Backcountry Skiing in France
Backcountry scene and vibe
There is a growing backcountry scene in France, though for the most part people still prefer to ski on-piste and carve up the groomers. Backcountry is often confused with off-piste in France, given that anywhere off the defined trail is technically off-piste.
The Alps are among the most stunning mountains in the world, which adds to the sense of adventure when touring out the back. It also makes them some of the more dangerous mountains in the world, so solid preparation and knowledge is key for touring in France.
Note that just pitching a tent and camping out (“camping sauvage”) is illegal in many parts of the Alps. As a result, hut-based touring is often the main way to go in the Alps. You will often need to book these in advance, or go with a guide for multi-day trips. See further (in French) for rules in France https://www.lecampingsauvage.fr/legislation-et-reglementation/camping-sauvage-bivouac
The saying among locals in Chamonix – one of the best places in the world for mountaineering and touring – is that “whatever you’re doing, there’s a mad dog out there doing something even more insane in Chamonix.”
When to go
Start of February and onwards is when the snowpack has generally consolidated to the point where backcountry is possible. In a number of places around the Alps, there are glaciers with crevasses, so backcountry touring is not possible until the bridges are sufficiently stable.
Access to backcountry
Within the resort or lift-accessible terrain
Open runs are generally confined to on-piste trails.
Off-piste is considered to be anything off the side of the on-piste trails. These are often not avalanche controlled and you enter at your own risk. Avalanche gear may be necessary.
The skiing and snowboarding in France is generally a little less controlled and a little more ‘at your own risk’ than in North America, given off-piste areas are less monitored, even when accessible from the lifts.
Outside lift accessible terrain
Full avalanche gear is required, and you will want to be proficient in your backcountry skills.
Best backcountry skiing in France
A legend of France. It’s known around the world as one of the fabled off-piste sites. It’s right in the shadows of La Meije mountain, which stands close to 4,000m. Basically the deal here is there is a lift up, and then you take any which way you want back down on completely uncontrolled and wild terrain.
There are couloirs, cliffs, forests and bowls, with access via skinning, or much more difficult access requiring crampons and ice axes. The scenery is incredible, and the routes many and varied. It’s one of the mythical places for mountaineering and touring in France for these reasons.
Chamonix has its reputation as one of the mountaineering centers of the world for a reason. The place is incredible. The lines are endless. The touring options, limitless. You really will come across the most incredible feats of mountaineering and athleticism at Chamonix.
There are four main areas at Chamonix for in-bounds resort skiing. Each of these has access to great backcountry options, or off-piste options if you want to stick near the lifts. There is also a good scene in Chamonix, which means easy access to gear and guides for touring.
The most famous area for touring is the enormous glacier which runs through La Vallée Blanche from the top of the Aiguille du Midi tramcar, up near Mont Blanc.
La Vallée Blanche
See further, Guide to Skiing La Vallée Blanche.
The iconic trip for the French Alps. You don’t, in fact, need skins to get down, as you come from the top of the Aiguille du Midi tramcar and make your way from there. The route is absolutely stunning, with Mont Blanc providing the backdrop to the ‘White Valley’ which has been carved over centuries by the glacier.
There are a number of options around the Vallée Blanche to pop the skins on and tour further off into the Alps as well.
La Haute Route
If La Vallée Blanche is the classic off-piste trip, La Haute Route is the classic multi-day touring trip of France. Absolutely stunning scenery combines with a journey through some of the most beautiful parts of the Alps.
La Haute Route is serious business, not for those who don’t know what they are doing. It takes around 5-6 days to complete the trip, which goes from Chamonix to Zermatt in Switzerland, traversing the Swiss Valais region, including a descent near the stunning Matterhorn near the end.
There is a longer version which goes through Grand Lui or Saas. There is also an option for the middle section of the tour – an easier route through Verbier, or a more difficult route through Valsorey which requires the weather to hold.
In total, there is around 16,000 feet of uphill ascent, or around 1,000m – 1,200m per day, in addition to 23,000 feet of descent. Each day is around 6-10 hours if you’re fit. Most of the terrain is sub 35 degrees in incline, but the conditions are, of course, variable, and you need a strong level of skiing ability in case you get into trouble.
Mostly above 3,000m, the trip crosses monstrous glaciers, passes and other challenging terrain. You need all the right gear to tackle this, including crampons, harnesses for crevasses and all the avalanche gear.
There are some absolutely great huts to stay at along the way. La Haute Route is one to brag about for years afterwards.
https://www.chamex.com/course_types/hut-to-hut offers guided tours.
https://www.chamonix.net/english/accommodation/mountain-huts/haute-route-huts has the huts along the way you can call to make a booking.
La Plagne is a ski resort in the Savoie Region. It’s a great family ski area, but in addition there are some great options for touring around the resort, including for chasing powder patches around the area. There are some nice forested areas around La Plagne for some touring options below the tree-line. There are also some more challenging tours, including up on the Bellecôte glacier.
