Though I’ve been a Ski Club member for a while, this was my first time on a Freshtracks holiday. I was looking forward to having guides show me some of the best terrain in the Chamonix valley as well as skiing with fellow Ski Club members on the Off Piste Adventure trip.

 

Luckily for me I’d come at the perfect time, with a storm dropping almost a metre of snow on the mountains the day I arrived, giving Chamonix a much-needed refresher. Arriving at Les Houches train station, one of the chalet hosts, Marcus, picked me up in his 4X4 and drove me and my rather large amount of luggage up to Chalet Shiraz, which sits just up the side of the valley along from the main street of Les Houches village.
The chalet is well equipped for skiers. A heated boot cupboard and a ski rack filled with fat freeride skis, suggested that the other guests were back from their day on the slopes already. After dropping my bags in the room, I headed upstairs to say hello and found the others enjoying tea and cake while watching the highlights of the racing from Kitzbuhel on the wide screen TV. The group was made up of 6 men aged between late 30s and early 60s and a woman in her 60s. Most had been on numerous Club trips before but two of them were, like me, on their first Freshtracks holiday. We chatted a little about their day, it had been pretty cold and windy up at Grands Montets where the guide had taken them, but the mixed conditions had given them a chance to find their feet ahead of an action-packed week.
We settled down to a fantastic dinner prepared by Marcus & his wife Audrey and chatted some more about our ski experiences. Though the group didn’t know each other before, there was already great camaraderie from a day’s skiing together, with jokes being made about mishaps and photos shared between them on WhatsApp. This was a contrast to chalets I’ve stayed in previously, where the different groups skied on their own and dinner conversation could be a little awkward.
The massive portions of Moroccan Lamb were quickly demolished by hungry skiers who had spent a long day in extremely cold conditions, and extra helpings were quickly and gratefully taken.
Our Ski Club Leader, Brian, relayed the plans from the guides for tomorrow, which according to the forecast, involved more snow and low cloud. We would head to St. Gervais and take the lift up to the Megève ski area as most of the Chamonix lifts would have late or limited opening due to avalanche risk. After an evening coffee,  everyone retired to bed fairly early, keen to be well rested for tomorrow’s fresh snow.
 

Day 1 - Skiing powder in Megeve

After a hearty breakfast of porridge followed by bacon and eggs, we suited & booted up then jumped in the Ski Club van with Brian driving us down to St. Gervais, only about half an hour from the chalet. We stopped along the way to meet our guides Kathy & Jim, who had lived in the Chamonix valley for more than a decade and knew the resorts and terrain extremely well.

The lift at St. Gervais means you can come straight off the motorway, park up and get on to the Megève ski area without winding up some narrow alpine road full of traffic. Riding up the gondola we could see the snow was deep between the trees and there were very few tracks so far.

At the top the guides split the group in two, one with a bit more off piste experience and the other still getting the hang of it. I was in the former group and we headed off to the side with Kathy. The first important task of the day was a  transceiver check. Kathy stood away from the group and called us over individually with her transceiver in ‘search’ mode to test ours were transmitting correctly. That done it was time to find some powder, which didn’t take long! Straight off the lift there was an open glade running several hundred metres before entering the trees and it was almost untracked. Kathy headed off first to check all was OK then summoned us on, one at a time. The snow was fantastic – light and consistent, with some pockets past knee deep. Most of the group cautiously made their way down, gradually getting more comfortable in the powder, after skiing ice and crud the day before. A few lost balance and went head over heels, though the soft snow made this a bit of a laugh rather than a cause for concern. By the time we went into the trees everyone had gotten used to it and were enjoying the floaty powder.

We continued skiing similar meadows and trees for most of the morning before heading to lunch in Megeve, stopping to recharge  with a massive €15 Quiche and a coke then back to the slopes. The afternoon saw a bit of steeper and more exposed terrain as the cloud lifted. By now most places had been skied but it was clear that caution was still required as some sluffs were visible from the lift, even where no one had skied. Kathy made sure we stuck to safe zones wherever we were skiing, avoiding areas which were too exposed and had potential terrain traps. It was nonstop: up a lift, down a new off piste route, repeat.  Our last run of the day took us back down to the bottom of the valley, with a few road crossings (some with skis off, some not) and back to the van in St. Gervais. The other group weren’t far behind and had an excellent day too.

