Deep powder in Courmayeur
Courmayeur hosts the first stop on the prestigious Freeride World Tour, which sees the world’s best freeride skiers and snowboarders take on some of the most intimidating terrain on the planet. It’s Friday 17 January and the competitors have been on the mountain since 7.30am, waiting for the anticipated break in the weather that will allow the competition to go ahead. It’s well after midday before the green light is given, and the first athlete – French skier Kevin Guri – drops into his line…
If you’ve ever tuned into coverage of the Freeride World Tour (FWT), you’ll know the formula; huge airs, high-speed turns and relentlessly steep mountain faces. However when Guri skis into the main face below the Tête d’Arp, it’s more like something out of a heli-skiing advertisement. The deep snow almost obscures the competitor, whose fat skis are ploughing a trench through the powder. A few more skiers drop in for their run, trying their best to find technical features, but hampered by the sheer quantity of snow that slows their progress. Only a handful of athletes complete their runs before the clouds roll in, the weather window shuts for the day and the contest is called off. All in all, a challenging day for the FWT.
But “every cloud has a silver lining” and all that, right? Well the silver lining of the cloud that has settled in around Cresta Youla is that I can now go skiing. And the skiing that ensues, whilst not being from the full-throttle freeriding that has made Courmayeur the centre of the freeride world this weekend, is the best of the season. Despite the presence of the freeride elite and their monstrous skis, the powder is far from tracked out, even as the lifts close for the day. I wouldn’t call it ‘champagne powder’, but the knee-deep fresh is sitting on top of good snow cover, allowing us to make the most of Courmayeur’s renowned off-piste terrain.
Of course, skiing on the tail of Alberto Boschiazzo – a local mountain guide with an intimate knowledge of the area – didn’t hurt our chances of finding secret stashes of powder across the resort. As Alberto spoke of the bigger descents on the Toula Glacier (on the Italian side of Mont Blanc) and the lift-accessed backcountry such as the Dolonne Couloir, I did briefly consider the logistics of spending the rest of the season in this corner of the Aosta Valley. Evidently, this is where the the snow is this season. Anyone I spoke with said the snow was better than wherever they’d come from – even Chamonix on the other side of the tunnel.
The following day I had a chance to not only ski the Dolonne Couloir, but to ski it with last year’s Freeride World Tour Champion, Drew Tabke. The athletes have been given a few days off in the hope that the inclement weather will clear and a world-class competition can take place. Apparently Courmayeur is “the sunny side of Mont Blanc”, a claim I’m finding a little hard to believe!
When we drop into the Dolonne Couloir – which is less a couloir and more a huge off-piste area to the skiers’ right of Col Checrouit – it’s not the best competitive freeskier in the world that we’re chasing. It’s ‘Tex’, from Ski School Courmayeur, who’s blasting down at high-speed. Drew, who is soft-spoken and humble about his achievements, happily skis at the back of the group of journalists, enjoying what must be for him a few sedate powder turns on a down day.
Tabke, who won two individual stops on last year’s tour (Revelstoke and Chamonix), has competed for 10 years, making him something of an elder statesmen of the spectacular sport. The long run down Dolonne Couloir is followed by further forays through the forest, led by our gung-ho Italian guide. It’s a unique opportunity to chat to the current FWT Champion and find out what it takes to get to the top of a sport that continues to evolve rapidly. It’s hard to imagine when you see the sort of skiing needed to land on the podium, but Drew insists that staying healthy and making smart decisions is the key to success on the tour.
The smartest decision I’ve made this season, without a doubt, is making the trip to the Aosta Valley. I haven’t even had a glimpse of Mont Blanc, but when the slopes of Courmayeur are hoarding so much untracked powder, I couldn’t care less.