We’re based in La Plagne for the winter so this year will be testing out some of the manyin-resort activities. First up is the Super Tyro, La Plagne’s own super-fast zipslide.
La Plagne’s Super Tyro opened in summer 2016, spanning the ravine below Plagne Centre on a line from Plagne Aime 2000, some 100 metres higher. The route runs between two innocuous-looking huts, roughly following the path of the cable car (the Telemetro) over a distance of around 600m. It is ranked third in Trip Advisor’s ‘best things to do’ in La Plagne and enjoys a consistently high rating and reviews.
Firstly, let’s clarify a small – but important – detail. When we say Tyro (or Tyrolienne to give its full name), we’re not referring to a resident of that Austro-Italian region, the Tyrol. Nor indeed, are we talking about a form of yodeling. No, in European parlance, Tyrolienne is another word for what we would more commonly call a zipline. If you’re not sure what that is either, a zipline is a length of wire rope spanning two points which users slide down, attached by a harness. To get a better idea, watch the video.
La Plagne’s Super Tyro is a family business, run by Cyrile and his father. I’ve been trying to do the ride for two seasons but, each time Cyrile and I organized a timeslot, either high winds or snow meant it was cancelled (two problems particularly prevalent at the start of this year’s epic season). The zipline can only operate in good weather – and you can absolutely forget it on windy days – so it was with a keen sense of excitement that I finally made my way to the top on one of the many sunny days we’ve had recently.
The start hut can be quite hard to find so see below for directions or reference the video. Don’t be like me and find yourself aimlessly walking around the side of Aime for half an hour (all puns intended). Access is quite easy when you know how but it can be quite hard to pick out the start at ground level. When I finally arrived, a group of three were already preparing themselves for the descent. I watched quietly as they donned harnesses and listened intently to a very simple list of instructions. There’s really nothing complex about riding a Tyrolienne. Pretty much, it’s a case of – jump, hold on tight.
Riders are attached to the line via a harness and pulley system. The pulley contains a small wheel with grooved rim, housed inside a unit which skims along the wire. This mechanism reduces friction on the line – which is how you pick up speed. Being honest, there’s absolutely no need to know anywhere near this level of detail. You could literally fall off the start ramp and you’ll still reach the bottom.
The ride lasts around 40 seconds, with the greatest increase in speed in the top third. This is also where you get the best definition of how fast you’re going as the start section runs directly through a line of trees which produce something nearing a tunnel effect. As the gradient mellows, you reach the highest vertical drop in the ride, some 140m above the ground, where there are stunning views over Mt Blanc to your left and Grande Rochette / Les Verdons to your right. Seeing the ski area from such a different perspective is invigorating as you fly high over the ant-like skiers and snowboarders far below.
All-too-quickly, you find yourself leveling out in preparation of docking at the bottom station – but don’t be under the illusion the speed drops much. On the contrary, on the approach you’ll still be going around 40kmh when Cyrile launches what I can only describe as a dart to clamp onto your pulley and bring you shuddering and swaying to a stop. I’m no expert on ziplines and, despite numerous Google searches, I still don’t have a clue how this works – but it does. He’ll signal at you from afar to lean to the right in prepartion, presumably to save banging your head on the wire. Then he slowly hauls you over the landing platform where you dismount from the harnesses.
Incidentally, while the ride might seem short, don’t let the 40 second timespan put you off from doing the Super Tyro. I’ve actually done another mountain zipslide (the Tyrolienne in Val Thorens) and, while the vertical drop was higher on the VT Tyro, I found it a little boring due to the rather pedestrian speed. Yes, the VT ride lasts longer and, yes, the vertical drop is undoubtedly bigger – but if it’s a speed rush you’re after, the La Plagne Tyro wins hands down. And anyway, the VT ride is around four times more expensive. The cost of the Super Tyro equates to the same as a couple of drinks.
It’s possible to ride to the top with your skis or snowboard meaning you can ski part-way down from Aime, jump on the zipline and find yourself back in Centre in around 40 seconds. Yes, you could ski or snowboard down – or even get the Telemetro if you want – but both options are infinitely banal compared to the Tyro. Skis or snowboards are strapped securely to your back by harnesses and accompany you on the way down.
If you want to try something genuinely different on your trip to La Plagne this year then I couldn’t recommend the Super Tyro highly enough. The views are astounding, the speed is invigorating and the height is intoxicating. Male or female, young or old it’s definitely worth making time for while you’re here.
Start elevation: 2062m just below Aime la Plagne
End elevation: 1974m
Vertical drop: 88m
Average speed: 80-90kmh
Line length: Approx 600m
Ride time: 30-40 seconds
Constructed: Summer 2016
Steepest gradient: 16%
Max height above ground: 140m
Min/max weight: 20/130kg
With skis/snowboard: Yes
Reservations: Not required unless in groups of 10 or more
Opening hours: Typically 14.30 to 18.30
Price: €15 (at time of print)
The top station is located just below the large red and white pylon of the Telemetro – the cable car that links Aime 2000 with Centre. Just head in the direction of the large red building to the left of the main building at 2000 (as you look up).
If you’re coming from above on skis or snowboard, riding to the lift is probably the easiest way of access the Tyro. Just skirt the side of the red and white Club Med building on the Pavane run before turning left to access the top station. Follow the piste as far left as you can then, when you’re below Club Med head left (off the main run) and you’ll find the Tyro just behind a small crest in the hill.
Alternatively, you can access via the Telemetro lift up to Aime and follow the main road until you reach the aforementioned red and white cable car pylon. From there, it’s just a short walk downhill, heading slightly right off the road.
