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Season Diary - Day 13: Falling for a No Fall Zone

Updated: Mar 18

After some very intense discussions over a late breakfast, we decided to head straight for Pisteurs Couloir. Pisteurs is one of the gnarliest couloirs in Tignes-Val d'Isere, long, steep and comparatively narrow compare to many others.

North facing, it holds snow really well. Almost too well, in fact. After running into a group on the ski out from Moniteurs the day before who had just ticked it off, we decided to throw caution to the wind and see if we could nail it.

This is the story of Pisteurs, no fall zones, and bagging couloirs.


What is a Couloir?

Couloir translates literally from French as "corridor", and it transfers well into the skiing world. Couloirs are narrow breaks in a cliff face down which it is possible to ski. They range in size from fairly broad, such as Meribel's Grand Couloir or Jackson Hole's infamous Corbett's, to fairly narrow, such as the barely-wider-than-ski-width madness that skiers like Nikolai Schirmer seemingly have a death wish for.

You have to be a good skier to ski couloirs. Firstly because they are all off piste runs, meaning you have to have the confidence to ski broken snow and deep powder well. On top of that, they are steep. Add in the narrow width of the skiable face, and you become more reliant on a very particular set of skills such as the ability to quickly pivot your skies beneath you or even perform jump turns.

This latter element is a very useful skill to have as it can save you in a lot of situations. Getting your body very well forward and very much down the hill, push off the snow with your lower legs and use the air time to bring your skis round beneath you - if done well, your body should have moved very little from side to side across the face of the snow. Thismis very useful in situations like this, in other narrow environments such as tree skiing, or simply to show off to friends and family!

Finally, the added danger of being surrounded by rocks often turns couloirs into "no fall zones". This is not a unique term for couloirs but can be found anywhere you are skiing in hazardous terrain. A fall in these environments has a much higher chance of disastrous consequences, with rock surrounding you on all sides and steep slopes leading to potentially uncontrollable slides. Your competence, confidence, and skill set has to be good to attack couloirs successfully.

Sweating our way to the top of Rocher du Charvet, launching point for Pisteurs


From the top of the Grand Pré chair in Val d'Isere, you have a million options for great skiing. Straight ahead off the back is Tor du Charvet, one of the best off piste routes in Val. To your right is a gentle blue to wind you back to the chair, and to the left, about 180 degrees behind you as you exit the chair, is a hard-core boarder cross run. Cutting off this boarder cross is the traverse into Moniteurs, which we had skied a couple of days earlier.

Go 90 degrees right, and you will see footsteps heading up the ridgeline that followed the top of the Rocher de Charvet, a rocky outcrop sticking out and marking the end of the resort at this angle.

We strapped skies to our backpacks, and set off, a good half hour bootpack in blazing sun causing us to sweat through every item of clothing we had on.

Even before the skiing, the views were worth it. You could look out on the entirety of the resort, the Bellevarde sector and its links with Tignes covered in little ants, skiers swarming from lift to cafe to piste. The valley towards Tignes and La Daille dropped away down the far side, teasing at the vast network of slopes that formed the ski area. On the other side of the valley, it was more still. The Solaise sector and the glacier behind it hidden up and over the higher slopes of this part of the resort.

Finally, we had reached the top.

Sweating our way to the top of Rocher du Charvet, launching point for Pisteurs
Looking up the steep first section of Pisteurs - the side entrance comes in at the clear patch of snow to the left hand side of the picture.
Looking up at the first section of Pisteurs - the side entrance leads in via the break in the rock of the left hand side.

Falling for a No Fall Zone

Pisteurs is decided into four sections - a pair of entrances, a central core, then a choice of three runs out, each divided into pairs broken by brief narrowing of the rocks.

The entrance straight down is by far the toughest section, on a concave lip, steep and narrower than most of the rest of the run. It is a place for jump turns and for the real experts. I decided to play it safe and took the side entrance, scoring a couple of cheeky powder turns before dropping into a shallower and wider entrance.

The couloir had held on to its snow fabulously well. We were skiing powder the whole way down, broke up from the skiers and boarders that had gone before but still soft enough for us to make our turns with comparative ease.

Until about halfway down the third section.

Finishing off a lefthand turn, suddenly the snow went from a consistent and broken ankle deep to easily at least knee deep, with a sudden and surprising change in weight, too. Sticking abruptly in this different snow, I shuddered to a halt and failed to control my momentum, pitching forward and falling down the slope.

It had happened. My worst nightmare, something that had been on my mind constantly on the long, slow chair up Grand Pré. I had fallen in a no fall zone.

Luckily the cause of my demise was my saviour. Because the snow was so deep, I pitched over onto my back and sank straight in, then once more to end up the right way up, my skis falling back to the snow and arresting any further falls. I picked myself off, dusted myself down, and finished the run, stopping as the couloir opened up into the ski out, the fourth and final section of the run.

I waited for my friends. And waited. And waited. Eventually they both came around the corner together, one on skis and one walking! It turns out that something similar had happened to the latter, only his ski had popped off and been sent skittering off down the hill! Thankfully, it had stopped itself before it disappeared completely, but it was another close call for us.

Skiing section three - survive to the narrowing of the rocks, and it opens out beyond. The minute scale of the Grand Pré lift stations emphasises the isolation of the line.

Despite our success in skiing out of Pisteurs, and the fabulous snow we found along the way, it was a wake up call if we ever wanted to try anything like this again! We saved ours nerves by skiing some more "conventional" off piste routes, something we could enjoy without our hearts living in our mouths.

Our reward: amazing powder on the ski out!


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