French skiing top tips: Blackrock Ski Lodge, ski touring and Chamonix
It’s the first morning of our holiday and we are standing outside the chalet in the dark. It’s cold enough to see balloons of breath above our heads and I quickly pull on a second pair of gloves to stop my fingers freezing.
I know that all too soon I’ll be annoyingly hot and sweaty but as we clip up ski boots, set our touring skis to walk mode and generally faff about adjusting and re-adjusting kit I start to shiver.
I think about my warm and very comfortable bed back inside Blackrock Ski Lodge, here in the French Alpine village of Les Houches, near Chamonix. I question my sanity of a 6.30am rise while on holiday. I worry about my fitness and my skiing ability.
I look around at the others in our group, including Julie and Andy, Russell and Lizzie, as well as her dog, Koda. I met them all for the first time last night and I have no idea what they are each thinking.
But I don’t even need to see the G-Force’s face to know he is eager to get going and that he is content to be up before sunrise for this ski tour outing. I have no doubt he is delighted to discover that Blackrock Lodge owners, Lizzie and Paul, aka “Beej”, ski tour from their back door almost every day and are happy for guests and friends to join them.
Ski touring is something that the G-Force wants to do more of, while I am not sure I will ever really enjoy it. I usually feel out of my depth in terms of skinning and skiing skills and the uphill ski can be utterly exhausting.
However, I have been assured by Lizzie that today’s ski tour will be well within my capabilities. The plan is to “skin up” for about an hour and then ski downhill on freshly groomed pistes. We will be back in time for breakfast at 8.30am.
And I do like the idea of earning my breakfast, especially after hearing what the chalet chef, Emma, (ChamChef) has on this morning’s menu.
Skiing uphill through the dark
As we set off on a snowy path, heading up behind the chalet, I feel a growing sense of inner calm. The pace is fairly relaxed and I soon settle into a skinning rhythm. “Skins” (fabric) fixed to the underside of the skis allow you to slide forward as you ski-walk. The one-way pile of the fabric prevents too much slippage backwards.
I start to look around and although it is still dark our head torches light up the scenery as if we are travelling through a fairy tale world. We can see the outline of trees ahead and the brilliant white of snowy hills and fields.
I take care not to ski over the skis of the person in front of me and try hard to keep an even pace so that the skier behind is not frustrated by my skinning. It seems to be working well and our skinning line snakes upwards through a small patch of woodland and then out on to more open hills beneath the higher reaches of distant mountains. These are the foothills of the legendary high peak of Mont Blanc.
I have no idea how far we will be going today so I try to stay within myself in terms of exertion. Already I need to peel off a layer or two and undo zips on my ski trousers to keep my body temperature comfortable. Thankfully, we stop frequently to adjust skis, add or remove layers and take sips of water.
At a wider trail we are able ski uphill side by side, which allows for more chat. I enjoy finding out about Lizzie’s move to Chamonix and how she and Beej bought the land and built their own chalet. It has not been an easy process but they shared a dream to set up the business and over the past few years it has proven to be a success.
What makes Blackrock a must-book
I have stayed in many catered chalets but Blackrock stands out for me. Blackrock Ski Lodge is a luxury catered chalet for 14 to 18 guests. The lodge has six floors with three split mezzanines that provide a series of living spaces with the en-suite bedrooms interspersed between them.
The chalet operates as fully catered, with an accomplished and dedicated chalet chef who cooks breakfast and evening dinner, as well as serving pre-dinner mini dishes and fabulous afternoon cakes, or it can be hired for self-catering holidays.
There’s a number of great extras, too, such as a cosy bar and sitting room with fire, a hot-tub and what they call their concierge service. In reality what this offers is a wonderfully warm and personalised bespoke “memorable holiday” service by Lizzie and Beej.
The couple will help you to decide where to ski each day according to your ability and experience.