Olympic news: La Plagne has more Olympic competitors than any French resort
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last couple of months, you’ll have no doubt noticed the biggest event in the wintersports calendar is now almost upon us. We are, of course, referring to the global spectacle that is the Winter Olympic Games, taking place this year in South Korea.
Top athletes from around the world will converge in PyeongChang in the North of the country from 9th to 25th February. As one would expect from a strong Alpine nation, the French team too will be in attendance – including many athletes hailing from the resort of La Plagne.
It’s fitting that an ex-Olympic venue like La Plagne should have a sizeable entry field (the resort was part of the ’92 Albertville Games) but it’s perhaps a little surprising to learn that this year the area will be fielding more Olympic athletes than any other French ski resort. Entrants include top French competitors in Bobsleigh, Alpine Skiing, Ski Half-pipe and Ski Slopestyle. But who are they and – perhaps more importantly – what threat do they pose to our Brit team? As we’re based in La Plagne this year, we decided to take a closer look at a who’s who of the riders from our little corner of the world.
Antoine Adelisse – Men’s Ski Slopestyle
Adelisse skies for the Club des Sports in La Plagne and first began skiing aged five for the Alpine section. He switched aged 12 to concentrate on freestyle, making his debut in 2012 at an event in Finland. He competes in Slopestyle and Big Air but will be concentrating on only Slopestyle in PyeongChang. His form has been improving recently going from a season-best 45th in 2015/16 to a 5th place last year. The 21 year old earned a respectable 27th last time in Sochi but will surely be looking to improve on that this year.
Up against: James “Woodsy” Woods, Tyler Harding
Loic Costerg – Men’s 4-man Bobsleigh
The 30 year old rides for team La Plagne and apparently took up the sport just eight years ago. His father was also a professional bobsleigher and he is coached by ex-Olympic Champion, Bruno Mingeon (also from La Plagne). This year Costerg will compete in the 4-man Bob, though he also does the 2-man event. The French team has been improving this year starting with a 17th near the start of season up to a 6th place in a recent event in Whistler, Canada. With improving form just at the right time, it would be folly to discount them from featuring.
Up against: The UK 4-man bobsleigh team
Tess Ledeux – Women’s Ski Slopestyle
At just 16 years old, Tess Ledeux has been slowly but determinedly climbing the World Cup rankings over the last two years, starting out with Rookie wins at the start of last season and culminating with a World Ski Championships Gold in Sierra Nevada. On the way she also grabbed two X-Games silvers in Aspen and Oslo – impressive stuff. With another World Cup win this season at Font Romeau, Ledeux seems to be reaching form just in time for the Games and is hotly tipped for a podium place in PyeongChang.
Up against: Isabel Atkin, Katie Summerhayes
Julien Lizeroux – Men’s Ski Slalom
Lizeroux, 38, is one of the oldest competitors still on the World Cup tour but don’t let age fool you – he’s still a formidable talent and one of the most consistent slalom specialists out there. With his father a mountain guide and mother a ski instructor, it was unlikely Lizeroux would take any different path in life and he first started competing aged just seven. By 19, he’d joined the French Alpine team and quickly became Junior National Slalom Champion in 1988. However, his career really took off in the 2008-09 season when he began regularly placing in the top ten. He remains an outside chance for a medal but will be in the mix for sure at this, his third Olympics. Lizeroux is also co-owner of the Le Bonnet on-hill restaurant in Plagne Bellecôte and organizer of the La Plagne’s Super Slalom event, the longest slalom competition in the world.
Up against: Dave Ryding, Laurie Taylor
Marie Martinod – Women’s Ski Halfpipe
Martinod competes in her second Olympics this year and, having earned a Silver medal in Sochi, will surely have a point to prove in PyeongChang. Martinod debuted in 2003 but really found her best form in the latter years with career highs including an X-Games Gold at Tignes in 2013 – and this was after taking a six year break from the sport. Martinod’s strength is her consistency and in recent years she’s earned two 3rd places in 2015/16, three 1st places in 2016/17 as well as one 1st place at Copper Mountain this season. The 33 year old has confirmed she will retire after PyeongChang so surely must be aiming for a podium place to put a closing full-stop on an already hugely successful career.
Up against: Rowan Cheshire, Molly Summerhayes
Maxence Muzaton – Men’s Alping Skiing
The 27 year old from Macot la Plagne competes in Downhill, Super-G and Alpine Combined and has been consistently improving this season climbing results tables from 44th in a Super-G at Beaver Creek to most recently 7th in the Wengen Downhill. Given the right day, with the right conditions, he may yet feature.
Up against: The UK has no Downhill representation
Brice Roger – Men’s Alping Skiing
Roger, 27, hails from Villette and competes in Downhill, Super-G and Alpine Combined. His ski instructor mother got him into the sport early (he began skiing as soon as he could walk) and he soon joined the La Plagne Club des Sports aged just seven. He currently skis for the French Army team as well as La Plagne and has been gradually improving his rankings with a season-best 21st place in 2014/15 rising to 7th place this season. Roger is another skier who, if he finds form at the right moment, could be there or thereabouts.
Up against: The UK has no Downhill representation
Kevin Rolland – Men’s Ski Halfpipe
No list of Ski Halfpipe greats would be complete without mention of Kevin Rolland. The 28 year old star from Aime has enjoyed a tremendous 15-year career at the top in which he’s won and placed in pretty much every big event – yet Olympic Gold still eludes him and must surely be locked firmly in his sights this time round. Rolland’s early successes were in mogul skiing (further evidence of his depth of talent) before he made the transition to Halfpipe where his trophy haul includes 7 X-Games medals, 15 World Cup podiums, 3 FIS World Championships medals, 3 World Cup crystal globes and a 3rd place at the last Olympics in Sochi. Rolland is an ever-present danger in Ski Halfpipe and he must surely feature in the mix coming into these Olympics.
