loses no time in doing just that, in the relative security of the low-slung passenger seat. The dogs, meanwhile, are old hands at this kind of thing, and know exactly what comes next. The howling and barking begin all over again as the staff fan out to release the ecstatic animals from their chains, before securing them in their allotted positions in the long harnesses of the sleds. Each sled gets five dogs – two at the front, one in the middle and two more behind – chosen for their strength and ability to coexist happily as a working team. By the time we’re ready to get moving their impatience to be off is conveyed in a series of powerful yanks on the sled, straining the thick rope by which we’re lashed to a nearby tree.

This security is short-lived, however, as a member of staff yells at me to stand on the brake pedal – then releases the rope. It takes all my strength to hold the whole show on the spot, and the guy who slipped the tethering rope now shows me another line, this time with a sturdy ground-anchor (‘in case you ever need it…’) attached to the end.

As the howling rises to a manic, wailing shriek, it’s obvious that ‘walkies’ must now be happening any second, or all hell is going to break loose.

Ahead of me the lead sled is streaking away, and I know that this is it. Gulp. ‘Hang on…’ I yell to my willing victim in the cold seat. As I release the brake we’re suddenly off, and accelerating hard. Then something strange and unexpected happens: a sudden silence, broken only by the basket-like creak of the sled as it skids along in the snow-tracks of the sled in front, and the distant panting of the dogs. Sensing that we’re in imminent danger of catching up with the team ahead, I touch the brakes, and glance down in disbelief as a plume of snow billows rapidly around my legs. This provokes the brief surprise appearance of a panting dog’s head between my legs, suggesting that the following sled is perhaps less well-braked than we are.

Sled dogs runningSoon we’re gliding smoothly over fresh white powder on a wide, specially-created track in the otherwise densely-wooded landscape, and I begin to get to grips with the handling of the sled. As we settle into a steady rhythm we finally get a chance to look around at our surroundings and appreciate the world in a way which is simply not possible on, say, a snowmobile. Progress is now more serene than frenetic, but we’re covering some ground and the bond between us and ‘our’ dogs is tangible and growing. Forget all the stuff you hear about wild creatures, one step removed from wolves; these guys might be working for us, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re having a ball and need little encouragement on our part to keep things moving along nicely. The only disruption occurs when a dog shows signs of needing to stop to, well, answer its own call of nature – a wish which must be respected, in accordance with sledding etiquette.

We live the dream for a little longer, mesmerised by the mystical process of travelling like authentic fur-trappers, until finally we hear the unmistakable howls which announce our imminent return to the clearing we’d left a couple of hours before. The warmest of welcomes is impossible to ignore, and as our team members are led away back to their respective kennels, we abandon the intrepid pioneer role-playing and are reduced in minutes to a couple of softies, cuddling and stroking the appreciative bundles of fur competing for our attention. The final degeneration into shameless, cuddly-toy behaviour comes right on cue, when my companion is handed an eight week-old malamute puppy.

Malamute husky and Denis MontminyLater, over welcome a cup of coffee in the cocooning warmth of the reception cabin, I meet founder Denis Montminy, who has run his activity operation since 1990. I can now understand how his beloved animals (he currently has 130 working Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies) have taken over his life. As a child Denis never had a dog, but when he was nine years old he did some work for a neighbour, who rewarded his efforts by giving him a pair of puppies to rear. From that moment his life changed forever and he’s now been breeding sled dogs for over thirty years.

Denis’ total dedication to improving the qualities of the breeds has earned him a growing reputation throughout Canada and Europe for his dogs’ exceptional size, endurance and dependable, playful nature. Opening his centre (which employs 110 km of dedicated trails) has also enabled him to share his love for these wonderful animals with visitors from all over the world.

As we say our reluctant farewells and leave Denis to attend to another group of eager, first-time visitors, we can’t resist casting a final glance back to the dogs before trudging to the waiting 4×4. Once again heads are shaking snow from thick fur, and twenty or so tails begin to wag, an unmistakable invitation to us to stay a little longer and begin the exchange of affection all over again. These friendly giants made the sledding part of our unforgettable visit really easy – and the final parting so hard…

©Roger Moss, Editor MountainPassions.com

Find out more: Aventure Nord-Bec

See  La Grande Odyssée, Savoie Mont Blanc, January 7th-18th, 2012

A day in the life of a wolf

MountainPassions teams up with multi-activity specialists Undiscovered Mountains to bring you this extraordinary account of tracking wolves in the Southern French Alps...

European Grey Wolves are present in the Southern Alps
European Grey Wolves are present in the Southern Alps and are a protected species

We awake early and set off in search of wolf activity, in a wild, mountainous and little-visited corner of the French Alps. My husband, Bernard Guillaume, is the expert – he’s a high mountain guide and wolf enthusiast, and we’re tracking wolves with clients on wolf tracking trips with Undiscovered Mountains. Under no illusions or expectations that we will find anything at all, we’re nevertheless rewarded almost straight away by the discovery of fresh tracks. Two tracks, one slightly smaller than the other, in the classic straight-line formation, suggest this is a wolf, rather than a dog; Bernard confirms it is probably a father and his son, who are known to patrol this territory.