After a bit of discussion among guests, you can decide where to be dropped off and picked up by the chalet vehicles and drivers for skiing each day in the Chamonix area. Sometimes they venture further afield to resorts such as Courmayeur, in Italy, accessed through the Mont Blanc tunnel and only half an hour from Chamonix.
I love that Lizzie and Beej are also on hand most of the time to show you around the resorts and slopes. They are not official guides but offer a level of friendship and personalised hosting that I have not experienced to such a high level before. During our first ski tour I decide while chatting to Lizzie that I will easily become friends with her.
The warm and enthusiastic couple also do all they can to make sure you have everything you need for a superb skiing holiday. Just ask and they will arrange ski guides, ski or snow shoe hire (our skis were brought to the chalet for our convenience by SkiLoc Chamonix), ski lessons and book restaurants for lunch.
They also appear to enjoy apres-ski get togethers as much as the guests, as does their daughter, Chloe, who is already learning to ski aged just two.
It felt more like we had been invited into their family home and welcomed as friends rather than guests. Lizzie told me later: “We do end up being friends with a lot of our guests and we have many return customers. We love hosting people at Blackrock and our aim was always to offer a more personalised approach to chalet hosting.”
It’s great to see Blackrock gaining a reputation for high quality accommodation, food and hosting. They are a bit pricier than other places that I have stayed but you really do get what you pay for in this case.
Skiing down to our breakfast
As the sun comes up, our group reaches the high point of the morning’s ski tour. All of us sport glowing faces, big smiles and bright eyes when we stop, take off our skis and remove the skins. Swapping walk mode for ski mode and shortening our ski poles we head on to the nearby ski slopes.
We are the first people to ski these pistes today (the ski lifts have not yet opened) and we enjoy the sensation of carving new lines in the groomed snow.
The G-Force and I quickly re-discover our skiing legs after a year away from the slopes and whizz downhill. We stop every so often to catch our breath and let our muscles ease from burning to relaxed again. We exchange grins and words of joy.
It feels amazing to be skiing again and in such impressive Alpine conditions. Although a new dump of snow is still to arrive (it does later in the week), the snow is surprisingly good first thing in the morning.
Back at the chalet we congratulate ourselves on a brilliant first ski outing of the holiday and take our places at the large dining room table for a well-earned breakfast. I am delighted I bothered to get out of that warm bed.
Three brilliant days at Blackrock
The G-Force and I were fortunate to have the loan of a Jeep 75th anniversary Wrangler for the duration of our ski week. We had decided to enjoy the freedom and drive between accommodations and resorts. The Jeep would cope with the potentially snowy conditions and the steep and winding mountain roads.
Heated seats, lots of space for skis and kit and the practical extras such as wide tyres, four-wheel drive and a sat nav made the Jeep Wrangler the ideal transport for our France-Italy Ski Tour of 2017.
Blackrock Ski Lodge in Les Houches, Chamonix, was our first destination for three nights.
I was a little worried that the legendary Chamonix Mont Blanc ski area would be for only the gnarliest of expert skiers and snowboarders but it turns out there is a huge range for all to ski. There are also several different areas that are best according to the weather and skiing ability. These include Argentiere, Brevent-Flegere, Balme-Vallorcine, Les Grands Montets and half a dozen valley ski areas, such as Les Houches.
A car or private chalet transport is useful for getting between resorts although there are buses, too.
On day one, Lizzie and Beej recommended Brevent for the best snow conditions. It gets more sun and because new snow was needed it meant the groomed slopes would benefit from a bit of warmth for easier skiing. We skied a mix of blues, flattering red and black runs all set amid a superb mountain panorama, including Europe’s highest peak of Mont Blanc.
The piste bashers had done a great job of keeping slopes in good condition and we even found a few areas of off-piste to enjoy. When I say “enjoy” what I mean is that while the G-Force loved the challenge of skiing off-piste, I tried hard to smile through my gritted teeth as I prayed I wouldn’t fall off or over on the steep slopes.
