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Alpe d'Huez

Alpe d'Huez: island in the sun

Alpe d’Huez: 300 days of sunshine each year, perfect slopes, the flamboyant Grandes Rousses massif… What better venue to charge your worn down batteries! Add to that heady cocktail a remarkable off-piste ski area, a choice of athletic or relaxing après-ski opportunities, and a host major events, and the result is a ski resort catering to the athletic, as well as to families and holiday-makers ready to take on the challenge.
Skiing, more sking, and even more skiing
The history of skiing at Alpe d'Huez dates back to 1936. At that time the skiiable area peaked at an altitude of 1800m. Today the resort culminates at 3,330m, at Pic Blanc, and stretches down to the village of Huez, which sits at an altitude of 1,500m. So there's more than enough space for a bit of exercise!
The summit of Pic Blanc affords a grandiose panoramic view of the surrounding territory, and has received a 3-star rating from the Guide Michelin! Visitors will marvel at the permanent spectacle of Les Ecrins National Park and its majestic summits: le Rateau, la Meije, la Muzelle, les Aiguilles d'Arves, the Belledonne chain, Mount Blanc…
Together with the neighbouring resorts of Auris-en-Oisans, Oz-en-Oisans, Vaujany, and Villard Reculas, the area offers some 240 km of slopes and 120 marked and patrolled slopes… Below is a review of two of the area's mythical black runs─the Tunnel run and the Sarenne run─, and of the concept of "My first 8,000" and the Alpe d’Huez snowpark.
The Tunnel and Sarenne runs
Certain runs mark the history of a ski resort. The Tunnel is one of those runs. Indeed, how could one ever forget such an uncommon route which traverses a mountain before opening on to one of the steepest walls in France… In 1962, for the first time, skiers disembarked from the Pic Blanc cable-car lift at an altitude of 3,300m. An other-worldly trip, covering the 696-metre vertical ascent in one go, along a single, thick cable strung taut like the string of a bow above the empty space below. Since then, thousands of skiers have made the trip. On descending from the cable car, skiers behold an absolutely amazing view of ragged peaks extending for as far as the eye can see: on one side, the Grande Casse and Mount Blanc, and on the other, Les Écrins, La Meije and Le Râteau, and further in the distance, Les Aiguilles d’Arves…
The other mythical run─Sarenne─would only be opened to skiers 12 years later. Several projects had been proposed, including one which entailed carving a pass through the rock along the mountain ridge. Eventually, it was the project proposed by Georges Rajon, the then President of SATA, which was retained. It entailed nothing less than digging a 200-metre tunnel through the mountain itself. The tunnel, which was to be no more than a few metres wide, and high enough to accommodate a skier, would link the Sarenne and Pic Blanc glaciers, thereby creating a "natural" route to Alpe d'Huez.
The project was finally completed in 1964 with the opening of Les Grandes Rousses, a gently sloping, 200-metre long, cave-like rock tunnel which can be descended by skiers with practically no effort at all. Due to the effects of the wind and the snow, the tunnel was completely blocked over a distance of some 20 metres. Nail-biting rescues, record temperatures, storms,... the history of the tunnel abounds with anecdotes. The tunnel is a major slope that is likely to be closed if nothing is done, but this new challenge is another addition to the list of constraints imposed by high mountain conditions. As the tunnel is used by several thousand skiers each year, taking up the challenge is well worth the while.
Aah, Sarenne…!!! No ordinary run, this, as these few figures will attest: 16 kilometres long, 1,900-metre vertical descent, starting at an altitude of 3,300m… the very soul of Alpe d'Huez. The pulse quickens at the view of its barren gorges, and the ragged peaks which line the horizon. For the last 29 years, the longest slope in the world has attracted skiers from all over the world. All of them, be they Russian, Polish, Dutch, Czech, Italian or French, have dreamed of skiing at Sarenne. Never has a run been so well-known, or as successful at crosssing international borders. We dare you to find better!
"My first 8,000"
The concept of the "first 8,000" is unique to France. The idea is to accomplish an 8000-metre vertical descent in 4, uninterruped 2000-metre descents... without using the mechnical lifts! Needless to say, you had better warm up before trying… You'll need to ascend the Pic Blanc 4 times, because its high-altitude observatory at 3,330m is the starting point. Present your skipass at the mechanical-lift pay booths to have your exploit confirmed. You will then be entitled to a "My first 8,000" diploma, which can be purchased for 1 Euro. The entire amount will be donated to a charity─"A chacun son Everest"─which helps ill children attain their summits.
Snowpark fun!
The first snowparks were reserved for professional skiers, but today they are open to everyone. And you don't need to be a great skier to enjoy the snowparks at Alpe d'Huez. The resort boasts two of them: one for beginners, and one for experts, the latter being a VIP run for advanced freestylers, as its name indicates.
What about off-piste skiing?
Alpe d’Huez boast some 240 km of groomed slopes, but when it comes to off-piste skiing the resort offers a wide range of opportunities and a plethora of routes, each more breathtaking than the other, and marked with an unspoilt wildness that can only be found in the mountains. Off-piste skiing requires experience, know-how and specific equipment, and while it is often synonymous with beauty, sheer, unadulterated pleasure, and freedom, you should always bear in mind the slogan, "Off-piste: know your limits", and seek the help of professionals. Belows is a review of some mythical off-piste routes:
Le Grand Sablat:
The Grand Sablat glacier extends from the summit of Pic Blanc to Pic Bayle. This off-piste route takes its name from the glacier that skiiers descend. The slopes from the summit of Pic Blanc are wide and welcoming, beckoning skiiers to take the plunge! At some point on the way down you will need to veer off to the south to reach the pretty village of Clavans in the Ferrand valley. From the village, you can tackle─on foot, or cross-country skis─the 400-metre vertical ascent to the Col de Sarenne, then return to the resort via the last stretch of the Sarenne slope. Alternatively, you could take a taxi to Auris en Oisans and return to Alpe d’Huez by ski lift.
Les Cheminées de Mascle:
Visible from the resort, the "cheminées" are two, straight, steep routes which command respect. They are now very easily accessible to skiers via the Marmotte 3 cable-car lift since the point of departure is at the summit. The "cheminées" are well-known and are truely impressive: visible from a great distance, from practically anywhere in the resort, they are steep, narrow─at times no more than the width of your skis, which can be either a heady or harrowing experience─and challenging. For experienced skiers only!
La Chapelle d’Auris:
On the south-facing side of the "Signal de l’Homme" are the Fontfroide and Les Vernettes slopes. On the north-facing side, a magnificent off-piste route graces this harmoniously formed mountain with its air of gently rolling hills. The La Chapelle off-piste route starts at the summit of the "Signal de l’Homme" and ends at the Auris route, near the small Saint Giraud chapel. With the first snow showers, the landscape presents a vista of valleys, rises and scooped out slopes. And when the powder is thick on the ground, the off-piste experience is simply incredible! A word of warning however for those who don't like walking: the Auris cable-car lift is a 1.5 km walk from the chapel…