Competing against: Murray Buchan, Alexander Glavatsky-Yeadon, Peter Speight
Retired from Olympics through injury but was previously scheduled to compete in Ski Halfpipe
This year, we Brits are fielding our largest Winter Olympic squad in history – 59 athletes in total – many with real and genuine medal hopes. We can obviously expect the usual strong showing in the old dependables of curling, bobsleigh, luge and skeleton etc but this year we also have a particularly strong presence in the more accessible sports of skiing and snowboarding.
Following Jenny Jones’ momentous Bronze in Snowboard Slopestyle at the last Games in Sochi, the British Ski and Snowboard team has come on leaps and bounds. The UK team finally has access to proper funding and facilities and over the last few years riders like Woodsy, Nicholls, Ormerod and Morgan have become household names. Indeed, in 2015, Billy Morgan became the first snowboarder ever to land the fabled quad cork (a trick that was considered impossible for many years) and, more recently, Dave Ryding has been shocking the world of slalom skiing with regular top ten places. They are not alone as the UK team continues to go from strength to strength with frequent top tens and podium places in international competitions.
Get ready to cheer on the UK medal hopefuls – and maybe even some La Plagne riders – when the Games start this Friday in PyeongChang. There could yet be a few surprises in store.
Snowboard features: Helicopter ride from Les Arcs around Mont Blanc
This year I was fortunate enough to receive the ultimate Christmas gift. My partner, Eléa, booked us on an excursion I’ve wanted to try since forever: a once in a lifetime helicopter ride round Mont Blanc.
Our trip would involve a 20 minute flight from Les Arcs, over the Tarentaise valley, around the Mont Blanc massif before returning back to Arc 1950. Similar flights are available from most resorts in the area however the company we booked with, Helipass, operates from the Mont Blanc Helicopters base in Les Arcs.
The morning of our flight was similar to most mornings so far this season – cold, crisp and clear – not great from a snow perspective but perfect weather for flying. We arrived at Arc 1950 and joined a small group of fellow passengers already assembled, waiting at the base. A little disconcertingly there was, as yet, no sign of any helicopter.
After a few minutes shivering in the cold, I thought I heard a low droning noise slowly building somewhere behind us. Suddenly a helicopter burst into view, rising head-on impressively from a gorge to our right, before making a spectacular banked turn high above us. The aircraft slowed to a hover then gently touched down on a platform to our left. It was quite an entrance – something more suited to a Schwarzenegger film than a sightseeing trip. The pilot cut the engine, jumped out and strolled confidently toward us, hand extended.
It was at this point I realised – in my own head at least – this man would now forever be known simply as Airwolf. There followed a very short safety briefing in very quick French – the only part of which I understood was where to find the sick bags. Always handy. Briefing over, we boarded the heli, strapped in and donned noise-cancelling headsets. Slowly the blades began rotating above us, the noise and intensity increasing until, with a quick upwards judder, we lifted free from the ground. The aircraft inched gingerly across the helipad when the engine suddenly roared and we unexpectedly pitched down and forward, plunging into the ravine below.
Now, I’ve seen the Art of Flight movies, That’s It / That’s All etc and yes, on reviewing our footage, I would concede we didn’t exactly dive headlong from the sky but – at that moment, in that heli – I could have sworn we were near vertical.
We lurched down through the shade of the gorge before breaking out into the sunshine, the Tarentaise valley rolling out like a carpet below us. Having never been in a heli before, I found the speed of straight-line travel surprising. The journey by road from Arc 1950 to La Rosière would typically take an hour or so – yet we covered the distance in mere minutes. La Rosière is the last French outpost on the famous Col du Petit St Bernard – a mountain pass that links Bourg St Maurice and the Savoie in France with La Thuile and the Aosta valley on the Italian side. Typically the road opens May to October and would normally be under several metres of snow by now – yet today it looked to be almost passable with care. The effects of 5 weeks without significant snow in this region are really starting to show and the mountains this side starkly contrasted with the whiter Italian peaks further South and East.
Passing La Rosière, we flew in an arc, hugging the French side of Mt Blanc. We didn’t go as close as I’d imagined but no matter – the views were breathtaking nonetheless. Plunging down peaks and skimming over crevasse fields, we flew over some truly impressive, truly awe-inspiring scenery.
I’ve been coming to this part of the Alps for more years than I’d care to mention and I previously thought I knew this area quite well. A helicopter flight made me revise that view. The world appears a very different place from above – perspectives change, the mountain topography becomes clearer and distances shrink. It was quite humbling to see so many world-renowned resorts from the air – to appreciate just how close they are to one another. We flew onwards as the interconnected, sprawling hugeness of these Alpine resorts stretched out beneath us.
We were really very lucky with the weather and the sky was so clear we could see the mountains of Flaine, Sestriere, the Ecrins National Park (Les Deux Alpes, Alpe d’Huez etc), La Clusaz, Avoriaz and even Cervinia’s Matterhorn. At one point we could actually see as far as Geneva and Grenoble.
Closer to home we had an unrivalled panorama over more familiar peaks – Mt du Vallon and the Aiguille de Péclet (Trois Vallees), Aiguille Rouge (Les Arcs), Bellecôte (La Plagne), Grande Casse and the Grande Motte (Tignes). And of course in the centre of things, dominating proceedings, was Europe’s highest peak – the mighty Mont Blanc itself. Obviously there’s debate as to whether Mt Blanc (4808m) or Russia’s Mt Elbrus (5642m) is Europe’s highest mountain. I guess it depends what you consider the borders of ‘Europe’ to be. For me anyway, Russia is a different landmass and Mt Blanc remains King of Kings.
