Photos by Mike Brindley/Tristan Kennedy
If you've ever found yourself shuffling tentatively through crowds of ski schools and 20 person strong groups determined all to get on the same lift as you wait in line, you know the feeling.
There's very little getting around the fact that a rammed resort can be really shit - and halfway through a trip to the Tarentaise region last winter, there was a little growing seed of worry in my mind that that was exactly what I was heading for.
We’d just spent two days in the relatively quiet spots of La Rosiere and Sainte Foy, and for the second half of the four day tour we were off to Val D’Isere for (what is widely known as) the polar opposite.
"There's very little getting around the fact that a rammed resort can be really shit, and halfway through the trip I was worried that that was exactly what we were heading for."
The aim of the trip had originally been to explore backcountry lines: in the trees at La Thuile and the freeride areas of Saint Foy, before finding some of the quieter spots in the endless off-piste terrain available around Val, but the weather thus far wasn’t giving up the goods. A heavy dump followed quickly by rain had made for a thick frozen crust with softer snow underneath, leaving Saint Foy off-piste looking immaculate, but sadly completely unrideable.
So, although enjoyable, the original aim of our trip had been critically undermined.
Our guides from Evo 2 did their best to find good, rideable, deeper pockets (of which there were definitely a few), but the dream of slashing virgin pow and wide open lines, just a little beyond the piste boundaries, was looking a little dead in the water.
Nevertheless, in true Knut Eliassen - Bad Weather Day Tricks style, we did our best to make the most of it. Taking the advice of our gracious hosts from France Montagnes, and sampling whatever non-shred activities came up along the way...
So did the quieter resorts still seem like shining havens when the weather wasn't playing ball? Or was the bustling hub of Val D'Isere a welcome sight in the end?
For the single day that we got to ride there, La Rosiere may well have had the most frustrating weather conditions on offer. A tonne of fresh snow in the morning, virtually untouched even on piste after the lifts had been open for a couple of hours, but with encroaching warmer conditions and almost zero visibility all day long.
We planned: A trip over to La Thuile (the Italian side of the Espace San Bernardo area) - if we had better conditions our guide Xavier suggested that we might have hit a few of the more famous long off piste runs on both sides of the border.
"Perfect slashes around the poles, tantalising wide open fields. Not a queue in sight."
We got: A couple of fresh laps of super fun piste pow with side piste so deep and soft that you very quickly sank and ended up scraping the hard layers underneath. Perfect slashes around the poles, tantalising wide open fields with a friendly incline if you could keep your speed up enough to float on top. Not a queue in sight.
Followed by raising temperatures and a complete whiteout...
Fortunately, we managed to hold up in the homely bolt-hole of France Montagne's Director while the worst of the weather came in, and in the absence of much actual snowboarding, we weren't left too short on options for things to do, finding plenty of good places to get food and a couple of livelier spots in and around 1850 - the busiest bar might have been full of French students making the most of a relaxed approach to the legal drinking age, but it didn't feel like the remote bastion of civilisation by a long shot.
It was pretty clear too that on a good day the off piste areas would have offered plenty of variety. Mellow undulating terrain for relaxed laps in deep snow on the French side, and a bit more of a vertical challenge in neighbouring La Thuile - with unpisted, but resort maintained areas for newcomers to off piste action.
All of that at the top of a lift, without having to battle a fleet of tourists for queue priority? Ah, what could have been...
Sainte Foy should’ve been the answer to Sunday nights prayers. And it got tantalisingly close to perfection.
After nearly taking myself out in an attempt to squeeze a few more blind runs out of La Ros, all I wanted was a little visibility, and the gods provided in Sainte Foy. We pretty much had bluebird all day, and the off piste terrain looked perfect, at first glance at least…
We planned: Our day in Sainte Foy was all about getting up higher up the mountain.
Like a seemingly significant proportion of the clientele, we hoped that the recent snow might just be steady enough to explore lines down the pillowy fields and freeride areas up top.
We got: Heavy snow in tree lines lower down, and a slightly slow start to the morning, creeping up the lifts as each new station was opened (the pisteurs were busy blasting away with Catex explosives, gradually making new areas safe).
