So when I decided, before leaving the states, that I wanted to do some off-piste skiing while visiting Val d'Isere, France I went online to Val d'Isere.com and researched organizations offering guided off-piste tours around l'Espace Killy.
A Lot of Off-Piste on the L'Espace Killy
l'Espace Killy encompasses 25,000 acres of skiing around the villages of Val d'Isere and Tignes and only 200 miles are marked trails or pistes. Combine this with the accepted French policy of "if you see it, you can ski it" and you can see why off-piste skiing is very popular around Val d'Isere.
The ski patrollers, or pistuers, work hand in hand with the lift organization people to keep as much of the area as possible avalanche safe. Avalanche free is a misnomer that is highly understood in the Alps. All you can do is work to "synchronize" or stabilize the snowpack and warn people with a flagging system of the estimated level of avalanche possibilities around various areas of the Espace Killy.
A prime example of the extent to which the French authorities go to stabilize the mountains is a system of creating explosions inside a mountain. This vibrates the entire mountain causing loose or unstable snow to harmlessly slide.
Experienced regional guides know the relative safety level of each area, and they are trained to recognize any anomalies in the area that might indicate a danger of a slide. Even experts can never offer a 100% positive guarantee that a slope is safe, so for that reason you expect to be required to wear an avalanche beacon.
Top Ski - The 'Original' Independent Ski School in Val d'Isere
There are quite a few ski schools and guide services listed on the Val d'Isere web site and the fact that they are listed there is pretty much a confirmation that they are reputable organizations.
Top Ski (ski school/mountain guides) specializes in off-piste, private guiding, and telemark skiing. The ski school was founded in 1976 in Val d'Isere and bills itself as is the original independent school in France. It has an easily readable and navigable web site that clearly spells out what you can expect and how much it will cost.
After considering the variety of tours, I emailed to reserve a slot in a half-day "Introduction To Off-Piste" tour for the second day I would be in Val d'Isere. The registration and confirmation with the Top Ski people was easy and efficient and I was all set within a day.
Choose Your Course Wisely
I signed for the Introduction course based on the standards under "What Level Of Skier Are You." The Beginner standards for off-piste skiing read - "Off-piste Rookie - You are an advanced intermediate or better skier on piste. You are happy to ski all red runs and most of blacks, if they are in good conditions. You have never tried off piste skiing before and are keen to learn the basic technique and the corresponding safety rules."
Listen Well to Beacon Instructions
I stopped in the Top Ski office the day before my scheduled course to verify the meeting place and say hello to Patrick Zimmer, the founding Director of Top Ski. Patrick assured me all was set and avalanche beacons would be provided.
The next morning dawned crisp, slightly overcast, and with a nice overnight 6 inches of new snow. At the meeting station, I found off-piste instructor Yanni Reynal and three British skiers that would make up our class. Yanni rigged us all with strap on beacons, explained the locator and search modes and then tested each of our beacons to be sure we picked up each other's signal. Once we were all deemed up and working we were off to the mountain.
And the Snow Gets Deeper
From the top of the L'Olympique Tram we headed toward the Rocher Du Charvet. After assessing our collective skiing skills. Yanni led us down some easy verticals. As we moved higher and added more vertical feet to each run, the powder got deeper, but an unseen nemesis also began to become a factor - a crusted over layer that a ski could break through.
In the Palm of Mother Nature
Taking it easy off-piste in Val d'Isere isn't hard, because it's so easy to become mesmerized by the sheer expanse and stark beauty that surrounds you. After a short break at an on-mountain restaurant that ensured me civilization was, in fact not far away, we took some runs around the backside of the Rocher Du Charvet and Yanni pointed out some locally famous couloirs that certainly weren't going to get skied by me, but brought out some ahhs and wows for the tracks coming down.
We finished our tour skiing down the length of a long valley formed by two alps and ended at a bus stop in Le Laisinant smiling and happily tired. While two of the British skiers were scheduled to do it again with Yanni as guide the very the next day, I settled on maybe in a couple of days I'd be rested enough for another go.
My Best Advice for Off-Piste Skiing in Val d'Isere
If you live below 6,000' above sea level give yourself at least two or three days to get used to the altitude. I had a great time touring off-piste but as Yanni noted you can quickly become tired and use up your energy trying to get up from falls that normally wouldn't be a bother. Why? Because your breathing in a little less enriching oxygen with each breathe and it takes a while for your body to adjust to this.
In Val d'Isere on the l'Espace Killy you can go under the ropes. We did, and it is a weird feeling coming from the states. Just be sure you have complete confidence in the person that leads you under the ropes because your life may depend on it. Off-piste in Val d'Isere is fun, it's exhilarating and it is something you will remember the rest of your life.