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Domain: Not lift linked
Date: 13-20 Jan 2008
Our holiday: 3 blokes, all been skiing for about 10 years. Happy on most pistes and dabbling off piste.
Basics : Courmayeur is at the head of the Aosta Valley in north western Italy, at the foot of the Mont Blanc and at the other end of the tunnel from Chamonix. We went with a tour op via Turin airport, which gave us a pleasant transfer of just under 1hr 45: having traversed a few Torinese housing and industrial estates on leaving the airport, we got on the autostrada (motorway) which took us all the way to the resort. The autostrada continues through the Mont Blanc tunnel and on to Chamonix in France. This means it's also quite feasible to get here from Geneva in around the same timescale, and a reasonable transfer is also possible from Milan.
The resort : The village itself lovely, as it's a popular weekend destination for the genteel foks of Milan and Turin: quite a number of the people who come up for the weekend never actually don skis, although they may well go up the mountain for a spot of lunch. There are plenty of boutique shops and things for non-skiiers in the village, and easy access by public transport to the thermal springs in the next village or ont to the old Roman Garrison town of Pila.
The terrain : The ski area is incredibly small for such a well known resort: only 24 pistes in total! The skiing is divided into two main areas, the open bowl of ChĂ©crouit and on the other side of the ridge the wooded Val Veny. The ChĂ©crouit area gets the sun earlier in the day, with Val Veny getting the last vestiges of the afternoon sun: as a result the slopes can be very quiet in the early afternoon as the Italians take a long lunch. Although there are technically 4 blacks in Courmayeur I really wouldn't have rated any of the as a true black: in fact only the unpisted mogulled "Pista Dell'Orso" really made us work, the other 3 blacks were regularly bashed and posed no problems at all. The majority of the runs are graded red and again I think the grading is being a little flattering, with a few "blues" thrown in to complete matters. The terrain really is very limited in terms of pistes, a mediocre skiier will easily ski every piste in one day.
Lift system : It's a very small area: only a dozen lifts on the mountain, plus 3 access lifts. The ski area is concentrated almost entirely up the mountain: there's a big (125 person) cable car from the middle of the village, which is the main access to and from the slopes. This leads out into Plan ChĂ©crouit, a large flat area at the foot of the ChĂ©crouit bowl, and there are several hire shops at the top of the gondola, plus lockers where it's possible to store your gear if you have your own or have rented in the village. There's also a 6-man bubble from the suburb of Dolonne on the other side of the river (which it's possible to ski down to) and then a separate cable car at Val Veny, up at the head of the valley, just before you hit the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Note to day-trippers from Chamonix, this is by far the best way for you to access the skiing as there's a big car park and far fewer queues. Again, there are lockers at the Val Veny cable car where you can store gear overnight. From the Plan ChĂ©crouit, the ChĂ©crouit bubbles take you more or less to the to of the ski area: only one piste lies above this, a singe red snaking down the Youla bowl served by a cable car of the same name. From the top of the Youla Cable car, as well as the single red run there's plenty of off piste available either by traversing round the bowl and dropping back ino the ski area, or by heading out of bounds down to Val Veny. In addition there's a third cable car, the Arp, which serves only off-piste. From the top of ChĂ©crouit however it's possible to ski either back down into the ChĂ©crouit bowl, or drop over the ridge into Val Veny. Half way down it's possible to take the slow fixed 2-man Bertolini back up to the same point - if you don;t take this, you have to dro all the way down and the go back via Plan ChĂ©crouit which is quite time-consuming. THe alternative route to reach Val Veny from Plan ChĂ©crouit is take the brand new detachable six-pack Pra Neyron and drop straight down the "black", or potter down the blue and take the creaky old fixed two man Dzeulena. This dichotomy continues, with a mix of old and new all over: I can imagine it would be quite frustrating with sizable queues in busy periods, but as we were skiing straight onto the lifts, we were often glad of the recovery time! First lift up is usually 8.45, with last lift down at 17:00. A free bus service connects the Dolonne cable car with the town centre if you should ski down and need to get back: I'm fairly sure that theres' a free bus up to Val Veny as well but never went up that way on this trip. Completely separate to the ski area, there's a 3-stage cable car running from the very head of town up to the Punta Helbronner, the highest part of the Italian side of the Mont Blanc. In summer there's another stage which connects over to the Aiguille du Midi, but in winter it doesn't run as the winds are often too fierce.