Sadly what powder there was higher up was covered in an inch of crust. Zig-zag lines pitted with person-sized bomb holes eventually scarred the landscape from riders who were happy to act as crash-test dummies, but unable to turn properly in the conditions - confirming that the pristine appearance was too good to be true.
"We pretty much had bluebird all day, and the off piste terrain looked perfect, at first glance…"
Luckily perfectly carvable hard-pack piste runs and a few lower sidecountry lanes were ripe for the taking, giving us plenty to do on the day. The initial (and apparently rare) queues for the bottom lift quickly dispersed once the mountain properly opened, but that overnight rain had done irreparable damage to the Sainte Foy dream.
The views of the lines available from up top, however, provided more than enough incentive to get back out there again...
On to Val D'Isere!
Which many will know has a well deserved reputation as a playground both on and off the mountain, frequently drawing crowds who seek a share in its heady delights.
Over the course of our stay, however, we found that those were just a small facet of what the area has to offer.
We planned: To sample as many of Val's selection of hidden lines as possible. Steering away from the crowds thanks to the wealth of local knowledge that had been made available.
We got: Drunk.
For starters at least...
Our first day riding in Val itself came after our first night out in Val, which was suitably boozy, but we awoke to a beautifully clear, and refreshingly chilly morning. Although the weather didn't allow for too much exploring, we had a great time charging around some softer patches of side-piste, sessioning a natural quarterpipe-like spot, and getting laps in through the park.
Queues were actually small and pretty insignificant on the mountain, with off-peak mid-week riding meaning we pretty much lapped as we wanted, albeit occasionally having to weave through traffic as people took in the views up top.
"Go-carting on snow: if I wasn't bound by oath to hail snowboarding as the most fun thing on the planet, I might be tempted to put this at the top of my list."
Apres-ski was as you might expect, crammed into the perspex housed outdoor space of Cocorico, tentatively standing on tables trying to find breathing space - but with all the atmosphere you might hope for given Val's reputation, and a live band keeping spirits high.
Then, in the evening, go-carting on snow. If I wasn't bound by oath to hail snowboarding as the most fun thing on the planet, I might be tempted to put this at the top of my list. Go do it.
Day Two: Finally, some proper off piste avenues were open to us!
A very decent dump welcomed us on the morning of our final day - with temperatures cold enough to stop the melt this time, meaning tree runs were most definitely on, as well as super deep side-piste spots higher up.
With a flight to catch in the afternoon, we lapped as much as possible right through till we broke for lunch, and even a few afterwards in a last blast dash around the good snow.
Yes the gondola rides up were occasionally reminiscent of the Central line at 8am on a humid summer morning, but once the crowds dispersed you could have been on a remote Alaskan catboarding mission and not noticed the difference.
In fact, a little further down from the bustle of La Folie Douce and the main resort, it was even possible to forget that you were in a big tourist area at all - and a short day was nowhere near enough time to explore a fraction of what Val has on offer outside the piste poles.
So, in summary, we had increasingly wet pow and no vis in La Rosiere, blue skies and treacherously deceptive crust on fluff in Sainte Foy; piste cruising, park laps and a tree run morning in Val D'Isere.
At the end of January, we weren't exactly expecting spring melt conditions, but that was the hand that mother nature dealt. So which resort was best equipped for the unpredictable realities of weather in 2016?
Well, if you're wise and lucky enough to be able to avoid peak times and school holidays, actual queues and crowds aren't really an issue for any of them, but alternatives for bad weather days? That's a different story.
After my initial doubts, I was surprised to find how much of a relief it was to have plenty of evening entertainment options when you're not already knackered from endless powder lines, and for a fly by, no expense spared visit, this really gave Val D'Isere the edge. And even when it does dump Val is so expansive that you can find your own untracked corners without too much concern.
No doubt Sainte Foy and La Ros would have had those in spades too, possibly for days after fresh snow fall, and for that they really deserve a second chance. But if you're off for a quick blast around without guaranteed pow and still want the full experience - there's no harm in listening out for where the fires are always burning, the band's about to play, and if you do your research you can still find that little slice of solitude.
Is busier always better? Not necessarily. But in this particular instance Val D'Isere won the fight hands down.