We flew on, skirting foothills and glacial tides, passing impossibly close to a massive rocky outcrop before heading back over the valley to Les Arcs. We drifted teasingly low over the summit of Col des Frettes and the Carrelley chair before pitching steeply down the other side towards Arc 1950.
By now, our pilot had clearly worked out this particular group of passengers had an appetite for more aerobatic-type flying so he unleashed full Airwolf mode and set us into a series of spiraling descents. The G forces were incredible, squeezing us into our seats as we corkscrewed down into the valley. The closest I could compare it to is a spiral dive in paragliding – controlled, fast and full of stomach churning sensations.
And then, all too soon, it was over – the quickest 20 minutes I can remember. We floated slowly over the landing pad before touching down gently – whereupon everyone spontaneously broke into applause for Airwolf’s skills.
So, in conclusion, is a helitrip worth the money? Well, for me anyway, it was a huge tick off the bucket list and a lifelong ambition achieved but let’s be frank – this is not a cheap thing to do. In fact it would tip the budget of most holidaymakers never mind that of a lowly saisonnaire.
That said, if you’re looking for a one-off experience that will stick with you the rest of your days – then yes, go for it. I’d particularly recommend it if, like me, you’re already fairly familiar with the area as it will give you a completely different perspective on the mountains and resorts you think you know so well.
We flew with Helipass, paying €300 each for a twenty minute flight. Yes, that’s not cheap but, then again, you get what you pay for and I can genuinely think of no better way to see the Alps, the Tarentaise resorts and their peaks.
There are a multitude of sites offering similar flights but many appear to be re-sellers for the same core providers – so it’s likely you may find fluctuations in price depending on the commission each individual company charges. It’s also worth noting prices seem to vary depending on the time of year and, particularly, the company you book through, so shop around for the best deal on the flight that’s right for you.
Snowboard features: La Tyrolienne zipslide, Val Thorens, France
We take a ride on Val Thorens’ famous Tyrolienne zipslide, the highest in the world.
The zipline runs 1300 m and last 1 minute 45 seconds spanning the valley between the top of the Bouchet chairlift in Orelle over to the Val Thorens summit, at 3000 m. The end station is located at the top of the Thorens Funitel and, in between, you glide over breathtaking surroundings. Full details in the video and for further information, go here.
Ski features: Riding La Plagne’s Olympic Bobsleigh
In 1992, Albertville hosted the 16th Winter Olympiad with La Plagne selected as the venue for the Bobsleigh event.
The Olympic track was constructed between 1988 and 1990 just below Plagne 1800 – a track that’s still in use to this day for competitions and by international teams training between events. The La Plagne course is unique to France and is one of only 16 fully functioning bobsleigh venues in the world.
As well as competitions and training sessions, the track now also hosts “Experience Rides” to give the general public a chance to taste the thrill and excitement of bobsleigh and luge. It’s the closest us mere mortals will ever get to experiencing these thoroughly ludicrous sports.
I remember the 92 Games well. I was in France on holiday, actually in the resort of La Plagne at the time. I remember watching the bobsleigh thinking it must be a special kind of person that willingly hurls himself down a track of sheer ice at speeds in excess of 130km/h. So it was with a sense of slight bewilderment that, almost 25 years to the day, I found myself atop the exact same track. Only this time, wearing a helmet, listening to a safety briefing while compacted into the back of a bullet-shaped coffin on rails, the sole purpose of which is to go from top to bottom in the shortest time possible.
In truth, I only had myself to blame. After all, these things don’t just “happen”. In my wisdom, I had bought my good lady a bobsleigh ticket for Christmas. It was one of those, “It’ll be funny, she’ll be terrified” type presents. Little did I know we possess the same sadistic streak and Eléa had reciprocated with the exact same gift.
And so it came to be I was now sat staring down the metaphorical barrel of a gun – a 1500m u-shaped tube of crushed ice lying between me and the finish line. The track features 19 snaking curves which rocket 125m down the yawning valley below Plagne 1800. Viewed in profile, it even looks sketchy.
We arrived half an hour early and were shepherded into a waiting area, told to empty our pockets, take off belts, remove jewellery, explore faith etc. There were a few pensive faces, not helped by the two screens showing live video of those going before us. I watched as the passengers’ heads jolted left and right in harmony with all the grace and fluidity of Thunderbirds puppets. See, as I would soon learn, when you’re in a bobsleigh you are in control of nothing. Not even yourself.
We were ushered to the start area – it would be our turn next. A stocky, experienced-looking gent dressed in official garb marched confidently towards us, an assured smile etched across his face. He introduced himself as Jacques Duc, our pilot for the ride. His confidence was reassuring. One man’s belief could surely counter the increasing disquiet of three assembled passengers.
Jacques went onto explain the intricacies of the track, in particular the significance of Turn 4. “By Turn 4, you need to be comfortable. If you’re not, you’re in for a bad ride. So get secure and make sure you’re braced and in a good position by this point. By turn 6, you’ll feel the first big G’s and after that you’re pretty much locked in.”
As the tallest passenger, I was directed to the back of the bob with another rider hunched in front of me and Eléa positioned closest to the front. The significance of being at the back did not elude me – the rider at the rear of a bobsleigh traditionally experiences the greatest G.
