Elevation: 8,983 feet Vertical Drop: 4,718 feet acres: 1,340 (groomed runs); 24,711 (Les Trois Vallées, off-piste) Snowfall: 160 inches Getting There: Fly into Geneva or Lyon. At either airport, board a bus (about three hours), or take a train to Moutiers, 25 minutes from the resort by taxi or shuttle.Info: 33 (0) 4.79.08.04.09, courchevel.com
Beta: To appreciate Courchevel, try this: Take Squaw Valley’s vast, varied terrain and Vail’s abundance of high-tech lifts. Multiply by two or three, and then add Aspen’s upscale atmosphere, plus 60 or so of the best French restaurants. Throw in four distinct ski-in-ski-out base villages. Finally, subtract all negative French stereotypes. And voilà ! Courchevel.
The area’s on-mountain offerings run a wide gamut from tree skiing to long, groomed pistes to open bowls to couloirs. And since the resort attracts a well-heeled, mostly intermediate crowd-including lots of Russians-Courchevel’s expert terrain often goes ignored. The four base villages are named for their elevations in meters: 1850, 1650, 1550, and 1300 (a.k.a. Le Praz). Each is a self-contained mini town. 1850, the biggest and most upscale, serves as the center of the action.1650 is laid back and less exclusive. 1550 is the cheapest. Le Praz, tucked down below tree line, is a secret little hamlet.
What’s astounding is that Courchevel is but a slice of the gargantuan ski-opolis Les Trois Vallées, which also includes the resorts of Méribel and Val Thorens. With 200 lifts, it is arguably the biggest ski area in the world. But Courchevel’s 65 lifts alone can take more than a week to understand.
During storms, everything above tree line-most of Courchevel-suffers from poor visibility. While the upper mountains are closed for avalanche control, the mid elevations get tracked out quickly. So start low in the trees of Le Praz, off La Forêt gondola (opens at 9 a.m.). Take Boulevard Arolles to Jockeys and thread in and out of the trees back to the lift. Repeat, then switch to Le Praz gondola. At the top, ask the lift-op when the Saulire and Vizelle lifts will open. If it’s not soon, do a lap in the trees flanking Le Praz’s lift line and ask again. If the liftie says 30 minutes or less, ski immediately to the 1850 base area and take the Verdons gondola to Saulire and Vizelle. Ski anything off either lift (if it’s dumping, visibility will still be an issue, however). As things get tracked, traverse skier’s left from the Saulire tram beyond the Grand Couloir.
3 Days Later
The Creux Noirs chair typically opens one to three days after a big storm. Time it right and you can score. Barring that, the high elevations beyond the traverse off the Saulire tram (about a 20-minute hike) hold good snow. In big-snow years, skier’s left off Le Doudes Launches chair is a locals’ secret. If you’re really desperate, trudge an hour from the top of the Col de la Loze chair to the summit of the Rocher de la Loze peak, which, because it’s directly above the lift, is controlled for avalanches.
Early morning, hit the south-facing slopes off La Loze peak using La Loze and Les Chenus lifts. Next, ski south- and southeast-facing Le Lac Bleu from the top of Les Chenus gondola. The terrain most protected from the sun is off the Saulire tram. Start with La M, then on to Combe Pytones, Combe Saulire, and Épaule Vizelle.
The run from 1850 down to Le Praz ends with a really long, flat traverse, but that’s the only big one snowboarders need to worry about. Local riders tend to stick to the 1650 area-more sun, fewer people.
The options are staggering. Use Les Trois Vallées’ immense lift system as access or spend full days skinning. Either way, don’t go it alone. Guides Courchevel (33 (0) 4.79.01.03.66) offers more than 100 backcountry itinneraries. A classic full-day trip takes you to the Glacier de Gebroulaz, where you get almost 7,000 vertical feet of corn or powder, depending on the season. A 5,000-vertical-foot descent down the Face Oest de Peclet in Val Thorens makes for a good half day.
Drinking & Dancing
1850 sees the most action, with 1650 a somewhat distant second. 1550 and Le Praz? Snoozers. Start on-mountainat Le Chalet Pierres (1850), then throw back some pints of Guinness at Piggy’s (1850). Kalico (1850) is a grungy locals’ spot with live music (think A Flock of Seagulls doing Stones covers). For late-nighters, La Cav (1850) is open till 4 a.m. La Godille is a techno-free nightclub at 1650.
This being France, grub-wise you can’t miss. On the high end, you have the pinnacle of haute cuisine at places like Le Bateau Ivre (1850; 33.79.08.36.88), where you can indulge in venison, foie gras, and chocolate croquettes. You’ll wonder if you’re using the right fork. Le Genepi (1850; 33.79.08.08.63) and La Montagne (1650; 33.79.08.09.85) offer typical fare from the Savoie-tartiflettes, fondues, raclettes-in intimate, authentic settings. The log structure and giant picture window of Le Bel Air (1650; 33.79.08.00.93) provide a perfect setting for an on-mountain lunch. For something fast and cheap, hit the hot dog, crêpe, and sandwich stand on the deck of Les Chenus atop Chenus Peak at 1850.
In general, lodging is expensive. Private chalets with private chefs and maids are common. The Alpes Hotel du Pralong ($180-$200; relaichateau.com/ pralong) is a deluxe, ski-in-ski-out hotel at 1850. The Hotel duGolf at 1650 ($60-$120; hotel-golf.ch/) offers B&B-style rooms, and the Hotel les Tovets ($74-$145; courchevel-hoteltovets.com) is near the slopes and the nightlife at 1850. Cheaper options include staying in a condo-style residence like Les Montagnettes at 1650 ($1,800-$3,300 per week;montagnettes.com) with as many buddies as you can cram.
Spending a day exploring the enormity of Les Trois Vallées will boggle the mind of any North American skier. Just don’t get stuck in the wrong valley after the lifts close-you could be hours away from your home base by taxi.
Marquee Route: Making the sometimes hour-long slog to the top of the Aiguille du Fruit, Courchevel’s highest point, is a lung burner. But it’s skiing this 1,000-plus-vertical-foot, claustrophobia-inducing elevator shaft that will really have you gasping for air.
It’s not on the trail map. It’s prone to avalanches. But it’s a must-ski.
La Carrierre de Margueret
, a 35-degree, rock-lined chute just below Praméruel Peak at 1650, will display your tracks for anyone driving down the road from 1850 to see. It spits you out on a cross-country track for a 10-minute skate back to 1650.
Courchevel’s elevation change and the slopes’ varying orientations mean you can go from cold to hot and back in a hurry. Bring a well-thought-out layering system in a compact daypack like the 25-liter Indigo Elvn ($120; indigoequipment.com). For hiking O.B., it also has buckled straps for carrying skis and protected sleeves for your shovel and avalanche probe.