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Monday December 19, 2016 - Email this article to a friend

Some say it's lacking in alpine charm and best suited to intermediates. Others insist that La Plagne has more going for it - much more. PlanetSKI seeks the truth.

"We don't have lots of 5-star hotels, it's not pretty, but it is underrated."

So says a man who gives a good impression of being La Plagne's cheerleader-in-chief.

Bertrand de Monvallier is the boss of Oxygène, the family-run ski school he set up in the resort 24 years ago.

Bertran de Monvallier, Head of Oxygene La PlagneBertrand de Monvallier













"We have all sorts of skiing - lots of tree skiing, lots of high skiing up to 3,400 metres, we have lots of south-facing skiing and we have the North Face of the Bellecôte (an off-piste classic).

"We have some of the world's top off-piste skiing here," he says. 

"We have better snow than any other resorts apart from maybe Tignes and Val d'Isère and when we have lots of snow it remains untracked for days, but there within hours of the first day, there's nothing left."

See here for further details about the Oxygene Ski School.

The plan was to test this bold claim with a pre-Christmas luxury off-piste weekend, arranged by Green Rides, which prides itself on its personal service, and looked after us in one of its catered chalets, the Aiguille de la Nova, just below Plagne 1800.

Green Rides Chalet Aiguille de la Nova, La PlagneGreen Rides' Chalet Aiguille de la Nova















Green Rides' Chalet Aiguille de la Nova, La PlagneGreen Rides' Chalet Aiguille de la Nova















The luxury weekend was, indeed, luxurious.  However, the off-piste bit of the plan proved to be somewhat optimistic.

The last snowflake had fluttered onto the ground here weeks before our visit and outside the marked runs there was now rather more brown to the landscape - not to mention plenty of rocks -  than we would like to have seen.   

La Plagne Dec 2016Looking patchy













La Plagne December 2016Looking rocky













Luckily for our small group, this is a vast high-altitude resort. 

The itinerary might have to change, but there was still plenty of good skiing and snowboarding to be had on piste under brilliant blue skies and sunshine.

What's more, we had Oxygène's Guillaume Aubert to show us around - quite possibly the friendliest, most enthusiastic and clearest communicator to have emerged from the planet that breeds French ski instructors. 

Guillaume Aubert Oxygene Ski & SB InstructorGuillaume Aubert













The skier/snowboarder/surfer/waterskier/footballer - there is probably no sport this man doesn't do -  was there to coach us, take us to the best snow and point out the backcountry where, in better conditions, we would have been heading.

At one stage we did tackle a stretch of off-piste, heading towards it along a bumpy traverse on Roche De Mio, under the Inversens chairlift.

I would like to say that it made the effort of carrying my fully equipped ABS avalanche backpack worthwhile. 

It didn't.

The quality and the depth of the snow was nothing to write home about, so I won't.

Jane Peel, La Plagne December 2016Fully equipped off-piste















In such circumstances, you make the best of what you've got, and that's what we did.

It turned out to be rather enjoyable.

On day 1, we found some of the best of the cold, dry snow up above 3,000 metres on the Bellecôte glacier.  

Nothing to complain about there - either on the corduroy pistes or the ungroomed soft moguls on the black Chiaupe nature run.

Bellecôte Glacier, La PlagneBellecôte Glacier, La Plagne













But even up high, there were signs that the snow lacked depth.

Warning sign, La Plagne Dec 2016Lacking depth













On day 2, we headed up to La Grande Rochette at 2,505 metres above Plagne Centre.

If anything, the pistes were in even better shape than on the glacier (though one unfortunate man in shot as I took this video of our group didn't appear to be appreciating the snow quite as much as we were).


Also on day 2 we were among the first to ski down through the trees all the way to Les Coches at 1,450 metres on a run that had only just opened.

The snow on it was all artificial and had been produced on an industrial scale, but it was in great condition.

Cold temperatures meant the cannons were able to operate in daylight hours as well as overnight.

Snowmaking in La PlagneTowards Les Coches with Les Arcs in the distance













There is a sound commercial reason for opening up the route towards Les Coches as soon as possible, despite the lack of natural snow at low altitude.   

It is the way to the Vanoise Express cable car, which links La Plagne and its Paradiski partner resort, Les Arcs. 

It took its first passengers on Sunday. 

The tourist office in La Plagne told PlanetSKI that one week before Christmas Day, about half the slopes in the resort were open - that's about the same as this time last year -  but the pistes are said to be in better shape in 2016 because the ground is really cold.

 On piste, La Plagne December 2016Better than last year












So when the snow returns in abundance, the pistes can only get better and better.

And the off-piste too?

Yes, and no.

Guillaume Aubert says the snowpack on north-facing slopes will become incredibly unstable after the next big snowfall. 

He digs into the snow to illustrate the point.

Testing the snowpackTesting the snowpack















The snow Guillaume pulls out is known as "goblets". 

He describes it as being like ball bearings - lacking any cohesion. 

Goblets - weak snowGuillaume with the goblets













"At the moment it is not a risk because we don't have a lot of snow," he says, "but if we have a big snowfall there is going to be no cohesion between the fresh layer of snow and what is underneath.

"Imagine the weight from 20 to 30cm of snow on top of bearings."

Guillaume says the fear is that skiers and snowboarders will rush to enjoy the off-piste once the long-awaited snowfall returns, without appreciating the avalanche danger. 

"If you don't know the mountain, use a professional," he urges.  "Just don't go there.  You just have one life."

"At the end of the day, we're all here to have fun."

Within a few hours of this conversation, as we leave La Plagne after the off-piste weekend that wasn't, the snow finally begins to fall. 

It's not much,  but it's something after weeks of drought.

Am I frustrated? 

Yes, but I plan to be back in La Plagne in a few weeks from now and maybe, just maybe, there will be enough snow to explore the off-piste. 

In which case Monsieur Guillaume Aubert - you're hired!


Jane's trip was provided by the catered chalet specialist, Green Rides. She stayed in Chalet Aiguille de la Nova, situated just below Plagne 1800.  Green Rides operates in 4 resorts in France: La Plagne, Val d'Isère, La Rosière and Morzine.  

The Oxygene website has information and prices for all its lessons and off-piste guiding.

A 6-day lift pass costs €259 for La Plagne and €298 for the whole Paradiski area (including Les Arcs).

La Plagne is open until 22nd April 2017. 

See here for the main PlanetSKI news page with all the latest stories from the world of snowsports.

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