You could be forgiven for feeling like Han Solo as your leather seated, tinted windowed, sleek black telecabine eases silently into the summit station of Val d’Isere’s Solaise peak. In true Val d’Isere style, its architect applied maximal minimalism in designing a Day Lodge that feels like a cross between an Imax Cinema and the Executive Class Lounge of ‘Space Station X’ somewhere in the future, in a galaxy, far, far away. Floor to ceiling windows frame the mountains like a cinematic lens to somehow enhance their magnificence, leaving you with a distinct sense of surrealism. Pinch yourself, you’re not dreaming.
Cinematic views are accompanied by heated seats and free wifi during the seven minute ride to the top providing a welcome break from the challenging 760 vertical metres of skiing back down, but only a fool checks his emails. Savvy skiers take the opportunity to tighten their boots, fix their goggles and refuel to minimise any summit faff, because once there, a wealth of serious skiing awaits. The terrain’s scope, variety, gradient and ease of access make this lift my choice, if I had only one lift for the rest of my life, this would be it.
Let me be your Guide
So let me be your Guide, follow me to my playground of choice, as we explore the terrain on offer. Depending on the wind and snow, head due North and pop under the rope by the old Solaise chair and traverse round to Danaides Wall. The steep exposed face, that should always be skied with caution, levels out onto a plateaux from where the main route splits into a myriad of options.
Option 1: Go hard skiers left to the North West and you’ll find the forked entrance to Lavancher Couloir, a steep, narrow, thigh burningly long descent to the valley floor. Offering great views of Val d’Isere, it’s one of my favourite introductions to couloir skiing.
Option 2: Back at the foot of Danaides Wall, due North leads to Danaides itself, a relatively steep, cliff strewn forest which offers skiers’ a variety of options back to the valley floor at Laissinant. Route finding here can be tricky, but if you know the routes and their many variants, you can ski fresh powder days after a storm.
Option3: If you like making a dramatic entrance, then take a North Easterly direction from the bottom of Danaides Wall towards the Poulie Retour du Catex ridge. Instead of staying high, cut skiers right into the Dana L bowl, also known as the Couloir to Nowhere! This big open bowl funnels into a chute which ends in a cliff, so a guide is a good idea here, luckily you’ve got me! Make sure you follow closely because just at the right point, I’ll hook up into the trees and drop into a steep but invisible couloir that descends dramatically out of nowhere onto piste L, astonishing the passing piste skiers by arriving from a seemingly impossible place.
The Couloir to Nowhere - Arriving From a Seemingly Impossible Place
Option 4: On the right day, there’s plenty of snow and terrain to grab by hooking East at the foot of Danaides Wall, heading into Dana L classic. The terrain here is steep and open with a few cliff bands to add a bit more spice to your Vindaloo.
Each run accesses the Laisinant path which is a short 5 minute skate back to the Solaise lift, or for the less energetic, a 5 minute bus ride back to the foot of the Solaise Telecabine, then head back up to fill your boots.
Conditions Not Ripe for Danaiides
If the wind was Westerly and there’s a bit of transportable snow, then Danaides may not be the best option. We’ll go west instead onto the windward face into ‘Super S’. Once again a wide bowl funnels slightly into an ’S’ shaped chute with steep walls, great for slash turns or big jumps into infinity on powder days. As the terrain progressively mellows you can really open up here, little gullies and big canyons provide feature packed terrain leading you down to the Manchet river which in turn, leads you back to the Solaise Telecabine.
Seven minutes later and we’re back at the top… come on, stop faffing, there’s even more to explore. This time we’ll head further skiers left and into the more committed ’S Prime’. Starting gently, this long open bowl soon steepens and tightens considerably into a funnel between two cliffs. Once negotiated, the tight passage opens up into some of the most ‘rippable’ terrain you can imagine, wide slopes with relatively mellow gradients combined with small gullies here and there, make it a skiers dream on a powder day. Back into the Manchet Valley for another lap…
Super-S, S-Prime and Marmottons Terrain
Super S and S Prime are both tracked-out now, so stick with me as we traverse higher along the same face, heading into the Marmottons Couloirs. These chutes can get tight when the snow is thin, but take your pick – there’s at least three separate routes through the cliff band, all of which rejoin the S Prime face linking into the Manchet Valley.
Back at the top, we’re flaking, legs are tired and sweat is slowly steaming our anti-fog goggles. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves, we’ve just skied seven laps of the Solaise Telecabine, totalling 5,320 vertical metres of red-black gradient slopes, with only 49 minutes of rest time in the lift. Oh, and did I forget to mention, that was all off-piste, under the rope, uncontrolled backcountry? Let’s go into Space Station X, Princess Leia’s serving coffee and pastries. I’ve got the Super L and Mattis Trees sectors lined up next!