La combe du Loup:
THE great classic of Alpe d’Huez, La Combe du Loup is a must, despite its popularity. Wild and far from the agitation of the slopes, La Combe terminates at the Col de Sarenne, where a magnificent refuge of the same name can be found. It affords a heady off-piste experience which can be rounded off with a good, original meal at the refuge before returning to the resort via the last part of the Sarenne slope.
Pedestrian-friendly trails for non-skiers
If you don't ski, don't worry: other options exist… Alpe d'Huez offers some 30 kms of groomed, sign-posted, pedestrian-friendly trails with benches placed along the routes so that walkers can peacefully savour the view.
Remember to pick up a copy of the "Promenades et découvertes" map─available at the mechanical lifts or at the tourist information centre─and experience the pleasures of a winter walk with the unavoidable warm-wine break.
With the walkers' pass, not only can you set off on high-altitude walks, but you are also entitled to admission to the sports centre, the museum, the open-air swimming pool and several other facilities that only Alpe d'Huez can offer,... with the added attraction of the magical duo of sunshine and snow.
Athletic or relaxing: choose your style of après-ski
Tobogganing below the Les Grandes Rousses cable-car lift: a 300-metre vertical descent, tight turns, and an infernal pace! Thrills guaranteed so strap yourself in! And if you like tobogganing at night, head for La Butte de L'Eclose on Tuesday or Thursday evening. On Fridays, don't miss the "Folie Glisse" for fun alternatives to skiing─such as Airboard, Snowtrike and Snake Glisse─on a slope reserved for that purpose.
If you're lucky, you can also descend the Sarenne slope from Pic Blanc (3,330m) by the light of the moon, but on full-moon evenings only. You'll need to take the last cable-car up at 3:30 p.m. At the summit of Pic Blanc, take in the view awhile before setting off for a drink at the Chalet du Guc on the glacier. Warm wine, music, a fantastic sunset… Follow this with a typical mountain meal then finish the evening with a descent of the Sarenne slope.
Sports-wise, the "Palais des Sports" will cater to all your sporting desires. Since more than 26 activities are available, you'll need to book for several weeks to get through them all.
If you just want to relax, take your pick of massages, saunas, jacuzzis, and a host of relaxing treatments, including Swedish, Californian or Lebanese massages, relaxing massages, invigorating massages, home massages (what a delight!),... there's something to suit all tastes!
Useful addresses
Need accommodation in Alpe d'Huez? Take your pick on
Tourist Information Office: +33(0)
Mechanical lifts: SATA +33(0)
High-Mountain Guides: +33(0)
Photos: N.Cuche E. Beallet
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