Can you do Chamonix on the cheap? The Ski Club checked out UCPA Argentiere's hostel packages to find out.

Having worked a few seasons around the Alps, I’d seen UCPA centres in several resorts but never really understood who they were for or what they did. I’d figured they were just a tour operator specifically for French youth groups and offered pretty standard group ski lessons.

Turns out I was wrong.

Action Outdoors invited the Ski Club out to the UCPA in Argentiere to sample their ‘Advanced Off-Piste weekend’. The long weekend was split in two, starting with two days of skiing with an instructor around Chamonix’s famous freeride spots who would be giving us pointers on our skiing technique and backcountry safety, then two days to explore the area ourselves.

It’s my first time in Chamonix and, I’ll be honest, I’m nervous. At the front of my mind were clips from the old VHS tapes I used to watch as a teen, one clip in particular where freeski legends Glen Plake and Scott Schmidt bomb drop from a platform into a crevasse. Chamonix was synonymous with ‘Extreme’ skiing right from the start and as I progressed as a skier, for me, the resort was always the talk of legend, and I was never sure I was ready to take on the challenge. Watching Seth Morrison’s ‘The Ordinary Skier’ a few years ago confirmed my suspicions, here was one of the world’s greatest freeride skiers looking fairly uncomfortable at the top of Chamonix lines.

So, ‘advanced off piste’… in Chamonix, yep, nervous.

 

First Impressions

Arriving at UCPA after a short 90 minute transfer from Geneva was a welcome alternative to the usual slog down to Tarentaise resorts and got us in to resort with plenty of time to unpack and take a look around before dinner.

Check in is pretty simple, just a deposit or ID for your lift pass, then it’s off to the in-house rental shop to sort out your kit. All of the rental kit is high quality, well maintained and relatively new, most of the course participants were given Rossignol Sky 7 HD skis which are great all-rounders.

Rooms come in 2, 4 or 6 beds, you pay a bit extra for a 2-bed room but they are good for couples or those who don’t fancy sharing with strangers. Unfortunately single occupancy on the 2 berth rooms is not available as booking is based on course places not the number of beds. Each room has a sink, a desk and a row of lockers next to the bunk beds. The lockers appeared modest at first but thanks to some well thought out shelving and years of Tetris experience, I managed to accommodate 10 days’ worth of kit. As suggested on the website I’d brought a padlock, mostly due to having a lot of camera equipment and a laptop with me and I didn’t know who my roommates might be. The bunkbeds have a pack of sheets and a blanket for you to make the bed, it’s all very clean and functional.

After that it’s off to dinner, a huge buffet affair with a different theme most evenings, tonight was north African, with couscous, Moroccan style lamb and plenty of other dishes to choose from including a great salad bar. Dessert was helping yourself to the ice cream freezer, which seemed a bit of a trial for those not used to ice cream scoops! The format is - help yourself, tidy up after yourself, so once you are done, wipe down the table and take your plates back to the kitchen. It’s simple but makes dinner very efficient, you only eat what you want and once you’re done, you can head off, no waiting for anything.

The centre has its own bar, if you want a drink you have to use a machine in the corner that tops up a card with credit that you can then use at the bar, sort of like an Oyster card. A little bit complicated but presumably for licencing purposes. Drinks are cheaper than in most resort bars, a beer being around €2.50 but the bar was limited to beers, wines, cider and soft drinks, no liquor - so if a G&T is your thing you’ll have to venture elsewhere (and probably pay quite a lot!). There’s entertainment almost every night, ranging from pleasant live bands to karaoke, dance classes and party games. The staff make a big effort to get everyone involved but if ‘Boys vs. Girls’ night isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of quiet corners to relax instead.

There’s also a bouldering wall, games rooms and a sauna on site so plenty to keep you occupied. Looking around my preconception of UCPA being a solidly French organisation was quickly overturned, there’s lots of Scandinavians, groups of Brits and an assortment of other nationalities including Aussies and Spaniards. Most look like they are under 40 but there’s some older holiday makers.

Off to bed for a good night’s sleep before a big day on Chamonix off piste and I find my 3 other roommates have arrived. Two friends from Paris in their 50s and a younger guy, also from Paris with the same name as one of the others, confusingly. They are all friendly and amused to have a Scottish guy in the room with them, one of them asks ‘do you snore?’ I reply that I don’t, lucky for them. ‘I do, really bad’ announces one of the older guys, gleefully. ‘good then’ I respond.