Jacques was last on board, climbing into the cockpit before the track staff eased us out gently onto the worn tramlines carved by countless descents before us. I was a tad disappointed, confused why didn’t they push us quicker. I had expected the full Olympic experience, a countdown, some runners launching us for speed, maybe some cowbells. Idiot.
Turns 1 and 2 were innocuous, gentle set-up turns. “This is going to be easy”, I thought as I poked my head out over the shoulder of the rider in front, quietly mocking the bob experience and questioning what all the fuss was about. At Turn 3 we gradually picked up speed before a noted acceleration toward the all-important Turn 4.
By now I felt in proper Bobsleigh Mode. We traversed up the wall, G-forces squeezing me back and down into my ‘seat’. This was good – this was my moment. I had conquered my fears and was King of the Track. I felt myself laughing – the kind of involuntary laugh that always seems to strike me at these moments – a laugh borne largely from adrenaline tinged with fear.
At the exit of Turn 4, things changed dramatically. For a start, I noticed I’d stopped laughing. We accelerated hugely as the berm spat us out, sending us hurtling back into the middle of the track, bouncing into the well-worn grooves before sinking sharply down to the next turn. Turn 5 was a quick shunt to the right before the track dropped away and we accelerated further. I was conscious of a force pushing onto my chest, making it harder and harder to breathe.
By the time we reached Turn 6, we were tearing down and the G’s were enormous. We rode high up the bank, gravity compelling us down and out. I now understood why Jacques had warned us about this turn. By this point, you’re nearing three times the force of gravity ie your body mass is 3 times heavier than normal, pressing your innards down to the base of the sled. We shot out the other side at lightning speed, sled rails juddering back into the solid, icy ruts.
By turn 7 we’d truly become ragdolls, heads bouncing in unison side to side. If it hadn’t sunk in before, it was here I realised we were completely in Jacques’s hands with zero control over anything. A fleeting thought raced through my head – where are the brakes? There are no brakes on a bobsleigh. We were, as Jacques had so eloquently put it, “locked in”. Turns 7, 8 and 9 passed in a blur, sharp kinks that flipped our heads like burgers on a hotplate. We bounced off the sides of the track – a strict no-no in competition terms – but, at that moment, a welcome buffer to our ever-increasing speed.
Turn 10 was a seemingly endless arc, curving left to right. The G’s here were colossal. So much so in fact that sometime around this point, my nose exploded. I don’t use this term figuratively – or with any sense of pride. As we rounded the curve, high up the wall, my nose evacuated itself. It was my first G-induced sneeze. On the plus side, at least I could breathe easier.
Now, I’m no skilled mathematician but I would normally consider myself able to count past 10. Not so in a bobsleigh at 120km/h (75 mph approx.). The subsequent turns were a blur of white ice, scraping rails, vertical walls and the occasional ephemeral glare as floodlights shot past.
Left, then right, then left, right, left again – I have no idea. All I know is we rode high and we rode fast as my body crashed side to side, the sled careering from one turn to the next. The last few bends were the most exhilarating. Turns 17, 18 and 19 are the fastest with the most extreme G. These corners are also the most flowing on the track. We arced from one to the next, riding high and smooth round the massive icy walls. We shot out of the last turn into a long uphill stretch, slowing gradually until we came to a halt in the bottom station. My arms and shoulders ached. My knuckles were literally white, still gripping the handrails either side of me. My neck felt like it had become part of the track.
Jacques was first out, taking off his helmet to reveal the same elated smile. Perhaps 30 years piloting at 120kmh does this to you. Whatever the reason, the man was calm personified. “You have a little, errrm . . . “, he flicked his finger down at my jacket. Aha – so that’s where my nose explosion went. “Don’t worry”, he laughed, “it happens”. It transpires that’s not all that happens. He casually commented that, prior taking up bobsleigh, he’d been 20cm taller. The force and compression of riding have shrunk his body. God only knows what shape his spine must be.
He glanced at our time: 58.15. “Respectable enough”, he commented. “The sleds and times are limited here for safety. We came down around 120km/h. The record is 139 km/h set by Bruno (Mingeon – the local ex-World Champion). At that speed the 3 ½ – 4 G’s you experienced become much, much more”. I could tell by his eyes this was understatement.
So, bobsleigh? Worth trying? Worth the money? Let’s put it this way – unless you’re fortunate enough to be a pilot, a Formula One driver or – of course – the member of a bobsleigh team, there’s pretty much nothing else on earth that will let you experience comparable G force. Astronauts at take-off experience less.
In a bobsleigh, time stands still. 60 seconds becomes an eternity. You start and you end. That’s pretty much it. You pass a point of no return and, after that, everything else is down to the skill of your pilot and gravity. It is an unbelievable, entirely unique experience. In fact, my only potential complaint would be questioning whether anything else will compare – if other stuff I might try could now pale into insignificance. It is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. A literal white-knuckle ride from start to finish.
If you have the opportunity, I thoroughly recommend doing it. Just one word of advice though – definitely blow your nose first.
Greatest thanks to our pilot Jacques and all the La Plagne Bobsleigh staff for the most incredible experience. Encore, encore SVP!
The Bob Experience is available in four versions:
Bob Raft – A self-driving, self-braking bobsleigh that travels up to 80km/h. Cost €45 per person.
Speed Luge – A specially constructed luge with protective cage for a solo descent up to 90km/h. Cost €109 per person.
Bob Racing – The ride featured in this article. A bobsleigh piloted by a professional driver at speeds up to 120km/h. Cost €122 per person.
Olympic Experience – Riders are dressed in professional overalls to ride in a bobsleigh piloted by Olympic medallist and World Champion Bruno Mingeon at speeds up to €130km/h. Cost €295 per person.
