Sometimes things get lost in translation…

Alf Alderson says the wrong thing to a mountain guide in Les Carroz

I’m sitting on the Vernant chair on the way to the summit of 2204-metre Grand Van above Les Carroz with my mate Simon and local mountain guide Fred Caisergues when I point to a hairily steep slope above an even more hairily steep crag – y’know, one of those places where a fall would not be a great idea.

“That looks interesting,” says I; five minutes later Fred has us heading towards it. Oo,er…

Fortunately for me as the token photographer on this trip to explore the freeride terrain above Les Carroz, I get to ski beneath the hairy steeps to catch the action on film as Fred and Simon tumble to their deaths.

Well, not quite, both make a decent fist of negotiating the descent, which Simon assures me afterwards “Wasn’t as steep as it looked”. Even so, I’m glad I brought my camera along…

Alf Alderson

As an introduction to the freeride terrain above our base in Les Carroz this is a bit of a baptism of fire, and things don’t get much easier as we drop back down to the Vernant chair – we take in a gully that’s little more than a ski-length in width in places, and then scoot out across a mix of powder and crust that has me sweating like a fat lad in a pie shop by the time I reach the lift.

As we ascend on the chair for the second time, I suggest to Fred that “Perhaps we can do something a bit less extreme next?”.

“Ah, sorry,” says Fred, “I was told you wanted to discover the freeride terrain”. Well, we did, but maybe young French mountain guides and middle-aged English ski journalists have different ideas of what constitutes ‘freeride terrain’.

Being the professional that he is, Fred takes the hint and leads us to a Grand Massif classic – the mighty Combe de Gers. This huge, snow-choked bowl is, for me, the epitome of ‘freeride’ – slopes of different gradient and different aspect spread out over 800-metres of vertical, a few trees at the bottom to add interest, a hideously long and steep drag lift as the only means out (boarders beware!) and, three days after the last snowfall, it’s still possible to find untracked lines.

Needless to say, we have a ball floating through soft fluffy stuff all the way down to the Gers draglift and then, thighs screaming after the 40-minute ascent on the Poma (just joking…although it feels like it by the time you’re at the top) we cruise down into Flaine.

Two more different ski resorts than Flaine and Les Carroz would be hard to imagine. Flaine is, of course, famous for its no-nonsense, utilitarian Brutalist architecture, whereas Les Carroz, which you pass on the way up to Flaine, is a much more traditional alpine village with a lovely balcony setting amongst trees.

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer ‘traditional’ ski resorts, and Les Carroz, which at a year short of 100 is one of France’s oldest ski resorts, ticks all the boxes for me. Pretty, bustling, attractive location and great skiing – not to mention less than an hour from Geneva – what’s not to like?

But back to the skiing. We make a hasty exit from the hubbub of Flaine for coffee on the deck of the restaurant at the top of 2480-metre Les Grandes Platieres, which surely has one of the best views in the French Alps. The entire Mont Blanc Massif is almost within touching distance, and Fred, who guides regularly in Chamonix, points out all the iconic peaks (Grandes Jorrases, Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc, Dome du Gouter etc.) at the same time as regaling us with tales of derring-do on their slopes.

From here the skiing becomes considerably more relaxed. We ski off the side of the 14-km Pistes de Cascades, a blue run which winds its way from the high alpine down through cool green forests to Sixt at 760-metres. As Fred points out, the easily angled slopes and proximity to the piste make this a great introduction to freeriding, the more so given the amazing views of truly wild alpine scenery along with the prospect of spotting wildlife such as bearded vultures (which we do), ibex and chamois.

There are no ski lifts in Sixt so we take the free bus to Samoëns village from where we’re able to gradually return to Les Carroz via a mix of ski lifts, wide, open pistes and a sneaky little run through woodland down a ‘ski rando’ trail – which means we’ve done pretty much a full circuit of the Grand Massif (ok we miss out Morillon, but Simon and I visit this the following day).

That’s not bad considering the Grand Massif is the fifth biggest ski area in France, although I feel like I’ve done little more than scratch the surface of this very inviting ski area; however, given the truly superb freeride terrain and the fact that next winter will be Les Carroz’ 100th birthday there’s simply no excuse for not returning…

Discover the Grand Massif ski area with the Ski Club on an Instructor Led Guiding session or on a Freshtracks holiday, staying in Chalet Freshtracks.