We follow the tracks up a wide forest track – the wolves have chosen to follow the path of least resistance. The tracks are steady and regular… it seems they are strolling, not running. Are they walking on full bellies and gradually digesting,  patrolling their territory as part of a regular control, or are they searching quietly for prey?  The tracks continue upwards, and we come across a fresh dropping. It looks like a large dog poo but full of hair, and as Bernard pokes it open, we discover bits of bone too. Just next to it is a smaller poo of similar consistency but with the addition of berries, giving it a slightly red colour, “This is a fox poo..” explains Bernard, “they often follow the wolves in the hope of scavenging their prey, and leave their mark as they go.”  Further up the wolves defecate again, but this time the fox has not followed suit – perhaps distracted by something else along the way.

As we arrive in a small sheltered clearing, the tracks change their rhythm and we see shorter paces, skids and slides, and then large areas of rolled-out snow. What’s going on here? Were they playing, maybe chasing after an animal that has crossed their path? We see no other tracks to suggest the second explanation and it’s a perfect spot to chill out, so maybe they did just that – a bit of messing around before an afternoon nap. We do the same, and eat our lunch where the wolves had considerately flattened the snow for us.

Wolf prints
Wolf Prints

After lunch we pick up the tracks again and follow them. They continue up and up, still following the path of least resistance and keeping the same rhythm. Then, for no apparent reason, the tracks separate. One goes off left down the side of the mountain, while the other continues along a forest trail. Bernard explains that they are probably separating to hunt. We follow the wolf on the forest trail. He’s briefly distracted, and goes towards the edge of the trail before his partner rejoins him – obviously there was nothing very interesting down there!

But they’re not giving up yet, and shortly afterwards they split again. Then suddenly our wolf does a huge jump, and we can see the skid of his landing as he sprints off down the mountainside. We quickly understand why. Just ahead we see the tracks of a chamois crossing the path, obviously unaware of the approaching predator just behind him. It’s now too steep to attempt to follow the pursuit, but Bernard has a look with his binoculars in search of blood or other signs in the snow. He finds nothing. We continue along our forest trail, and after a while the wolves come back. Did they catch the chamois or did it escape? They’re back in their patrolling stride, making it easy to follow them while picturing the father and son bonding as they walk.

We stop for a drink, and Bernard spots a chamois opposite us on the other side of the mountain. It’s limping, as if injured. Is this the fated chamois the wolves attacked? Did it escape with a broken leg – or is this an old injury from some other event? We’ll never know the answer, but we understand perfectly how tough the reality of life is for animals in this wilderness.

The wolves decide to take a short cut up the mountainside but it’s too late for us to follow them. “They are almost certainly going up to the col..”, says Bernard. “It’s a well known passage for animals to pass through.” We take a short-cut back down, off-trail in the woods and mountainsides. It’s great fun and half way down Bernard stops and suggests we howl. “There’s a good chance that the wolves have gone round to the other side of the mountains from the col. If we howl, they may respond.” We howl and hear it echo and rebound off the mountain sides. Then we wait in silence: nothing. So we carry on.

Guide Bernard Guillaume howling
Guide Bernard Guillaume howling

I drop back briefly and let the others go off in front. The mountains are silent around me, and then I hear it – the faint but unmistakable echo of a howl. I stop and listen, focusing intensely on the sound. At first I don’t believe myself; surely it can’t be the wolves replying to us? But if it is I must get to the others quickly, to see if they heard it, too. I run, and of course all the noise of my running cuts out any other sound. I arrive breathless, assuming they have heard it. But they haven’t, so we stop and listen again.  I suddenly feel very stupid – maybe it was my imagination getting carried away?

And then I hear it again, this time stronger. In fact, we  all hear it, and exchange awestruck looks. We listen and then Bernard howls again. When we stop and listen again it’s definitely the wolves, and there are many voices in the pack – certainly more than two. The sound is eerie but at the same time joyful, and is powerful, too… I can almost feel the sound waves hitting my body. It’s also one of the most magical wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. We continue to exchange howls with our mystery wolves for 10 full and glorious minutes before they move off, and the howling stops. We also head off and continue back down to the car, ending up just to the right of where we started.

Arriving from a different angle means we spot something very important, which we’d missed this morning. In the field behind the track is a carcass. It’s a deer, but all we see is blood-stained snow and lots of tracks going back and forth. It’s almost certainly the early morning kill of the wolves we followed today, and the rest of the local animals have finished it off during the morning. Now even the bones have been scavenged and taken off to feed hungry bellies hidden in the forest.

It also completes the picture, and now we can imagine the wolves with their bellies full, proudly patrolling their territory, relaxing, playing and hunting probably more out of instinct than of need for today…

Sally Guillaume, Undiscovered Alps
Sally Guillaume, Undiscovered Mountains

About the Author: Sally Guillaume is the owner and director of Undiscovered Mountains, specialising in adventure and activity holidays in a little-known corner of the Southern French Alps situated just on the edge of the Ecrins National Park – Champsaur, Valgaudemar and Dévoluy. Sally’s blog gives you a taste of the activities and holidays on offer.
With unrivalled scenery and wildlife, a diverse range of activities and 300 days of sunshine per year, it’s the perfect place to get your fresh air and sun fix – summer or winter!