Serre Chevalier – Arrival Day
Our base for the week was a private campsite aire in the heart of the village of Villeneuve, the most central of the four key villages that provided direct lift access to the expansive ski area of Serre Chevalier.
Due to overnighting just down the valley in Briançon, we arrived on site much earlier than expected. With us perhaps a little too eager to get settled in, we phoned the owners of the site and dragged them out to greet us and to agree which plot suited their scheduling plans best. We got a corner plot near the entrance, only thirty metres or so from the main ski lift, and our short hose reached the service point taps from there, so all was well. We had some difficulty getting into the pitch as the site was layered with thick snow, compacted in many places to hard ice. The lady owner graciously helped us get manoeuvred in with the aid of rubber mats under our wheels and we surprisingly plopped into our snowy pitch perfectly level, with no chocks required. Perfect.
This would be our longest stop on our 160 days of travels to date, seven nights in the same location, and we were excited to be stationary for such a long time. To make our little nest as comfortable as possible we scraped and shovelled snow and created a nice, level access path around Benny, to make our access and egress as simple as possible.
We had a leisurely afternoon walk around the village, where we bought our six-day lift passes to begin the following day, but had to return to the local hire shop the following morning to hire our skis and boots, before making our way to the slopes.
It was a Saturday, the normal ski transition day when the race to reach the resort from local airports would be clogging up the roads, so we were glad to have already arrived and, even more fantastic, to have the lifts and slopes almost entirely to ourselves. There were only a handful of other people on the newly groomed pistes, likely locals or perhaps chalet staff that had part of the day off until their new clients arrived.
The sun was bright and the sky a deep, blinding blue, with light wispy clouds the only interruption. We decided to first explore the most distant stretches of the ski area, heading over towards Briançon, while both the weather was good and the crowds light. We enjoyed many empty, tree-lined runs back down into the town, and with no queues to delay our return back up we covered a lot of ground, rigorously testing our shaky ski-legs.
The afternoon brought biting winds that gusted across the mountain tops, moving huge banks of newly-gathered cloud around like someone hurriedly rearranging plush grey cushions. We ate lunch in a BBQ stop near the top of the valley, with stunning views and the sun on our faces, relaxing into deckchairs in the only place we saw people congregate all day. After a hard morning and with the thought of five more full days to follow, we thought it best to make a move back home, to ensure we arrived back at Benny for 3.25pm, just in time to watch the Six Nations games on our laptop, with a few refreshing beers.
The next day there were mottled clouds that rumbled across our view like giant icebergs in a rough, grey sea. We were suddenly very glad we’d had the beautiful Saturday, and we instantly noticed the difference as we queued for fifteen minutes for the first lift up. Once we reached a position a few lifts up from base the crowds thinned out and the pistes regained their wonderful openness. The dark clouds parted like giant curtains for short moments, letting the too-bright shafts of orange sunlight fall across us and the valley. The glowing solar heat on our faces was immediate as it instantly pushed aside the clawing fingers of the icy winds. We sought out the sunny patches as we skied, both to warm us and to allow us better visual contrast in the snowy white-on-white.
On our third day skiing, we met up with friends from home, Jonathan and Fiona, along with their extended family. We skied over to meet them in Le Monétier-les-Bains, had a lovely lunch there before hitting the slopes with Jon and his brother-in-law Ben, a local Frenchman and expert skier. The dull, overcast morning transformed into another bright blue, sunny afternoon as we worked around the local ski area, enjoying the runs and catching up.
Later in the week we were invited to dinner back at theirs, a traditionally French raclette meal that we enjoyed with a tasty red. On the way over we viewed a small part of the ‘Serre Che‘ social entertainment programme, in this case an acrobat on a wire performing twists and turn for the skiers as they came off the slopes.
After dusk had won its battle against the bright sunshine and toned down the brilliance of the white snowy slopes to a greyish moon-illuminated glow, from the advantaged position of the piste-facing dormer windows of Ben’s family home, we were all treated to a great view of the colourful, snaking descente aux flambeaux, night ski with torches, on the nearby slopes, followed by a spectacular firework display to round off the night; chapeau, Che.
One glorious morning we chose a long black as our first run of the day, drawn to it as the piste was entirely empty as we passed over on the chairlift up. The run was beautifully tree-lined but almost bare; what little thin snow powder coating there had been having slid off the very steep face. It was, at times, like sliding down a wide sheet of ice, and holding enough of an edge to slow down progress on our turns was next to impossible. Our skis screeched and scraped on the compacted snow, like fingernails down a dusty blackboard. On several portions we had to simply accept our ever-increasing speed, straighten up and go, working our leg muscles very hard to hold our line, and nerve, until the piste levelled out a little. We reached 70km/hour on occasion, more as a practical necessity than a specific desire, but it was so exhilarating to have the run of a steep, smooth piste all to ourselves; an impeccable skiing experience.
One afternoon we spent a fun hour playing in the Videozone area with the cool kids, where we caught a little air on jumps and had a few near falls, just holding the landing together in the less than elegant style of a flapping Frank Spencer. Unfortunately, the videos we set to record us, uniquely linked to our lift passes, did not appear on-line as promised, so we were a little disappointed not to be able to relive both the glory and embarrassment.
We skied each day from 9am until around 3.30pm, when our legs gave out and we had to return to rest. There was perfect powder coating on most higher altitude red runs, but there was some slushy ice with muddy stones coming through the sparse snow on the skinny green runs nearer to village level, especially so at the end of the week. During the week we ate our lunch in five different points spread out across the mountain range, each with a different but special view, and once with Jonathan, Fiona and all the family in their apartment in Monétier. We coloured in the full piste map over the course of six days, with only a couple of high glacier blacks not attempted as the wide reds were just too much fun.
It was a fantastic week’s skiing, and catching up with friends, and despite the gruelling efforts of our leg muscles we felt nicely rested without the usual driving and planning we have to undertake each day in our ‘normal‘ life. But the road was calling us again.