Back at the chalet the others took full advantage of the hot tub in the garden, which on a clear night has a view of the spectacular Aguille du Midi, and the sauna in the chalet. At dinner we shared our day’s adventures, recounted spectacular falls and chatted about equipment choices (I was cheating apparently, having 118mm waist skis…). Another early night in a very comfy bed followed, with more snow forecast.

Day 2 - Steeper and longer in Le Tour

Filling up on another great breakfast, we loaded into the van, this time heading in the opposite direction up past Chamonix town and to Le Tour at the top of the valley. Having skied it earlier in the week I knew it was going to be cold and popped extra layers on, advising the others to do the same. At the top of the lift we split into groups again, this time Jim was our guide, and headed for a drag lift on the far side. This lift, like most of the ones at higher altitude, had not opened yet and we could see a steady stream of people grabbing first tracks down either side of the lift line.

“Don’t worry about that, the better stuff will be over the back” Jim said, as we shuffled through the queue.

At the top we side stepped a little through a fence and into a wide bowl above the trees. There were only a few tracks and the snow was deeper than yesterday. Jim told us to stay on the ridges and leave plenty of space between us, the wind having deposited substantial amounts of snow on this side of the mountain. With the sky a bit clearer than the day before, it was fantastic skiing deep snow with a view over the valley. We made our way down through the trees and up the next chairlift. Here on the Tete de Balme the terrain was much bigger, with couloirs and some pretty steep stuff.

Jim pointed to a stone on the ridge. “now we are in Switzerland,” he told us.

The snow was great again, making the severity of the terrain more mental than physical and we could take big carving turns on the open faces.

The last run before lunch took us all the way from the ridge to the bottom lift, most of which was tight tree-skiing with the occasional gap opening up.

“It’s rarely in this condition since it sits in the sun, so we are pretty lucky today” Jim told us.

Eating lunch off the hill in Le Passon was cheaper, quicker and better than a mountain restaurant and once we had our fill we were off again.

Heading back to the drag lift from that morning we traversed off to the left and then had about 15 minutes of side stepping and scrambling along the ridge until we reached the peak on the Aguillettes des Possettes. Here we stood above a wide steep couloir that led all the way down to the valley floor almost 1,000m below, again there were few tracks and the snow looked great. Jim cautioned that this terrain had more severe consequences if you fell or if the snow began to slide. He showed us the safe route across the gulley, and we set off one by one. It was the biggest descent of the trip by far, and by the bottom our legs really had to work hard, skiing through dense bushes down to the trainline and the lift station.

Tired but happy after a solid day of skiing, we jumped back in the van and headed for the chalet. After a hot shower, some time flicking through photos from the day and looking at the weather forecast (more snow!), we headed down to the village for dinner at the lovely Delice restaurant since it was our hosts’ well deserved day off.

Impressions of a Freshtracks trip

The guides had done an excellent job of finding the best snow despite the changeable weather and we had avoided queues all week. Their expertise helped keep us safe and gave us confidence to improve our skills on the mixed terrain of Chamonix.
Skiing with other Ski Club members was a fun way to explore the mountain and chat to other enthusiasts. The groups were well split and although there was a range of skill levels, it was never wide enough to be annoying or cause issues. One of the best bits of the Freshtracks experience for me was the sheer amount of skiing we got in…, it was nonstop! No hanging around, just the right amount of breaks. I feel like I got the most out of my time in Chamonix. Our leader Brian handled all the logistics, getting us to the slopes, back marking off piste and sorting out hire kit, again making everything that bit more relaxing and maximising our time on the slopes.

Sat back at my desk I’m already looking through the Freshtracks trips online, this time with an eye to improving my touring skills.

 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Find out more about Ski Club holidays in Chamonix and in other great resorts here - FRESHTRACKS