Queyras is a national park, located further south than the Savoie Region, and borders Italy. The wildlife and plantlife is quite cool, and the region a little less crowded. There are lots more sunny days down here compared to the Mont Blanc region, which makes for nice, long sunny touring days in the spring. While the altitude is lower, there are still plentiful options for climbing rocky peaks, and diving into fresh and light snow. Queyras is a good place for people who are beginning their touring careers, or haven’t yet moved to mad-dog territory.
http://www.refugeagnel.com/ is a good place to stay along the way.
Hut-based backcountry skiing
Huts are an institution through the Alps, with a great network meaning the options for touring are extensive. You will be amazed beyond belief at how cool some of the huts are given how remote they are. You will need to book the huts to ensure you have a place, even though they are remote. Prices differ but 40-50 euros per night is about standard for the good ones, less or free for the remote ones.
You can expect a basic but comfortable standard in the huts, with rooms generally in a dormitory style. Often, food and drink is available to buy, and bedding also available, which makes the tour easier in terms of what you need to carry. Confirm this with the hut when you call.
In many parts of Switzerland, for example along the Haute Route and in Swiss National Parks, just pitching a tent is not allowed. So, you have no choice but to go into the huts for the night.
You generally then have the option of going with a guided tour, or just calling the huts yourself to book in advance and plan your own trip.
https://www.savoie-mont-blanc.com/en/offre/recherche/mountain-huts-and-gites/8/~~~~~~/(page)/1 has a list of the over 300 huts in the Savoie Region. Many are not supervised, while a few do have staff.
The most famous hut-based touring trip has to be La Haute Route, from Chamonix.
Check out this old New York Times article on the huts in the Alps: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/25/travel/huttohut-skiing-answering-the-call-of-the-trail.html
Avalanches are a serious risk in France. The steep terrain in the Alps, combined with a snowpack that does not consolidate particularly well, means that avalanches are a constant risk. They are even a risk for the on-piste trails, given avalanches can be set off from above the trails in the off-piste areas.
In terms of touring, it means that it’s a good idea to go with a guide if you don’t know where you are. The touring is otherwise pretty advanced, as you will need good route selection, backcountry knowledge, avalanche training and conservative decision-making to ensure you minimise risks.
Avalanche ratings advisory services
The European Avalanche Warning Services is a must-use tool for avalanches advisory services https://www.avalanches.org/ Members are made up of weather advisory services from across Europe. You can find the ratings for each part of France through this website, which links to Météo France.
Météo France is the weather advisory service for France. Each day throughout the ski season, they publish an avalanche bulletin (BRA) for the Alps, Pyrenees and Corsica from mid-December to the end of April. Outside the snow season, they do a bulletin twice a week. For the Massif Central, Vosges and Jura, there is no report so you will need to contact the piste services at the resorts for advice.
The current danger scale is:
Other useful apps
Météo Ski is a neat little app made by Météo France for the backcountry in France, in the Alps or Pyrénees. It has information on the weather conditions, data from points around the country on avalanche danger, and has info on resorts.
Mountain rescue services
In France, mountain rescue is provided by the French Government. The principal organisations responsible are:
- The Gendarmerie (le PGHM – Peloton Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne);
- The CRS Montagne – Les Compagnies républicaines de sécurité.
- The “Sapeurs-Pompiers” (and specifically GRIMP).
In some areas of France, there are also private organisations involved in rescue such as SAF Helicopters (https://www.saf-helico.com/en/)
The emergency number in Europe is 112, which you can call in case of an emergency.
There is an ongoing debate in France about whether or not mountain rescue should be free. The general rule used to be that rescue services were a public service, and therefore free. However, that is certainly not the case anymore. A helicopter rescue in Chamonix, most often required in La Vallée Blanche due to visitor numbers, can set you back up to 18,000 euros as of 2019. The hospital fees will also be expensive.
As a result, adequate insurance is key before going out into the backcountry in France. Regular travel insurance may not cover you out in the backcountry, so be sure to check the fine print. A few French organisation where you might get insurance for backcountry (in French).
- https://www.ffcam.fr/ (Fédération Française des clubs alpins et de montagne)
https://www.chamonet.com/mountain-guides/ has a list of guides operating around the Chamonix area.
Direction and Apps
Get the Avenza app, which will allow you to input coordinates onto your phone. A solar charger is not a bad idea to keep your phone charged.
GendLoc is a good app used by the Gendarmerie which is a GPS locator, though you need to be in range of reception.
https://wbskiing.com/inclinometer.php measures the incline of a slope.
The Mammut Safety App is another useful one for slope angle and GPS.
Beacon, shovel and probe is essential out in the French backcountry due to avalanche risk, particularly in the Alps. The risk is particularly high given the make-up of the snowpack in the Alps. Fortunately, some of the best ski companies in the world come from France, such as Salomon and Rossignol, so you won’t be short for options when hunting for gear.
Check out Backcountry Gear for further information on the necessary gear to head out into the backcountry.
Rental gear is also widely available, including AT bindings, avi backpacks, transceivers, probes, shovels and other backcountry gear.