An hour later and it’s pretty clear that his pride in snoring is well earned, I’ve never heard anything like it, I try burying my head under the pillow and putting headphones on, nope, no sleep tonight. I made a mental note to find the nearest pharmacy the following day in search of earplugs.

Groggily waking up I stumbled into the shower room to try and get some life back into me, fortunately the showers are hot and powerful. Unlike hostels I’ve stayed in before, both the shower room and the bathrooms are clean and there’s no queue.

Breakfast follows the same format as dinner, plenty of options and I’m thankful for the enormous bowl of coffee dispensed from the machine. There’s a packed lunch station to make your own sandwiches and grab some fruit for the hill, which is a nice touch that is not commonplace in most chalets.

The Skiing

Time to kit up and head out. As it’s an off-piste course Transceiver, Shovel and Probe are mandatory and are all available from the rental shop too. We meet our instructor, Flo, just outside the centre and jump on a bus for Le Tour. There’s six of us in the group, 3 Brits and 3 French and Flo switches between languages naturally explaining the structure of the course.

‘We want you to learn how to ski off piste but also how to assess the conditions, safety and which line you take. It’s important that you can be self-sufficient, not just to rely on someone else to know all of this for you’ he explains.

Our first lesson is the BRA – Bulletin Risques d’Avalanches, a notice which is posted in the lift stations as you head on to the hill. Flo shows us how to read the bulletin, ‘this shows where the risk is, North or South or everywhere, the difference at different altitudes and some information about other risks, it is important to know before you go off piste’.

Next up, transceiver check, I stand with Flo off to one side away from the group with my transceiver in receive mode, each of the group ski towards me in turn and I check their signal as they come closer. All good, let’s start skiing, or at least try, it’s extremely cold, between -15 and -20 before windchill and it’s also quite windy, add in the low cloud cover and not ideal off piste weather. We start with a few piste runs to get our legs warmed up and to let Flo assess the calibre of skiers he is dealing with. He then introduces some drills ‘try bouncing up and down as you ski, even through the turns’, he demonstrates, pogoing along at speed, this, he tells us, is to help us use both feet in the turn rather than putting all the pressure through the outside ski. A few more drills, skiing on just the inside ski, on the tails, on the tips, reinforces the message that being centred and balanced is important when skiing off piste.

The group is of fairly mixed abilities, at the top end, one of my roommates had done heliskiing in Siberia and plenty of other off piste trips in his 40 years of skiing, at the other end of the spectrum one of the Brits had never skied off piste. With groups like this that generally means that the instructor or guide will have to default to skiing terrain that is suitable for the least skilled. The snow conditions were hard packed and chopped up, not what I’d normally want to ski, but as Flo explained skiing terrible conditions makes you stronger, safer and more adaptable when the snow changes. Our first few off piste runs were just between the markers and were punctuated by a few spectacular tumbles from the less experienced in the group. ‘Don’t lean back, if you lean back you can’t control the ski’ Flo advised.

As the day went on the beginners were getting the hang of it and we moved on to some more interesting terrain, taking a route off the back of the mountain down through the trees. It was still pretty choppy but there were some soft patches and some fun features. Flo showed us how to safely move through difficult terrain, leaving space in case something happens and stopping on ridges out of potential avalanche run off zones. It was a beautiful and secluded run but unfortunately, the cold temperatures had killed both my phone and GoPro so I stopped taking pictures at this point.

Making the most of our UCPA picnics we stopped in one of Chamonix’s many Salle Hors Sac – areas under restaurants designated for those that brought their own food, these were busy, and we saw plenty of familiar faces from the hostel. Afterwards Flo gave a demonstration of grid searching with a transceiver, how to manage an incident and who to call, it was short but concise, covering all the basics firmly enough to memorise.

Another few laps through the trees and there was definite improvement in the group. I picked up a few useful tips, making smoother ‘half jump turns’ means you don’t get unbalanced when your edge suddenly bites in, landing with poles out in front of you helps you ride out of drops, small things but all adding up to help my confidence off piste.