We enjoyed skiing for much of the day with the other Blackrock guests – by now Brenda, Richard and Nicky had also joined us –and stopped for champagne lunch with a breath-taking scenic backdrop.
I wasn’t sure I would need to eat again that day but skiing usually makes me very hungry. In any case, I challenge anyone to turn down a meal created by the ever up-beat and cheerful Blackrock chef, Emma. I was impressed, too, that Emma had taken a lot of time to plan meals that would suit a range of dietary requirements. It can’t be easy pleasing a large group but she did so with expertise and enthusiasm.
Day 2: Another ski tour
The next day started with a ski tour of more than three hours but, this time, after breakfast. We were joined by Lizzie and Beej (they dropped their daughter at the local creche). It is clear that the couple are regular uphill tourers because they are easily able to chat and skin uphill. I was impressed.
We started from the lodge again and headed up the same route as the day before. After reaching the high point of the first day we re-grouped and agreed to carry on further up. We followed narrow paths through woodland, sadly bare of snow in places, but still accessible on touring skis.
The higher we climbed the more impressive the views became. Aside from iconic Mont Blanc at 4810m, there are several other eye-catching peaks including the Dome du Gouter (4304m), Aguille Bionnassay (4061m), Aiguille de Tre la Tete (3846m) and Domes de Miage (3680m) in the Alpine massif.
Our goal for the day was the (slightly!) lower top station at Les Houches, Prarion, at 1900m. We had skied an elevation of around 800m, which is a pretty good work out.
A perfectly positioned mountain cafe offered the opportunity to remove the skins from skis and to enjoy a warming coffee/hot chocolate. It turns out I really do enjoy ski touring!
The snow had started to fall and while the G-Force, Russ and I skied a few pistes, in particular, the Kandahar Alpine Skiing Would Cup slope (admittedly a little slower than the pros!), the others headed to Les Vieilles Luges for pre-lunch drinks. The chalet group enjoy their food and wine as much as the skiing!
Les Vieilles Luges is a wonderful gem of a restaurant. The property has been in the same family since the 1400s and offers a warm and welcoming retreat from skiing (and snow, now that it was falling heavily). Lizzie had walked up to the restaurant with Chloe on her back.
The G-Force, Russ and I were joined by Brenda and Richard for more post-lunch skiing while the others headed back to Blackrock to jump in the hot-tub.
Why I like skiing in a group
We were fortunate to be welcomed into a group of friends during our stay in Blackrock. Julie, Andy, Brenda, Richard, Russ and Nicky have seemingly known each other for decades. Living in various places such as Dubai and South Africa they sometimes meet up for join holidays.
We got to know them as we skied, rode chairlifts, ate meals, enjoyed a few drinks and skied some more.
I do love the rhythm of a ski outing. You ski on your own for a bit, stop for a breather and a chat about the skiing, ski some more, watch others skiing and learn from them, stop again for another breather, ski some more, stop to take in the views, ski on and then take some photos and then reach a chairlift or gondola and chat to people as you ride back up the mountain. And repeat…
Hopes of the Valley Blanche
The Valley Blanches is a famous ski route in Chamonix of 20km with a descent of 2700m. We had hopes of being guided on this route but the snow forecast was not in our favour. Our next best choice was to ski at Les Grandes Montets, a large ski area at a height of 3,300m. But, again, it was not to be this time. (We will be returning though so we’ll give it a go then.)
Instead, on day three, we headed back to the Brevant ski area for more on-piste skiing before departing in our lovely Jeep for the next part of our ski holiday in Courmayeur, accessed through the Mont Blanc tunnel. It was sad to say goodbye to hosts we can now call friends and fellow chalet guests who happily welcomed us into their group and suggested we should pop in to see them if ever we are in South Africa.
- We were hosted by Blackrock Ski Lodge during our three night stay in Les Houches. We were given ski hire by SkiLoc and lift passes by Chamonix Tourist office. Jeep provided a loan of the vehicle. We feel very lucky but I write this blog with complete independence.