Skiiing: Higher powder

1 Mar 2023 by Tom Otley
Views over Arc 1950’s Le Village - copyright Andy Parant

Luxury ski resorts are climbing further up the mountains to make sure guests are greeted with snowy slopes.

It’s been a difficult season for many ski resorts. Initial snow melted just as the crowds were arriving, and though plenty fell later, the pictures of bare slopes once again focussed attention on the possibility that apart from the highest locations, skiing may one day soon disappear from the Alps.

It’s a scenario the ski industry has been responding to for decades and indeed many resorts were planned and built according to the ‘higher is better’ philosophy. In Les Arcs, for instance, that process can be charted in the heights incorporated into the name of each resort. The original, Arc 1600, dates from 1968, with the plans for this resort and several like it being drawn up in the early 1960s when a lack of snow was causing trouble for moderate-altitude resorts. The “Plan Neige”, which was formulated in 1964, saw 20 development sites identified as being suitable “high-altitude ski resorts that must be rational, functional and effective”.

Many of these are household names today, and several are loved not only for their skiing but also for their architecture. In Flaine, for instance, the vision was that of Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer (also responsible for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the Whitney Museum in New York). Avoriaz meanwhile was designed by Jacques Labro (see ‘Avoriaz: Creative peak’).

Les Arcs was the masterpiece of Charlotte Perriand, who had worked with Le Corbusier in Paris for ten years and studied industrial design in Japan. Work began at the lowest altitude on Arc 1600 in 1967, but the plan was always to complete further resorts at 1800 and 2000 and this took more than 20 years to complete. The result was a masterpiece of design, and Perriand’s reputation has grown ever since.

At a recent 2021 exhibition, London’s Design Museum explained how Perriand “designed a set of reclining buildings that nestle into the mountain slopes, with all rooms having clear views of the landscape. She incorporated everything she had learned about creating spacious, open-plan living in a minimum dwelling.” The views were complemented by large windows to let natural light flood into the rooms and balconies, bringing the mountain into the rooms.

Today, in addition to Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and Arc 2000, there is Arc 1950, which was completed in 2012 by Canadian developer Intrawest as a departure in style, aiming for a more traditional design with the feel of a North American ski resort.

Skiing in Arc 1950 - copyright Andy Parant

Piste perfect

But first, the skiing. Well we were lucky, sort of. When we visited early in the season in December 2022, there had been heavy snow and it continued, so the worry was less bare slopes and more visibility while up there. In fact, for a resort famed for its open views from the slopes across the Tarentaise valley, the few photos I took were splashes of colour indicating fellow skiers’ jackets against a whiteness that is more foreground than background. We would take the lift up, then ski through a deserted, windswept, moon-like terrain to quickly descend to lower slopes where pistes running through the trees provided shelter from the snow and wind (and also perspective so we could judge the slope as we skied down).

Unless you know an area well, it’s a good idea in such conditions to have some lessons for the first few days. Of course the instructor will point out the same faults in your technique which you have nursed for 20 years and suggest familiar or novel remedies for them, but meanwhile, you can explore the limits of the ski area, confident that even in poor conditions you’ll still find your way to the mountain restaurant where you have arranged to rendezvous with fellow skiers for a late lunch.

And so it went for our stay. A long morning of skiing, a late lunch, and then back to our accommodation, the new Bear Lodge, which last year won the ‘World’s Best New Ski Hotel’ at the World Ski Awards. It offers both hotel accommodation (30 rooms) or a catered chalet experience, and has friendly and helpful hosts. It also has facilities including an exercise room with weight training equipment, massage room (extra cost), swimming pool, steam room, private cinema, plus ski hire and a boot room on the ground floor. It is also located right next to the slope so you can ski in and out. The hotel has its own bar and restaurant, or if you are in the suites you can go full luxury and have a delicious breakfast, afternoon tea and a three course evening meal prepared for you and your party (the suites sleep from four up to 12 people).

For those who want to just ski, ski, and then do some more skiing, there is plenty to explore. The Vanoise Express connects Les Arcs with La Plagne to create the Paradiski ski area. In total this spans 425 km of runs with 70 per cent of pistes above 2,000 metres. The connecting Express can carry 2,000 people per hour and takes only four minutes to travel between its two stations at Plan Peisey (Les Arcs) and Les Coches (La Plagne). Within Les Arcs there is also continuous investment in upgrading the lifts such as the new Transarc gondola which will open next year and have ten-seat gondolas taking skiers to the Col de la Chal (2600m) in 13 minutes, compared with the 20 minutes it took us.

Bear Lodge

Save the slopes

Still, back to the intermittent snow conditions. While Les Arcs always had covering on its upper slopes, it is keen to burnish its environmental credentials. In the resorts, they are looking at every possible solution. Some 25 per cent of the resort’s electricity will be sustainable by 2030, with photovoltaic panels and hydroelectricity providing heating for the buildings and electricity for the ski lifts and snowmaking. For the 2023 season, emissions for grooming the pistes were reduced by 83 per cent thanks to Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) fuel, which is made from waste grease and used vegetable oil as a substitute for diesel.

In Bourg-Saint-Maurice the sustainable agenda is pushed even further, with all public lighting turned off at 11pm in winter to save electricity and there is a moratorium on new tourism construction. The chalet where we stayed, belonging to VIP Ski, was lucky to be built just in time. The mountain domain of Les Arcs – Peisey Vallandry is expecting to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (by reducing direct emissions to 50 per cent and offsetting residual emissions by 100 per cent).

The resorts themselves have an insurmountable barrier to reaching net zero, as some 70 per cent of the negative impact of a ski resort is due to customers’ transport there. We all know that rather than flying or driving to the slopes it is more environmentally friendly to let the train take the strain. Unfortunately,  Eurostar cancelled its ski train back in 2020 and the new joint CEO of the merged Eurostar and Thalys was quoted in January of this year as saying that the Bourg-Saint-Maurice service was unlikely to be reinstated any time soon.

In response to the initial cancellation, the Compagnie des Alpes, which operates Les Arcs and Peisey-Vallandry (which is the resort that connects Les Arcs and La Plagne) relaunched a direct rail service between London and the Tarentaise Valley. Renamed the Travelski Express, the aim is to encourage 30 per cent of visitors to travel by train by 2030, compared to 20 per cent today. It’s a can-do attitude which should see skiing continue in Les Arcs for the foreseeable future.

Take me there

A room for two in VIP SKI’s Bear Lodge starts from £1,359 per person for seven nights in March 2023. Price includes a scheduled coach transfer from Geneva Airport and catered accommodation. vip-chalets.com

Lift passes are pre-bookable with VIP SKI starting from £259 for an adult six-day Les Arcs lift pass or £303 for an adult six-day Paradiski Essential Lift Pass. Child and Senior passes start from £207 for a six-day Les Arcs pass.

  • Ski Hire: Intersport shop in Bear Lodge. Adult ski rental from £118 per week.
  • Tourist board: en.lesarcs.com
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