My biggest regret about spending an afternoon in Val Thorens learning how to monoski is forgetting my 30 year-old Degré 7 onesie. Had I been authentically dressed, I might just have embraced the hip-swinging, knee-clenching glory of the experience more.
As it was, I struggled to get past the bizarre feeling of my feet being clamped together on a single ski and having to grip, toes cramping, on to the piste with just one edge. In the 1980s, monoskiing — using one wide ski with both feet together and facing forwards, and with poles in hand — was the height of alpine cool, a short-cut to the knees-together style that was the sport’s gold standard. But then came snowboarding, its sideways stance and fluid motions borrowed from surfing, and monoskis were abandoned more or less overnight.
Now, in the French Alps at least, they are threatening a comeback. The French Monoski Association has planned a series of meetups for enthusiasts through the winter, culminating in a “Mondial de Monoski” in March, while in Val Thorens, the Ski Cool ski school is launching monoski lessons.
Val Thorens, Europe’s highest ski resort, is a fitting place for a resurgence. The resort opened in 1971, the same year in which the first feature about the “Single-ski” appeared in Ski Magazine, with the title: “Dude, I can hardly ski with two skis. How am I supposed to ski with one?” The next two decades saw the golden age of “le monoski” and of the egalitarian purpose-built French ski resort: Tignes, Flaine, Avoriaz and above them, all Val Thorens, perched 2,300m up at the top of the Belleville valley.
In its infancy, Val Thorens attracted free spirits to what was viewed as the frontier of alpine development. “The locals [from towns lower down the valley] would warn my parents: ‘Don’t stay up there, the birds will peck the wool off your back!’” says Cédric Gorini, a hotelier in the resort whose parents were recruited in 1972 to help set up the ski school. He was one of the first children to grow up here.
“In winter, the storms were so bad we’d be snowed in for days and in summer we couldn’t afford the petrol to go elsewhere. As kids, we’d sledge to school, run the ski lifts ourselves and ski all year round on the Péclet [glacier]. Nobody knew if Val Thorens would work: we were living an adventure without a future.”
Offering entirely ski-in/ski-out accommodation, car-free tranquillity and snow-sure skiing, Val Thorens flourished in the 1980s. Its architecture, relying heavily on concrete, seemed modern (if not as self-consciously futuristic as Flaine) and its lifts were strikingly fast and efficient. When it launched in 1982, the 150-person Cime de Caron cable car was the world’s largest.
However, there were downsides too. Here, high above the tree-line, vicious winds and snowstorms can batter the village. Visitors tended to hunker down in their cramped apartments rather than roam the streets enjoying restaurants and après ski. Like many other French “ski factories” — and like monoskiing — Val Thorens lost momentum in the 1990s. While Courchevel, in a neighbouring valley but 500 metres lower, blossomed into the ski world’s undisputed leader for luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, Val Thorens evolved into a place for cheap packages, students and families.
But then the effects of climate change began to become increasingly hard to ignore. Glaciers were retreating faster, while a string of reports suggested diminishing snowfalls and warmer temperatures threatened the viability of low-altitude resorts. Suddenly Val Thoren’s bitter weather seemed more reassurance than inconvenience.
When I visited in late November for La Grande Première, the resort’s 2016/17 winter opening weekend, conditions were ideal: cold and sunny with two metres of snow up top. No wonder record numbers of visitors — 30,000 of them — showed up over the weekend.
Lower resorts have not been so lucky. Warm weather and rain means that, with Christmas only a week away,
many are surrounded by hillsides that are green and brown rather than
white, a situation that is becoming worryingly familiar.
“The seasons are changing, without doubt,” says Grégory Guzzo, director of the Val Thorens tourist office. “Guests certainly come to Val Thorens because they want a holiday guarantee.”
