Review submitted by SkiTalk member @Cheizz
Here’s another installment of Cheizz’ favorite destinations in the Alps. As of yet, this place is not in the Epic or Ikon pass, but I believe this may very well be the most complete ski area in the Alps. Yes, even more so than Les Trois Vallées!
The ski area Tignes & Val d’Isère (also known as ‘Espace Killy, named after the famous French ski racer) covers those two areas: Tignes and Val d’Isère (and the bit in between). In total, the ski area covers 3680 hectares (9093 acres), 13% of which is groomed and/or secured. For reference, that total surface area is about 10% larger than Whistler Blackcomb.
The area sits very close to the border with Italy and catches snow from all sides. That (plus the high altitude: the lowest point of the area is 1550 m above sea level, the highest is 3456 m above sea level) makes it one of the snowiest resorts in France. In fact, of the Alps. With two glaciers inside the boundaries, it has a very long season too. Normally, the glaciers of the Grande Motte (Tignes) and Pisaillas (Val d’Isère) open in mid-October. The season ends in early May. The Grand Motte Glacier usually re-opens in June and July, but only for racing teams.
There are two main parts of the ski area: Tignes and Val d’Isère. The area connecting the two (although officially part of Val d’Isère), is mostly referred to as ‘ski tranquil, as it is called on the piste map. It is the ‘quiet’ area alright, with lots of green runs and easy terrain for beginners and cruising holidaymakers.
The northern part is Tignes, consisting of four villages. Val Claret lies deepest in the area: not too charming in terms of building style and atmosphere, small but affordable apartments and some hotels, great access to the Grande Motte glacier and the rest of the skiing area. It lies at 2100 m, so above treeline. On snowy days this is not a plus. On the first bluebird day after the storm, however…
On the other side of the lake (fully frozen in winter) sits Le Lac, the more atmospheric of the two villages at 2100 m. A bit bigger, but also slightly pricier than Val Claret. Not as close to the glacier, but otherwise not worse in terms of connections. A few more hotels and restaurants here, compared to Val Claret.
Les Boisses sits a bit lower, at 1800 m, at one end of the dam that holds Lac du Chevril (the lake was created in 1952 to generate power; it drowned the original, authentic village of Tignes - only the church was saved, it now sits in the center of Les Boisses). Even lower than that, at the bottom of the dam, is Les Brévières, at 1550 m. This is the lowest point of the ski area, and closest to the nearest major city (Bourg-Saint-Maurice, with a TGV station, at a 30-minute drive).
Tignes Les Boisses (Tignes 1800)
Tignes Val Claret, Tignes Le Lac in the background
The skiing in Tignes is mostly above the treeline. The terrain below the treeline is not really skiable. Either because it’s very steep (on the Brévières side), or because it ends in Lac du Chevril with no way back up. The main bowl has a south-facing side that is very much skiable, also off-piste. Not too steep, with no high or steep peaks above. Avalanche risk is quickly reduced here. The groomed runs are mostly blue and red, making it an ideal area for kids and beginners. Even first-timers can make some nice little tours on this side of the valley.
On the north side of the Tignes bowl, slopes are steeper and rougher. Still enough blue runs for beginners to get down, but also some steeper stuff. Off to the west is the long valley that leads to the Col de Fresse and the Grande Motte Glacier. About this glacier: it has some of the steepest glacier runs in the Alps. And you can get from the top (3456 m) all the way back to Val Claret (2100 m) in one go. That’s a nice leg-burner, I can tell you.
The runs down to Les Boisses and Les Brévières are not really that special. Except for the black ‘Sache’ run (all the way on the edge of the ski area). This ungroomed run is long, at certain points quite steep. But most importantly: it’s in its own valley, away from the crowds (and since it’s a black run, it’s rather quiet anyway). It faces northwest and is in the shadow most of the time, so the snow stays fresh too.
The valley of Tignes, as seen from Tovière
‘Val’, as the Brits like to call it - Val d’Isère has always been a Brit-heavy resort - is an authentic French village at the foot of the Col d’Iseran (you may have heard of this one if you follow the Tour de France). It consists of Val d’Isère itself, with access to the Pisaillas Glacier in the south and Roche the Bellevarde right above the town. But there are some satellite villages as well. Towards the end of the valley, you find Le Laisinant and Le Fornet, both with their own valley runs and lifts to get back up into the main ski area.
But there is also La Daille. It is nearer to the Tignes-side, right between Val d’Isère and Lac du Chevril. It is very much purpose-built and not very charming to look at. But in terms of functionality, this is the best you can get. It’s smack in the middle of the ski area. It has quick access to all sectors, it has quick lifts and some great and famous valley runs (including the ‘Orange Killy’ run that is used for the World Cup downhill and Super-G races). And… it has tree runs all the way to the village. You just want to be here for the functionality and supreme skiing though. There is one restaurant and one supermarket, that’s about it. But for skiing, this is the place to be.
The Val d’Isère side of the ski area is a bit more red and black in nature. More steeper and tougher runs than around Tignes. There is great skiing for beginners in the Solaise sector, though. It connects to the Pisaillas glacier and has some very nice valley runs as well. And superb terrain for first-time off-piste skiers.
Talking about off-piste… This is why I think Tignes & Val d’Isère is the most complete ski area in the Alps. As you know, everything outside the piste markers of the groomed runs is considered off-piste here. Basically, you’re on your own, even 1 cm outside the groomers. However, the terrain surrounding the lifts and groomers in this ski area is just exquisite. In most cases, it’s not steeper than 30 degrees and between the runs, it’s playful, accessible, easy to assess, and just plain fun. There are some steeper and more serious runs for those who want them. Some of them are on the piste map even. Not groomed, but marked and controlled.
Grand Vallon, above Le Fornet
If you don’t mind a little traverse or hike (5 minutes, max), numerous lines are there just to be taken. Some are south-facing and stabilize quickly, but there are enough lines on north and west-facing slopes, keeping them fresh for days after the last snowfall. And then there are the tree runs to La Daille, Val d’Isère, Le Laisinant, and Le Fornet. The trees here are mostly larch. They lose their needles in winter, so there is snow cover up to the tree trunks. Plenty of space in between to shred some pow on a snowy day, when higher up the mountain, visibility is limited in white-out conditions.
Freeride season is also a long one here. Since most slopes are covered in grass, moss, and only some small rocks, you only need a 50 cm base or so to be able to ski off-piste without having to worry about sharks too much. From Christmas until mid-April, this ski area is the place to be for whatever kind of freeride or backcountry skiing you fancy.
For a detailed description of all possible freeride lines in this ski area (including pictures, info on entry points, etc.), check out this great blog: http://freeskilly.canalblog.com/
Food and practical stuff
French food is the norm here, obviously. On the mountain, you can get a simple lunch (pasta, or a salad) from € 15 to… however much money you want to spend. Generally speaking, Val d’Isère is the more expensive side, both on the mountain and in the villages. This goes for food, but also for accommodation. Tignes’ apartments are more functional and not very spacious, Val Claret even has a bit of a student vibe.
Getting to this area is not straightforward. It is a long drive from the highway and a 30-minute drive from the nearest station. In that respect, it’s a bit harder to reach than its competitors/neighbors Paradiski or Les Trois Vallées. The completeness of the area, however, the endless possibilities both on and off-piste is what makes Tignes & Val d’Isère the most complete ski area in France (maybe even in the Alps).