Thursday, March 31, 2011

Take aways from Ski Touring in Val d'Isere

Mark Warner holidays, Cygnaski hotel
This has been a pleasantly surprising success. It certainly makes things easier arranging a holiday for 2 rather than 12, and especially so as a last minute deal, but even so the Mark Warner package has proved to be a very low stress and good value way to get in 6 days on (and off) the piste. We managed to get the week for half price, which makes it far more attractive than full price that's for sure. On the downsides, both flights were scheduled for an eye watering early time of day, more frustrating on the way out as we knew we'd never make it to the slopes that day despite the so early start. The transfer was a bit delayed, but we did still get to the hotel shortly after 2pm which gave plenty of time to relax and shower, get to the hire shops and organise guiding, and have a good dinner. Our experience of the complementary ski-hosting was a disappointment; we took an hour to find the group from the other hotel as our own hotel's advanced guide was unwell (...the day after staff day off, coincidence?) and then found the group already had an unwieldy 12 members despite us being told there was space, so we decided to do our own thing. Most other customers, and especially those traveling on their own or slightly less confident of there level, were extremely happy with the guiding service though, and the pre-booked lunch stopped seemed to be in good value restaurants in great locations.
On the plus side, the overall ease of travel did surprise us, having been victim to nightmare transfers before now. The quality and reliability of food; full english breakfast, real english tea!, good varied evening meals and especially the cakes at afternoon tea time; was much higher standard than the median catered chalet experience which is always very hit-or-miss depending on the particular staff you get. The room was larger than your average chalet, with a descent on-suite really appreciated. Whilst it's true the whole hotel is a touch on the tired side, it served us well and no complaints about fixtures and fittings not working and so forth.
From what we've seen and heard from other guests, the childcare service seems as good as you get anywhere, and must be really good value in non-school holiday weeks like this where they lay it on for free.
We almost booked at the Hotel Moris, for the same price that offered a better location (bang opposite the hire shop & guiding service), but no on-suite, and above a very noisy late opening bar. I heard some people staying there rave about how it has a loyal following; I guess if you take ear plugs it could be OK, but the Cygnaski having a bus stop immediately outside made life just as convenient for us overall, especially as on several days we ended skiing at La Daille (equally well placed for returning from Tignes as Val d'Isere mountains) and it's just 2 stops back to the Cygnaski from there.

Alpine Experience ski touring
Quite unlike any other ski guiding service we have used. Typically we have booked freelance guides via the agency, they are always very proficient - trained to the French exceptionally high standards - but rarely particularly talkative and so you just get a day of playing catchup with the fast guy, and not knowing where exactly you are going or why.
Alpine Experience seem to follow a quite different philosophy. Being an established company, they have a more cohesive vision about what they're about, and this runs through much of what they do. Both Andreas and Thomas were very good at explaining exactly why they were choosing a certain area to ski in, a certain slope to take, a particular spot to avoid, both from type and quality of snow and avalanche safety considerations.
Their system of putting together small groups of up to 6 or 7 works really well, making it far more affordable to take guided skiing on several days of a holiday whilst still receiving close attention but without the need to signup a whole week in an ESF-style piste-snaking class.
We came away feeling we'd learnt far more about the skills needed for "backcountry" skiing far more than any other trip, from the basics of ski touring and skinning through to many little tips on safety, finding the best snow, and how to make the trip more enjoyable.

(delayed posting, stuck in draft status for 6 years!)