The snow : ahhh the snow. The snow the snow the snow, all of it. Visibility was bad on our first day, but the snow was good. nice, firm, plenty of it, well groomed as it more or less always is in Italian resorts. As we descended at 4pm after the forst days's skiing, if started to rain in the village, which meant snow up the mountain: and it continued to snow for around 36 hours, putting down around 60cm in total I guess. THe piste bashing must have happened early in the evening as we had lovely bashed pistes with a layer of around 10- 15cm of fresh snow or "hero snow" as it's known: it was almost impossible to ski it badly (although we did have a good try!). As I sdaid the snow continued into the early hours of Wednesday, which boded well for a visit from our friends in Chamonix: my friend Gavin is working for Ski Weekend and decided to pop across to play. What a choice: the lifts were closed for avalanche blasting (love that sound!) until 9.30 for us, but we of course got on the first lift up and immediately up Pra Neyron to get first tracks down the black run towards Val Veny: again a pisted run with around 20cm of fresh on top, absolutely fantastic. Quick hot chocolate at the bottom of Val Veny while we waited for Gavin and his companions to join us (their lift had opened later than ours) then off to play - and play we did! First couple of runs on piste (face shots on a red run - unheard of!) and then as the pistes became tracked out, diving off into the trees to get the deeper stuff. We mostly stayed on Bertolini which runs up the Val Veny side of the resort, and it provided us with some of the best skiing I've ever had in europe. As the day went on, we lost people who couldn't keep up with the pace: although there was plenty of powder, it was in truth quite moist and heavy, and once your tips sank it became increasingly hard work to fight to stay afloat, and we were getting more and more tired. The final straw was the "short" hike from Maison Vielle to the old lift line: only 200 yards, but going through knee deep heavy powder it was very hard work, and without the flotation provided by skis it was too much for Gemma the boarder who had to turn back. Good job too as once we started descending the snow was chest deep on me, it would have been head height for her
Off-piste : In good snow conditions there's plenty of lift-served off piste to be had in resort, either within the resort boundaries (see above!), or outside the resort: dropping down into Val Veny off the Youla Cable car, or using Arp to access runs back to Dolonne or down towards the road leading up to the neighbouring resort of La Thuile. On top of that, you can access the famous VallĂ©e Blanche run down into Courmayeur, or for better skiiers it's possible to ski back from Helbronner towards Courmayeur. We didn't try any of this as the conditions in resort were very good, then the conditions went very bad and it wasn't worth trying off piste!
Other resorts nearby A multi day lift pass in courmayeur offers you one day of skiing in Chamonix (although you need a little card which must be validated to get your chamonix ticket) and two days in any of the other resorts in the Aosta Valley. There's even a free bus down to La Thuile, leaving the town centre at 8.30 and getting you to the slopes just after 9am ready for a full day: see elsewhere for more details on La Thuile, but once you realise it's lift linked to La Rosiere and you can thus ski over into france (providing the link is open - luckily it was for us) you may be more temtped to give it a go. I'll be honest, I've never previously felt the need to go on an away-day to a nearby resort and didn't bother with the tour-op trip to Chamonix, but having skiied every piste in courmayeur several times over we decided to give it a go on our last day: by mid-day we were regretting not having done it earlier to get use of both of our free days; very much worth doing.
Food : On the mountain we only tried two places. Day 1 we tried "Da Geremia" over on the Val Veny side and were heartily un-impressed. The next day we actively sought out Maison Vieille as had been suggested to us, and never ate anywhere else: great pasta and pizza (proper wood fired oven!) at very reasonable prices. Booking is advised unless you eat early in quieter weeks! In town we ate in the hotel most nights, one night we went out to "L'Etoile", very very nice pizzas. According to the reps, Apres ski "concentrates on the main street, the Via Roma". In our experience, it was quite limited: only really three bars in town. The Bar Des Guides is â‚¬6 per pint (or rather 50cl), but offers free wifi, and little nibbles of cream cheese and garlic sausage on bread. Next up was the American bar: a selection of beers here, at â‚¬5 for 40cl (cheaper, but less beer), much better music, and a small selection of nibbles including a killer patĂ© with chillies. At the far end of the Via Roma is Bar Roma, much bigger than the others with plenty of comfy sofas and a table full of nibbles you can go at - again â‚¬5 for 40cl.
Accommodation : We stayed in the Albergo Dei Camosci, as part of a package with Crystal. Nice enough place, it's a 15 minute walk out of town but they offer a minibus service to the lifts, and will drop you in town if you want to go out in the evening. Lots of hot water, rooms quite comfortable, lovely bar, food was passable - starters and puddings great, main course acceptable.
Costs: We got an absolutely insane bargain on the trip, so that probably isn't relevant. â‚¬199 for a six day lift pass is very expensive for such a small area - a week in the espace killy is only â‚¬212 I think. Beer and food is around or even slightly below average fr a mountain - and having experienced the food on our day trip to La Thuile, the food on the mountain is of infinitely superior quality
Conclusion: I had a stonking trip. The ease of access, limited ski area and "friendly" gradings make this an ideal resort for progressing skiiers and boarders, and an excellent choice for a weekend. Avoid if you're a high-mileage piste-basher
Re-read and quickly updated to include more info and clarify points.
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