And while reliable snow attracts skiers, it has also become a magnet for investors growing increasingly anxious about climactic trends: Val Thorens now looks a far better long-term bet than many more famous, but lower, resorts. The result is that luxury has rapidly arrived in the once utilitarian resort. Four five-star hotels have opened in as many years — there were none before — bringing a new type of client to this remote valley. The first, Altapura, launched with four stars in 2011 and gained a fifth the following year. The 39-year-old Fitz Roy emerged from an extensive refurbishment with five stars in 2013, followed by the launch of Koh-I Nor in 2014 and Pashmina in 2015. “We don’t want to become Courchevel,” insists Guzzo. “We’re still the same at heart but wanted to offer old and new guests something different.”
Despite Guzzo’s professed reservations, one of this winter’s most anticipated openings is La Datcha, a luxury chalet for up to 12 that couldn’t underline more clearly the resort’s move towards Courchevel’s rarefied orbit. Val Thorens has traditionally had apartment blocks rather than private chalets, and it has never had anything like this — a chalet that sells for up to €98,000 per week. It has a spa, indoor swimming pool, a games room with golf simulator, and a wine list that runs to 1969 Dom Pérignon. And like many of Courchevel’s “uber-chalets”, La Datcha is Russian-backed — in this case being co-owned by Oleg Tinkoff, the credit-card tycoon and IT entrepreneur. In fact, the new chalet is the latest in Tinkoff’s collection of rental properties, joining La Datchas in Tuscany, Astrakhan in Russia and in Courchevel itself.
As I walked and skied around the streets of Val Thorens, it was clear that the number of smart shops is increasing fast, although they’re mostly selling swanky ski kit rather than furs or jewels. The dining scene has also glammed up. Among openings this winter is the restaurant at the new four-star Fahrenheit 7 hotel, which serves oysters and tuna tataki to rival Courchevel’s finest. So far, there are few signs of a burgeoning bar and club scene, but they will surely follow the snow here, along with more spas and boutiques.
The Altapura, the property that kick-started the five-star transformation, was developed by Maisons et Hôtels Sibuet, a renowned family-owned group based in the historic and upmarket — but at 1,100m relatively low-lying — resort of Megève. “After 30 years spent creating hotels and restaurants in Megève focused on lifestyle and gastronomy, we wanted to find a resort with guaranteed snow November to May,” says Marie Sibuet, the group’s managing director. “Our regular guests will always come to Megève for Christmas and Easter but they book into Altapura when they really want to ski. It’s the same clientele but a different philosophy.”
Altapura brought fresh, money-spending blood to Val Thorens that was particularly welcome to Cédric Gorini. As well as helping his parents run the Hotel 3 Vallées and a local real estate business, he had launched an upmarket mountain restaurant, Chalet de la Marine, with his brother in 2010. Altapura’s guests rescued it from straightened times; the subsequent five-star launches sealed its resounding success.
Having added a fourth star to the family hotel, and seeing the success of Altapura, Fitz Roy and Koh-I Nor, the Gorinis realised a long-held dream to launch their own luxury hotel, the Pashmina, with Cédric at the helm. He was initially nervous: “I was not from that world — is luxury gold taps and marble walls? These five-star people, they have demands from Mars.” But the family realised that, in Val Thorens, luxury is space, so the Pashmina, set on the highest plot in town, has just 52 bedrooms in a building that could fit double that.
With Tibetan prayer wheels, handwoven Peruvian rugs, sleeping bags swagged around the windows and snowshoe imprints on the carpets, Pashmina reflects Gorini’s deep affinity for the mountains. Every Tuesday, the former ski racer takes guests and staff ski-touring up the mountain and his current dream is to get the climber Reinhold Messner to speak at his annual Winter Camps, which combine accommodation, free ski tuition and evening talks from celebrated alpinists. Sporting a dapper boiled wool jacket when we meet, Gorini seems reconciled to being part of the five-star world he once found daunting, but he also points to the emergence of a new type of Val Thorens clientele — ski-mad and obsessive about snow conditions at the same time as appreciating fine food and stylish decor.
“Today wellness and adventure, sports and luxury go hand in hand, “he says. “We’re beginning to get guests who look like us now.”
Whether they will return to monoskiing remains to be seen.
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