For safety reasons, video equipment is not permitted on the track however you can purchase a video of your ride for €25 (example video featured in this article). Note, those with back problems, heart conditions or other significant medical issues are not advised to do ride the Bob Experience. Check with the operators for full conditions.
The Bob Experience runs the full season in La Plagne til 7th April 2017. A shuttle bus runs from resort. The Bob Raft Experience and Speed Luge take place every day between 16.00 and 18.30. Bob Racing happens Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 17.00. The Olympic Experience is booking only.
The La Plagne bobsleigh track is 1507.5m long and passes through 19 curves at an average gradient of 8.29. The track starts at 1684m and drops 125m to 1559m.
The Albertville Olympics were held between the 8th and 23rd February 1992.
There are only 16 bobsleigh tracks in use in the world. The La Plagne track is unique to France and is still used for competitions and training by teams from around the world ie it’s as real as it gets.
Snowboard features: A trip to Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc’s Aiguille du Midi
If you’ve visited pretty much any ski resort in the Western or Southern Alps, chances are you’re already familiar with an omnipresent, rather bulbous peak which dominates almost every vista. A peak instantly recognisable to skiers the world over as Europe’s highest; the inimitable, stirring monolith that is Mont Blanc.
The summit of Mont Blanc stands proud at 4810m (15,781ft), the pinnacle of a surrounding massif which contains no less than 11 mountains above 4000m, stretching 46km and 400km² over France, Italy and Switzerland. Mont Blanc itself lies close to the Franco-Italian border, slightly on the French side but with southern flanks tumbling down to Italy. It is visible from Geneva to Grenoble and from Lyon to Dijon. It can be seen from the Vosges, the Jura and the Massif Centrale. It is, in short, colossal.
Chamonix & the Aiguille du Midi cable car
Sitting in the shadow of Mont Blanc’s northern edge lies the town of Chamonix, a place of skiing lore and legend, famed globally for its hardcore off-piste, ski touring and mountaineering. The town squeezes through a long winding valley, starkly bounded either side by impossibly steep mountains ascending to the stratosphere above. In the basin looking up, you have to crane your neck skyward to see the summits. The mountains are massive, amplified by the relatively narrow corridor in which Chamonix sits. You are instantly and constantly reminded this is a place of high mountain endeavour, a place not for the faint of heart. There is some serious mountaineering and off-piste to be had here.
Yet, for all the imposing mountain grandeur and daunting landscapes, Chamonix also offers passage for the less experienced to explore the vast ether above. A remarkable cable car system which emanates from the town centre to another perennially visible peak, the towering 3842m Aiguille du Midi. Translated, “Aiguille du Midi” means “Needle of the mid-day” and is so named because the sun passes above its peak at noon when viewed from the local church. Among its many and varied qualities, the Aiguille once served a massive, reliable sundial for locals in a more simplistic, pre-digital age.
The Aiguille is the closest most non-climbers can get to Mont Blanc and offers unrivalled views over the massif, the glaciers and Chamonix valley, not to mention a large chunk of the Alps and surrounding countries.
The cable car holds the world record for the highest vertical climb and is a two-stage, twenty minute journey originating from the valley floor at 1035m. The first leg rises sharply over dense forests before the tree-line slowly gives way to tundra and the cable car plateaus into a gentle amble to Plan de l’Aiguille at 2317m. Here visitors can optionally exit and hike [in summer] to the top station of Montenvers railway, located at the foot of the Mer de Glace, with views of the Glacier des Bossons, Aiguille Verte, the Drus and the Aiguilles de Chamonix. Or, you can just be lazy and do like we did and take the second car to the summit.
Second stage of the cable car
The second stage is a ridiculously steep ascent to the top station of Piton Nord at 3778m, a ride made all the more impressive by its lack of supporting pillars. A single cable lifts visitors in a seamless flight over Les Pelerins glacier up the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi to the terminus, impossibly perched on the Piton Nord.
It’s difficult to convey just how impressive this cable car is. Viewed from below it seems to hang in a void, suspended in nothingness as the cable lines merge into the distant granite face. You feel an overwhelming sense of awe as you traverse effortlessly up the Aiguille, ancient glacial flows spilling down the vertical sides below you, ears popping more than once on the climb. From the mid station to the summit is 1461m – an elevation greater than the UK’s tallest mountain, Ben Nevis at 1345m – yet the cable car soars to the top station in just ten minutes.
Stepping out at the top you’re faced almost immediately with a narrow supporting bridge which connects the Piton with the Aigulle itself, spanning high above the 55’ degree Cunningham Couloir. Sufferers of vertigo, take note – this is the first of many challenges you’ll encounter on this trip. Also worth noting is the wind. 9 times out of 10, it’s Blowing a hoolie here (technical Scots term) and you’ll also notice a marked difference in temperature from the valley floor.
We went up on an unseasonably warm late February day during the equally unseasonably warm mid-season of 2017, yet still the cold was bracing. Temperatures drop 1°C per 150m and, with Chamonix at an elevation 1035m and the top of the Aiguille at 3842m, there’s a palpable chill at the summit. To save you brain-strain arithmetic, this equates to a temperature change somewhere in the region of 19°C from the valley floor. And this is without factoring the effects of windchill. Wrap up warm, it’s cold up there even in summer (-31.2°C was the coldest recorded temperature at the summit). Visitors should also take appropriate eye wear as the sun’s strength is amplified greatly at altitude and compounded by reflection off the snow and ice.
