As I sat on the 4 person chairlift, letting it carry me up the mountain, I seriously questioned my choice in hobbies. The wind and horizontal snow had the combined effect that I can only describe as like having someone throw popping candy at your face – repeatedly and for the entire time you are outdoors. The bad weather had resulted in the chairlifts, only one of which had bubble covers to protect you from the elements (guess which lift had the longest queue), operating extra slowly. Thus prolonging the torture and making a lie of the sign at the bottom which proudly announced they could get you up to the top of the mountain in only 4 minutes. I couldn’t even distract myself with the view. It turns out that, in this part of France, the fog and cloud zooms in quicker than it does in San Francisco, and I could barely see more than a metre in front of my face. The loud, and therefore very close, cannon blasts announcing controlled avalanches did nothing to comfort me. Also, I was in the middle of reading The Hunger Games trilogy, which I think only added to my paranoia.
It’s at times like these that I make a vow to myself to learn a sport associated with warmer climates. Like surfing, for example. Yes, I decided, I definitely need a beach vacation this year. However, for some reason skiing is one of the sports I have had relative success in, and so I found myself fighting the cold, wind and heavy snow in January in the French ski resort of Les Arcs. Back when I used to work whole winter seasons, I had the luxury of being a fair weather skier most of the time. If the weather was bad and I didn’t have to be up the mountain, I didn’t go. When you only get one week skiing a year like I do now, though, you feel obliged to be on the mountain as much as possible.
To be fair to Les Arcs, when the wind isn’t against you and there are no avalanche blasts sending tremors through your skis, the skiing is very good.
Les Arcs is split into different levels, the main ‘villages’ named after their elevations. I expect this is to save the embarrassment of people such as myself who struggle to pronounce French names. We stayed at Les Arcs 2000, the highest point with accommodation, although the ski areas do go above 3000m. There are pros and cons to basing yourself so high on the mountain. When the skiing is good, you literally have the mountain on your doorstep. However when things go wrong, you’re stuck. On the third day of our trip, for example, the bad weather led to most of the lifts at Arcs 2000 being closed and an avalanche closed the main road, preventing the ski buses from operating. There was little more I could do than sit in the hotel and watch the windows vibrate with every avalanche blast.
Les Arcs 1950, as the name suggests, is a mere 50 metres below Les Arcs 2000. Don’t expect this to mean a casual stroll up a path between the two, though. Although there is only 50 metres between them, it’s 50 metres of near vertical mountain. You’re not allowed to walk on the road (as if you’d want to), and the regular ski buses take a good 10 minutes to transport you between the two. There’s also the option of taking the Cabriolet, the shortest gondola ride I have ever seen. This genius little piece of engineering runs from early morning to 11.30pm, apart from a 30 minute break they take every evening. So it’s also good if you want to hit the apres ski or head to 1950 for a few drinks after dinner.
I’ve not skied in France a huge amount, but my general impression of French ski resorts is that they are purpose built. Huge concrete tower blocks of hotels tend to dominate the landscape, and you get the impression that enjoying the view was the last thing on the architects’ minds. Most of the Les Arcs area reinforced this opinion. Les Arcs 1950, however, is a pleasant surprise. Skiing into this quaint little village, with it’s carved wooden house fronts and Christmas decorations, reminded me of many Austrian alpine villages that I have visited. When the temperature dropped well below zero and the wind was so strong I could barely stand up on my skis, I retreated to the Wood Bear Café and warmed up with a coffee.
When bad weather closes the lifts at 2000/1950, and the road is open, it’s advisable to catch the ski bus down to Les Arcs 1600. Even when most of the links are closed elsewhere in the area, you can usually ski 1800 from this point as well. Beware, though, the weather might be better at this elevation but it still comes in quick. It was clear and sunny when I first got on the lift at the bottom, but I could barely see more than a metre in front of me and had lost all feeling in my face by the time I got to the top.
Les Arcs has lots of great terrain to explore, but if you’re going there (especially in January) be prepared for all weather types – possibly even all in one day!