Skiing in August is not an activity open to most Europeans, but there is one place you can go – and Dominic Bliss took his family there.
I’ve just learned a new French phrase: l’épaule déboîtée (dislocated shoulder). The owner of said shoulder, half-collapsed on the mountain trail in front of me, is mumbling it to himself over and over. His mountain bike is sprawled on the grass where both he and it fell. His face is white as a sheet and sweating profusely, despite the cool mountain air.
He’s been unlucky. As far as I can see, the rest of us biking the many trails that slope down into the resort of Les Deux Alpes have lasted all day without serious mishap. “There’s always time, though,” I warn myself.
There are more than 90 kilometres of mountain bike trails in this valley, designed for all levels of biker, from gentle cross-country all the way up to leg-shaking downhills. Now that I’ve added épaule déboîtée to my French medical vocabulary, I plan to err towards the gentler end of this spectrum.
My two daughters, my wife and I are halfway through a week-long break in a region of the French Alps called L’Oisans. We’ve based ourselves in Les Deux Alpes (so-called because the resort was originally built on two separate pasture areas), where we’re making the most of the abundance of summer sports and activities on offer. There’s certainly no chance of the kids ever getting bored here.
While I’ve been mountain biking, the other three in my family have been swimming in the lake below the village and sampling the various summer activities on offer: trampolining, bungee trampolining, mini-golf, outdoor table tennis and summer luge (a sort of toboggan on wheels that hurtles down a concrete track). The rest of the week we team up as a family to enjoy the more adventurous sports.
The flagship summer activity here is glacier skiing. One morning (and it has to be morning, before the snow gets too slushy to ski on), we ride the Jandri Express cable car up to 3,200 metres, and then transfer to a funicular railway that tunnels through the ice to the top of the glacier at 3,450 metres.
The glacier above Les Deux Alpes is the highest skiable glacier in Europe. Snow lies on the ground here all year round, with devices known as snow fences helping to keep it deep enough to slide on, even in August. Which is convenient for us, and for the dozens of ski clubs we see training up here.
While my debutant kids attempt their first tentative snowploughs on the nursery slopes, my wife and I try out some of the 100 hectares or so of summer pistes. There’s an amazing variety on offer. There can’t be many places in Europe where, in the height of summer, you can slalom down a Super G, catch big air on the jumps of a snow park, or snowboard down a 140-metre super-pipe.
And there’s a good number of top ski teams in attendance too. On the backs of the professionals whizzing down the faster runs I spot the national colours of France, Italy, Spain, Japan and the USA. Rather than taking the summer months off, they’re using Les Deux Alpes as a training base. I’m especially impressed when I see some of them negotiating the slalom course on just one ski.
My two daughters, meanwhile, have progressed enough that they’re now making snowplough turns. It will be a good long while before they descend a slope on one ski, however. We all ski for a couple of hours before the sun gets too high in the sky. You’ve got to get up very early to make the most of summer skiing, which is why the cable car starts at 7am. (Do bear that in mind if you’re a light sleeper and you book a hotel near the cable car station at the base of the hill.)
Global warming is inevitably taking its toll on the once mighty glaciers of the Alps. Scientists have noticed that, over the past few decades, all the Alpine glaciers have retreated. One research project conducted by the University of Savoie discovered that, over the past 40 years, those of the French Alps have shrunk by a quarter. And here in the southern Alps, where the elevation is lower and the climate is sunnier, the problem is even worse. Not that there’s any reason to panic just yet. As my family and I snap the obligatory photos of Mont Blanc rising out of the bright blue sky many miles away to the north, we can clearly see that, even in summer, there’s still plenty of ice left.
After midday we take the cable car back down to Les Deux Alpes. It feels very strange indeed to be clomping through the town in ski boots and full skiing gear, with skis propped across our shoulders, in 18 degrees centigrade, on an August afternoon.
The following day we all jump aboard another cable car. But this time we’re heading down the mountain towards the pretty village of Vénosc. The car exits its station and suddenly drops steeply into the valley. Below us we see more energetic holidaymakers speed-hiking up the snaking footpath from Vénosc to Les Deux Alpes. Above us, wheeling through the skies above the Vénéon valley, there’s a handful of paragliders using the afternoon thermals to lift them up among the mountain peaks.
We have planned a bit of adrenalin of our own. Our next stop is the Aventure Parc Deux Alpes, where a large section of forest has been transformed into an ambitious network of tree-mounted cables, bridges, ladders, trapezes and zip-lines. There are various levels of difficulty. Boldly (and ignoring the advice I gave myself earlier) I opt for the black route. At first it’s fairly straightforward but, halfway round, as I’m hanging 15 metres off the ground, sweating with exertion, and a little bit of vertigo, my legs doing the splits between two hanging stirrups, I let out a little whimper. Fortunately, we’re all wearing body harnesses that we clip on and off the safety cables as we advance round the course. As long as you keep clipping in, there’s no chance of falling to the ground.
My daughters stick to the junior route which meanders just a few feet off the forest floor. Nevertheless, they’re still well tested as they negotiate the various climbing obstacles. It all culminates in a long zip-line that whips them from a high tree platform back down to the ground.
While adrenalin flows freely in Les Deux Alpes, it’s by no means obligatory. There are plenty of more sedate activities on offer. Our visit happens to coincide with the town’s annual Fête des Foins (the Hay Fair). Locals parade through the streets in traditional Savoyard dress, and then do their best to get all folkloric. Farmers show off their livestock. Musicians in leather trousers and straw hats blow Alpine horns. There’s singing, dancing, local produce, a chap with a large moustache making apple juice in a wooden press, and an unhealthy number of rusty farm implements from the early 20th century. It’s all very different to glacier skiing.
One afternoon, after cajoling the kids, we all set off on a hike along the side of the valley. The resort has signposted the various trails with precision. As we walk parallel to the line of the valley, we stop every few hundred metres to allow other mountain users to cross our path. Cross-country runners overtake us; briskly we jog across the plastic track of the downhill go- karting when there’s a break in the traffic; at one point we use a footbridge to climb up and over the piste of the summer luge. But it’s the mountain bikers we have to be most wary of. This low down the slopes, their various trails cross our hiking path at right angles and at regular intervals. Sometimes they pass over you atop wooden bridges. Other times they zip across your path, right in front of your nose. Fortunately, there are lots of warning signs, and you get plenty of notice since their disk brakes bark and screech as they approach.
Whatever your activity, you’ll find space here: hikers, runners and mountain bikers criss-cross each other on the trails, weaving their way through the golf course, over cattle pasture, alongside the tennis courts and five-a-side football pitches. Overhead, the ski lifts transport all manner of trail-users to the top of the mountain. Further down, you spot smaller visitors on the summer luge, the bungee trampoline and the skateboard park. In the distance, swimmers splash in Lac de la Buissonnière.
When you first arrive here it all seems a bit haphazard, a bit chaotic. But, after spending sept jours in Les Deux Alpes, I realise it’s actually all organised with perfect precision – and with the family in mind. And we all manage to return safely home without a single épaule déboîtée between us.
Dominic Bliss and family were guests of Les Deux Alpes tourist office (www.les2alpes.com). They stayed at Hôtel Côte Brune (www.hotel-cotebrune.fr) and travelled by train from London to Grenoble through Voyages SNCF (www.voyages-sncf.com). Train fares start at £111.
From France Today magazine