Arriving at the top
Another thing that strikes you as you arrive at the summit (aside from the sheer size and vastness of the massif) is just how much development has been done on this peak. I’m sure in modern times this simply wouldn’t be allowed but, in all its wisdom, the France of old wasn’t quite as ecologically aware as it seems to be now. Of course, this won’t come as news to anyone who’s visited any of France’s more aesthetically-challenged resorts, but it’s still surprising the amount of work done up here given its proximity to Europe’s highest mountain. Nonetheless, the remorseless scale of development has a definite upside: peaks that would otherwise remain the preserve of skilled climbers and mountaineers are now accessible to the rest of us.
The top of the Aiguille has been pretty much hollowed out to form an intricate labyrinth of rooms and corridors that weave their way through the rocky, mainly granite peak. This in itself is impressive enough but it also allows space for multiple exhibitions, displays and viewing platforms which greatly enhance your time at the top.
The views over Mont Blanc and the valley are breath-taking, giving you an up-close vista over age-old, splintered ice flows which have cracked to form huge crevasses as they’ve edged their way down the mountainside. It feels almost as though you’re at the epicentre of the Alps, enormous peaks spilling in all directions punctuating the horizon as far as the eye can see. There are of course other great mountain views in the Alps. I’m reminded of the outlook from Pic Blanc in Alpe d’Huez, Zermatt’s/Cervinia’s Gobba di Rollin, Stubai’s Top of the Tyrol, however, none has the same aura as the view from the Aiguille du Midi.
What to see at the Aiguille du Midi
There is a surprising amount see in the summit’s warren of tunnels, including:
An exhibition on the effects of altitude and hypoxia. The station has been used in multiple experiments to study the effect of mountain sickness, pulmonary oedema and humans’ ability to adapt to altitude. Above 3500m is considered very high altitude so be advised, those with heart or breathing problems are not advised to take this trip.
A fascinating glimpse into the history of climbing and Alpinism on the Mont Blanc massif, including displays of modern and traditional climbing equipment, an interactive 3D map and various videos. At 3777m this is the highest museum ever built.
Learn the history of the cable car construction including a view over the massive drive wheels, whirling as they lift visitors to the summit.
Espace Mont Blanc
A indoor viewing gallery with breathtaking views over the Mont Blanc and brief history of notable ascents made on the mountain.
A new attraction which allows full 360 passage around the summit in a tube suspended thousands of feet above the glacier.
Things to do at the Aiguille du Midi
For those who want to fully experience the Aiguille, there are also plenty of things to do, some of which will even make you feel as though have joined the hundreds of mountaineers that use this area daily as their playground.
Lift to the summit Terrasse
An elevator cut through the pinnacle of the Aiguille which gives access to a high viewing terrace surrounding the massive TV transmitter on the summit (the iconic metal shard on the peak, visible from miles around). Note, queues are common here so factor in at least a 15-minute wait to access (longer in summer months). The views are worth the wait though.
Le Pas dans le Vide / Step into the void (free)
Accessed from the summit lift and Terrasse 3842, Step into the Void is a 2.5m glass box suspended from the side of the Aiguille, 1000m above the glaciers below. Vertigo sufferers should probably avoid.
Accessing La Vallée Blanche
A tunnel cut through sheer ice walls leading to the famed Ice Steps allowing climbers and skiers access to the Vallée Blanche descent and beyond. At 20km long with a vertical drop of 2700m, the Vallée Blanche is one of the most famous off-piste routes in the world. Expect to see hardened mountain types, bedecked with crampons and ice axes preparing to exit onto the glacier.
Countless viewing platforms
With 360’ access around the summit, you are spoiled for choice with views that extend far into Italy, France and Switzerland. Were it not for the cold, you could spend hours up here.
The Panoramic Mont-Blanc gondola (open June to September)
A 5km gondola ride linking to the Pointe Helbronner above Courmayeur on the Italian side, over the Glacier du Géant. This glacier is a huge permanent icepack which feeds the legendary Mer de Glace and Vallée Blanche.
Where to eat & drink at the Aiguille du Midi
Le 3842 Restaurant: One of the world’s highest restaurants serving local Savoie fare. Booking is advised as it only seats 26 people.
Summit 3842 Cafe: Open every day the cable car is running, this cafe is a good spot for grabbing a quick bite to eat and a drink whilst admiring the views.
Le Vertical Café and shop: Pick up gifts, souvenirs and snacks at the bottom of the lift station as you return to Chamonix.
How long does a visit to the Aiguille du Midi take?
An average trip on the summit lasts around two to three hours, although somehow we found ourselves there closer to five. You can take as long as you like on a visit although in winter the last lift up is at 15:00 and the last decent at 16:30. In summer the last trip up is at 16:30 and the last descent is at 17:30 or 18:00, so plan your visit accordingly.
When to visit the Aiguille du Midi
The Aiguille du Midi is open most of the year, only closing due to bad weather and for annual maintenance in Autumn (dates are not fixed). Check the winter and summer timetables for details before travelling to avoid disappointment.
How much does a visit to the Aiguille du Midi cost?
At the time of writing, a trip up the Aiguille du Midi is currently €60 per person [unless you have an MBU lift pass in which case it’s included]. It offers a rare perspective over a vast glacial kingdom that, let’s face it, very few of us will ever see by any other means. When you consider we were there for five hours, €60 is very reasonable for such a unique trip.
You feel a tangible sense of privilege and awe, getting so close to otherwise inaccessible terrain, at an altitude so high it strips your body of oxygen. It is an exceptional experience and one I’d highly recommend if you are in any way interested in mountains. To be honest, the cable car ride alone is worth the fee.