As the sun began to set, we made our way back to the UCPA for a hot shower and some good food. I was shattered, or as my roommates say, tres fatigue. This was in part due to lack of sleep and also thanks to a full-on day of skiing, making a beeline for bed, I suddenly remembered my tumultuous roomie and lost my enthusiasm for getting horizontal. Thankfully, managed to get hold of some pro looking earbuds, the wax ones that mould in to your ear, these managed to drown out around 80% of the sound which made it just about bearable.

The next day we hit the Grands Montets area, the sky had cleared but the temperature was still well into the minus numbers. Over here the off piste was even more tracked out and featured vast fields of enormous moguls. Not a fan. Still, it’s all experience and the scenery was breath-taking, Chamonix is surrounded by towering 4,000m plus peaks, including Mont Blanc itself and glaciers in hanging valleys form the crenulations around the alpine hub town.

‘Don’t concentrate on the turn you are making, there is nothing you can do about it, look two or three turns ahead and plan where you are going’ advised Flo as we made our way down a particularly rough and steep pitch of moguls. My legs were getting a solid work out on 182 skis which were 118 underfoot. ‘Expecting deep snow?’ asked David from Action Outdoors, ‘Would have been nice!’ I replied, before smashing down another set of bumps.

For those lower down in the group I could absolutely see an improvement and benefit, they had come along a great deal in just two days and were really enjoying the new challenge. My roommate was not so convinced, he, like me, had expected the level to be a little higher and to be out of his comfort zone some of the time. Given the conditions it didn’t bother me as much, if I’m honest, skiing hard, rough off piste has little appeal for me and I don’t particularly want to do anything too risky when it is like that, so it was a good way to warm up and practise some skills. If you were set on improving your skills and being challenged it may be worth selecting a higher-level course or getting an idea of the level of the rest of the group before you start, especially if there’s only two days of instruction. In the Argentiere UCPA centre, there are a few dozen different courses to choose from.

aguille du midi and the vallee blanche

Chamonix, like most resorts, is as extreme or as tame as you feel comfortable skiing, Le Tour is made up of cruisy runs with tree lined itineraries over the back and some big peaks to hike and ride if you are looking for something more advanced. Grands Montets is steeper and higher with access to the Argentiere Glacier over the back (once the lift re-opens). Both afford spectacular views of the peaks and valleys surrounding them, looking around it’s exceptionally apparent why the area is so popular with extreme skiers. If you are doing lots proper off piste in the area it really is recommended to ski with a guide or instructor, the terrain round here is not to be taken lightly, especially around the glaciers.

With my remaining two days of full area pass I chose to head up to the Aguille du Midi to see Mont Blanc the Vallee Blanche and some of the serious lines skiers were taking. It is truly stunning up there at 3,800m, Europe’s highest peak is just up along the ridge and though it is almost 1,000m higher it seems like it is much closer. The bridge connecting the two pillars of rock that the cable car and buildings perch on gives you an un-nerving sense of hanging in the void, especially on a windy day. Looking down to the right a pair of skiers have done two full rope length rappels to get into the couloir below which is around 40deg, narrow and looks hard packed. To the left there is a queue of skiers and snowboarders making their way along the roped ridge on to the Valle Blanche, a 28km long itinerary that takes you along the glacier and back down to the Chamonix valley, it’s one for the bucket list but not without a guide. I spent some more time skiing Grands Montets and Le Tour, unfortunately, Flegere and Brevant had lift issues and it was advised to avoid them.

The UCPA experience

Overall I found the unique UCPA format excellent, especially in regards to value, for around £500 we had 4 nights accommodation, full board (you can even pop back for a hot lunch, which I did on the last day) airport transfers from Geneva, a full area 4 day lift pass (including the Midi which normally costs €60 on its own) and transport pass for the trains and buses in the valley, high quality equipment rental and two days with an instructor.

Similar packages were available for all levels and activity types including splitboarding and ski touring as well as on piste technique. Week long trips are also available for a reasonable price. It would make a great holiday for a group of friends at different levels that want to progress but still go on a trip together, plus if you can book out a dorm room then it’s a little more comfortable sharing.

A couple of things worth taking – a towel (otherwise you have to rent one), a padlock (for your room locker if you are sharing), toiletries and for me earplugs are an absolute essential if you are in a dorm room, trust me, buy them!

 

Action Outdoors are the UK agent for UCPA - https://www.action-outdoors.co.uk/