The city of Grenoble, France sits in a valley carved out millions of years ago by a glacier. In every direction you look, huge peaks jut up towards the sky. Some are topped with castles, but on most, there’s a ski resort. In fact, ten of france’s 230 resorts are within an hour of the city. This would be my home base during my brief stay in France. Really, the only problem I found with Grenoble is it is full of French people. Luckily, I found one of the good ones to show me around, PJ Rueda, editor of Fluofun.fr.
Day 1 : Areches-Beaufort
Attached to a village mostly known for its cheese, lies Areches-Beaufort. First things first, you should know the French love their cheese. I literally didn’t eat a single meal without any, so if you’re lactose intolerant, watch out. But while Beaufort cheese may be the biggest attraction for the locals, the resort Areches holds its own as well. If you saw Jake Blauvelt’s Naturally than you may already know it.
Much like the US, Europe is suffering from a serious low tide problem this season. As we rode up the first chairlift, passing over small trees and rocks, PJ explained they were usually covered by now. He pointed at avalanche fences sticking meters out of the snow, explaining they were usually good for jumping over. But surrounded by panoramic views of jagged snow-covered mountains and basking in the warm sun, I was not so concerned, I simply set my expectation level to low, and eyed the perfect groomers beneath us.
After two long lift rides, we finally arrived at the top of Areches, where the plan included no groomed runs at all. We dropped in past a sign warning ofÂ avalanches (I think.)Â Since it hadn’t snowed in days, the snow pack was safe, and to my surprise, light and fluffy. In fact, it was the best snow I’d ridden yet this season. The terrain was sick too. No shortage of rock bumps and small drops to jump off of. As we came to the bottom of a massive powder field, PJ pointed out a huge gap which has been featured in many an Absinthe movie. It was official, this place was sick.
My only real question was how, days after the most recent snowfall, we were riding practically untouched powder. I asked PJ. “Nobody comes here,” he shrugged. Apparently, no one goes anywhere in France, as lines were rare and when we did run into other people, it was mostly skier families in ancient one-piece suits and ill-fitting goggles.
The runs at Areches are so long that we only managed to take four in about 5 hours, another on the same trail and two more to the right of the lift, where instead of scraped-off run outs through big trees, the exit challenge was thick brush. As we hacked through skinny tree branches, PJ informed me of his nickname, “Husquvarna.” Like the chain saw. So I let him go first.
Le getting some. Photo: PJ Rueda
Though French resorts stay open slightly later than those in the US, after those four marathon runs I was ready for some food. Just a few meters from the chairlift, we ate at a restaurant serving cheese pie, made from the stuff churned out in the valley. I opted for spaghetti (for the carbs, duh), which obviously came covered in Beaufort cheese as well.Â I would need the energy though, because despite riding all day, we were headed for round two: night riding. Of course, not before stopping by the Beaufort cheese factory, to purchase a huge chunk of cheese.
Day 1.5: Le Collet d’Allevard
(My phone was dead so you’ll have to imagine this place with your mind.)
We arrived at Le Collet d’Allevard around 7 pm, but night riding wouldn’t start until 8. I was a bit skeptical it was going to happen at all — there were no lights on the hill that I could see. To kill time, we grabbed beers in one of the restaurants in the village and got the scoop. For $33 Euro we’d get a pass to ride, as well as a traditional French dinner afterwards. Oh yeah, riding in France is not only sick, it’s cheap, too.
Our posse had multiplied by the time the lights flipped on, and everyone was raring to go. The first lift ascended into almost total darkness, but from what I could make out, we were in for more barely-skied pow. The terrain was by no means expansive, but for the next two hours we lapped it, slicing through crusty pow and having a grand old time. After about an hour, one of PJ’s friends asked me in a heavy French accent, “Do you like red wine?”
Sure enough, at the base of the resort, they were dolling out hot wine in tiny plastic cups. The only cost was a DJ blaring music only he liked, but it was a small price to pay. While in the US, handing out free booze to people in the middle of a shred session would probably be frowned upon, in France it was all part of the experience.
Once the lifts shut down, we headed inside to claim our dinner, and were greeted with plates of meat, salad and you guessed it: cheese. Not just any cheese though, this time it was raclette, an interactive version in which you melt the cheese before smothering it over baked potatoes. While I simply gorged myself, PJ seemed disappointed that the set up provided was not full authentic.
day 2 : Chamrousse
After what turned out to be a lot of driving on day 1, on day two we opted for something closer to town. So close, in fact, you could actually see the top of the gondola from the porch of PJ’s downtown apartment. Chamrousse is famous for its sunset park, so named because of the brilliant sunsets you can see on many days. This day, however, the sun never bothered to come out, and the sky was practically black with clouds.
With no warm up at all, we rode through the park, a smattering of boxes, jumps and banked turns -Â little something for everyone. Everyone except for me, that is. My legs still aching from the previous day’s marathon, I asked if we could explore a bit before concentrating on our stunts. Before I knew it, we were riding up the gondola PJ had pointed out from the house that morning, off to adventure board, find more brush to ride through, and even some powder turns.
With a few more runs under my belt, I was ready to meet up with Felix, PJ’s intern, and some other French friends in the park. Yes, other snowboarders! A rarity in France’s ski-heavy culture. And luckily for mine and PJ’s instagram needs, these guys rode snowboards well. Oliver Gittler was actually on the Burton Grom squad many years ago, and Felix still gets free snowboard gear for his ability, not just who he works for. We lapped until dark, and then grabbed a pizza to help fill our cheese quota for the day.
Day 3 : St Pierre de Chartreuse
My final French destination was up another steep, winding road, equidistant but opposite Chamrousse. This day, the weather had turned, and heavy snow fell around us. No stranger to low-vision days, I was in my element. But PJ warned me the hills were covered in limestone, which made for occasional holes in the snow. Needless to say, it only took me two runs before I fell in one.
At St. Pierre I had my first experience with French lodge food. I walked through the lodge, eying people’s trays, which were mostly covered with plates of fries and hunks of meat. While they looked like hot dogs and hamburgers, they weren’t in buns and we’re to be eaten with a fork and knife. And since I barely speak french, it came as somewhat of a surprise when what I ordered turned out to be the bun-less hotdog. And yes, in case you’re wondering, there was literally a bucket of cheese you could use like a condiment.
Gross lodge food aside, the mountain was awesome. Perhaps my favorite part was the poma lift line, where PJ and I took turns spraying skiers on their way up, and raced to see if we could get three runs while our friends took two. We totally did it.
After three days of le snowboarding, and le boarding hard, I’ll tell you this. France is incredible. I never waited in a line, I rode powder and sick terrain, and the tickets for all three days combined ran me less than $100 Euros.Â If you get the chance, go there, just be ready to indulge in a shit ton of cheese.