Prices and reservations at the time of writing (all prices ex VAT)
Family pass: 186 € (2 adults + 2 children & 3rd, 4th and 5th of the same family are free)
One way ticket for adult: 49 €
Round-trip ticket for adult: 60 €
One way ticket for a child (5-14 years): 41.70 €
Round-trip ticket for a child (5-14 years): 51 €
Free entry for children < 5 years
How to book the Aiguille du Midi
We booked online and were allotted a specific ride time and advised to attend half an hour early. Even in the quieter winter months, it’s a good idea to arrive promptly as the queues were still quite large. I can only presume pre-booking and punctuality is even more important in the busier summer months. The cable car attracts nearly half a million visitors per year, so pre-booking is definitely recommended. If you’re unable for some reason to use the online booking system, you can book in person at the lift station.
How to get to the Aiguille du Midi
Getting to the Aiguille du Midi is easy. You’ll find the lift station in Chamonix Sud, which you can access easily on foot from anywhere in Chamonix centre. By bus, get off at Chamonix Sud and cross the road opposite the bus terminus. Head onto Rue du Lyret and keep walking. You’ll find the base station of the Midi a few hundred metres along on the right hand side.
By car, it’s best to park at the Grepon car park, just off the main highway, the Route Blanche. At the far end of the car park there’s a tunnel taking you under the Route Blanche, which leads you towards the back of the Midi lift station. Head round to the main concourse at the front to buy tickets.
By train get off the Mont Blanc Express at the Aiguille du Midi stop and descend the road which leads you directly to the front of the Aiguille du Midi base station.
This is high mountain terrain and those with breathing difficulties, heart problems or other significant medical issues are not advised to take the trip. Consult your doctor if in doubt. Children under 2 years of age are not allowed.
Snowboard news : Full schedule for 2018 PyeongChang Olympics Snowboard events
The schedule for the upcoming Olympics in PyeongChang has just been released. If you’re in Europe, South Korea is 9 hours ahead of GMT, meaning events taking place during the day Korea-time will happen overnight for us. Depending on the kind of boss you have, this could either be a good or a bad thing. It could also mean the difference between a few beers for events like the Halfpipe Finals – or just a quiet cup of tea then bed ;). For reference, the Friday/Saturday dates over the Olympics are 9th/10th – 16th/17th – 23rd/24th.
Key dates and times in South Korea for the snowboard events are:
Snowboard Slopestyle 10th, 11th, 12th February
10th February 10:00-14:30 Men’s Qualification
11th February 10:00-11:40 Men’s Finals
11th February 13:30-15:30 Women’s Qualification
12th February 10:00-11:40 Women’s Finals
Snowboard Halfpipe 12th, 13th, 14th February
12th February 13.30 – 15.00 Women’s Qualification
13th February 10.00 – 11.30 Women’s Finals
13th February 13.00 – 14.50 Men’s Qualification
14th February 10.30 – 12.00 Men’s Finals
Snowboard Cross 15th, 16th February
15th February 11.00 – 12.30 Men’s Snowboard Cross Seeding Round
15th February 13.30 – 14.50 Men’s Snowboard Cross Finals
16th February 10.00 – 11.00 Women’s Snowboard Cross Seeding Round
16th February 12.15 – 13.00 Women’s Snowboard Cross Finals
Snowboard Big Air 19th, 21st, 23rd, 24th February
19th February 09.30 – 12.30 Women’s Snowboard Big Air Qualifications
21st February 09:30 – 12:45 Men’s Snowboard Big Air Qualifications
23rd February 09.30 – 11.00 Women’s Snowboard Big Air Finals
24th February 10.00 – 11.30 Men’s Snowboard Big Air Finals
Snowboard Parallel Giant Slalom 22nd, 24th February
22nd February 12:00-13:30 Women’s and Men’s Parallel Giant Slalom Qualifications
24th February 12:00-13:35 Women’s and Men’s Parallel Giant Slalom Finals
Snowboard feature : Which is the harder sport, skiing or snowboarding
A useful side-by-side comparison video showing the differences between snowboarding and skiing attempting to answer the age-old question – which sport is harder?
From the Bag o’ Tricks YT channel:
“The great debate. Let me know what your guys’ thoughts are down below! Not trying to start any arguments, just wanted to help anyone looking to getting into snowsports!”
Page at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBYxV8n3xC0
Just ten days remain to help Glencoe Mountain make Scottish snowsports history by achieving its crowd-funding bid to install a new TechnoAlpin Snowfactory at the resort. The revolutionary Snowfactory system is able to produce snow in temperatures up to +25’C and would guarantee a full season at Glencoe – something that’s been harder and harder to fulfil over the last few tumultuous winter seasons in Scotland.
The videos above and below show the TechnoAlpin system at work in +15’C pre-season temperatures at Mt Buller, Australia. Use of the Snowfactory allowed Mt Buller to offer skiing and snowboarding on its proposed opening date, despite faltering early season snow. Imagine this in Scotland.
Glencoe’s funding appeal has already reached over £40k of a £290k target – more than 20% of the total required. While it’s expected some big companies will join the effort over the coming days, the resort needs your help to achieve its goal. Glencoe’s funding video is shown below.
We had a look at the figures and, if each of Glencoe’s 35,046 visitors* in the 2014/15 season was to donate just £10, the resort would smash its funding goal. It’s worth noting the current 20% tally has been achieved through the generosity of just 315 supporters.
The Glencoe appeal has a variety of different funding options starting at £20 to become a listed supporter – but even just a £10 donation could make a significant difference and help assure the future of snowsports at Scotland’s oldest ski area.
Guaranteed snow, guaranteed season, guaranteed riding. Can’t say fairer than that.