Hands up who has heard of Saint Sorlin d’Arves, never mind skied it? No takers? No surprise, it’s a place where you won’t find another Australian for miles around. Or many other freeriding foreigners. But it’s part of the combined Les Sybelles ski circus, 6 areas total, which just happens to be the fourth largest in all of France. Shaun Mittwollen checked it out for Snow Action in March.
All the Les Sybelles areas have their charms, but if you want to get serious Saint Sorlin is located at the southern and steepest end of the multi-area conglomerate. Here the Étendard Glacier winds down from the 3464m Pic de l’Etendard, carving out Nunatak-like peaks that rise sharply out of the snowy landscape. Below that, wonderful more gradual terrain rolls down into the quaint village. Here an array of traditional wooden houses and market stalls line a Main Street that’s vibrantly alive with a holiday vibe. In typical Savoie fashion, much of the produce sold is farmed right under the lifts during the summer season.
The terrain at Les Sybelles encompasses a broad range, with everything from wide open groomers to steep gnarly chutes that toy with your confidence.
But of particular interest to freeriders are the couloirs and rocky bowls that flank the Les 3 Lacs zone in the upper zone of Saint Sorlin. Here a series of wide open amphitheatres are walled in by steep faces and increasingly technical couloirs. These go from relatively mellow all the way up to seemingly suicidal options that are somehow possible, at least according to local freerider Nathan Bariller.
Although the open bowls are well controlled for avalanches by the patrol, its always a risk exiting the resort boundaries to ski the more exciting terrain. Given the reputation for instability in the Alps, avalanche equipment along with the correct knowledge are even more stringently required than elsewhere.
Perhaps the most obvious chute at Les 3 Lacs is the spectacular Rectilian couloir. Passing through bands of near vertically folded rock layers that characterise the region’s high peaks, the fairly tight entry descends into a wide open chute that pours dead straight through the rocks at about 45 degrees for around 400m of vertical before fanning out into the apron.
When it’s windy vicious spindrift makes climbing transitions to downhill mode at the top quick. Then you drop into what could either be windblown powder or European style ice that has been blasted by wind and stripped bare by sluff. This is, in all conditions, a classic European line. There may not be ideal snow, but the technicality of the variable snow and scenery of entombing rock make for an exciting descent even if you get lucky with the snow.
The resort caters mostly to families and European visitors seeking annual week of skiing, so the competition for the expansive off piste is limited to the occasional local, or pack of French freeriders striking the area for a day trip. International visitors with a taste for off piste freeriding are likewise usually attracted more to the big name resorts. Which all leaves an unusally relaxed feel when it comes to scoring fresh lines.
When the avalanche guns are booming at 6am in the morning at Saint Sorlin the rush to get up on the slopes is less frantic. it’s a nice alternative to battling with hundreds of frothing riders, each more keen than the last, heading off-piste at better known spots. Indeed, such is the expansive nature of the resort it’s certainly possible to find great off piste conditions for several days after snowfalls. Many hidden or not so hidden corners are only revealed after a few days of exploration. This is what goes with the territory exploring new places. Sometimes you score, sometimes you don’t. But in the spirit of the unknown, its always worth a roll of the dice!
Getting to Les Sybelles / Saint Sorlin
The Les Sybelles ski resorts are close to several airports:
- Chambéry (74 km)
- Lyon Saint Exupéry (159 km)
- Grenoble (149 km)
- Geneva (Switzerland) (161 km)
- Turin (Italy) (153 km)
Regular scheduled bus services run every Saturday to the Les Sybelles ski resorts departing from the Lyon – Saint Exupéry and Chambéry Airports.
Les Sybelles ski resorts are only 17 to 25 kilometres away from the two exits of the A43 highway.
- Exit no. 26: La Chambre, follow the signboards to Col du Glandon to reach Saint-Colomban-des-Villards.
- Exit no. 27: St Jean de Maurienne, follow the signboards for Vallée de l’Arvan to reach Saint-Sorlind’Arves, Saint-Jean-d’Arves, Le Corbier, La Toussuire and Les Bottières.
The Les Sybelles ski resorts are located 659 km from Paris; 183 kilometres from Lyon, 84 kilometres from Chambéry, 113 kilometres from Grenoble, and 169 kilometres from Geneva (Switzerland).
Several stations serve the Les Sybelles ski resorts:
- Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne Arvan SNCF Station
- Saint-Avre – La Chambre SNCF Station
Whether your point of departure is Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Nantes, Amiens and Grenoble, several TGV and TER trains run daily to SNCF stations in the Maurienne Valley.