Winter sports in France's mountains

  • Snowboard

    © Atout France/PHOVOIR

    Snowboard

    © Atout France/PHOVOIR

  • Ski

    © Atout France/PHOVOIR

    Ski

    © Atout France/PHOVOIR

Winter sports in France's mountains

In addition to traditional skiing activities and spas, France's snow-covered mountains are full of opportunities to try out the latest and most unusual full-adrenaline sports. Even beginners can have a try at these spectacular sports.

Snake tobogganing

Tobogganing in a snake (snake gliss) is good fun for both family and friends. Although a helmet is required, this is one of the least dangerous sports that is currently “all the rage” in the French ski resorts.

Invented by Sport Adventure Events in the French Alps, the idea is to link a dozen plastic toboggans together, allowing them to snake across the snow. Overseen by a trained instructor, the itinerary can extend over several kilometres full of thrilling descents.

The best spots to try snake gliss are Orcières 1850Les Angles, and Ax 3 Domaines. Also worth discovering is Rouge Gazon, a new dedicated site in the Vosges Mountains.

Snow-kiting and speed-riding

Skis and snowboards may be considered more traditional, but you’ll be leaving the ski lifts behind when you have the wind pulling you along, bringing with it an incredible sense of freedom. These two new hybrid sports combine wind and snow to boost the heady sensation of speed.

Both, however, require technical and physical preparation. As ‘extreme’ sports, they call for an intensive introductory course under specialised supervision, followed by cautious practice with full awareness of the risks.

Snow-kiting is similar to kite-surfing, for it uses a kite to race across relatively flat fields of snow. Meanwhile, speed-riding combines skis and paragliding with a kite that lifts the speed-rider off of the slope in bounds that sometimes rise tens of metres high.

Schools where the sport can be learned and practiced include:

  • Aerospeed: experience the thrill of speed-riding at all levels on the slopes of Le Sancy in Auvergne.
  • Adrenactive: a snow-kite school exploiting the vast snow fields of Vercors.
  • Air Evolution: a snow-kite school in Le Semnoz, which takes advantage the areas overlooking Lake Annecy.
  • The speed-riding school at Val Fréjus (Maurienne Valley).
  • Bol d’Air: a school in La Bresse in the Vosges Mountains.
  • The Les Arcs speed riding school (Paradiski, Tarantaise Valley).
  • Sand-Fly: A speed-riding school in the Ubaye Valley.

Snow-scooting

Snow-scooters consist of a BMX frame mounted on hinged skis instead of wheels making it possible to ride the slopes like a biker. This lightweight and playful contraption can perform daring turns and acrobatic figures.

Top-level competitions have already been organized, and many resorts now rent out the equipment. However, you must remember to coexist peacefully with other skiers on the slopes, and some resorts do not yet allow snow-scooting. A full list ski resorts who permit snow-scooting can be found via the Association Française de Snowscoot.

The best places to practice it are TignesSuper Besse, and L’Alpe d’Huez.

Mountain biking in the snow

At first glance, it looks like an ordinary mountain bike. However, there are a few distinct features of snowbikes: a special suspension system, hydraulic brakes and heavily studded tires! Once any initial apprehension has been overcome, the sensation of speed – at up to 95 kph (60 mph) – and controlled skids are intoxicating.

This daredevil activity is usually done once the slopes have been closed to skiers, or on specialized trails that are beginning to pop up in several French resorts.

The best places to practice snowbiking are Les MénuiresIssarbe, and Avoriaz.

Airboarding

Airbording was invented in Switzerland as a snow-bound cousin of bodyboarding. Armed with an inflatable board and a helmet, airboarders race down the slopes on their bellies, head first.

Airboarding can be done on toboggan runs, as well as on specific slopes in certain resorts such as Val Thorens. Some forty resorts in France allow airboarders to hit the ski slopes once they have been closed to skiers and snowboarders.

The best locations for airboarding are CourchevelVal Thorens, and Valmorel.

The Yooner

The yooner of today is a micro-sled based on an old wooden design that had been used by children in the Thônes Valley to get to school during the winter.

The new yooner design is composed of a plastic seat on a short monoski with a stainless-steel bottom, and it is endowed with a suspension system to absorb the shock of bumps and moguls.

Unlike some other new sports, learning to control a yooner is quick and easy, so you’ll soon be appreciating the thrill of speed that is made all the more impressive by being close to the ground.

The best places to try out the yooner are Praz-sur-ArlyLes Arcs, and La Clusaz.

Ice diving

As a mountain version of explorations into "the deep", ice diving takes place beneath the thick ice on high-altitude lakes.

A fully monitored initiation into this kind of diving is an exciting and highly visual experience as changing light filters through the "ice field". Specialized, high-tech equipment protects the diver from the cold. Several ski resorts offer introductory ice-diving courses:

  • DivExtreme in Chamrousse, near Grenoble.
  • Tignes Plongée at Tignes, the leading resort in the Tarantaise Valley.
  • Oser Plonger at Orcières 1850 in the Hautes-Alpes.
  • Aquaventure at Montriond, near Avoriaz and Morzine (Portes du Soleil).

Ice climbing

In order to climb the ephemeral curtains of ice and vertical sculptures clinging to the rocky cliffs, mountaineers invented the sport of ice climbing. This art is halfway between crag-climbing and mountaineering, and utilises special techniques with front-pointed crampons and a pair of ice axes.

It is done primarily in the shade, from December to February, but also on a few artificial walls that are doused with water when the temperature drops.

Pioneering guides for this type of climbing have explored major sites in the Alps, notably around Mont Blanc, in the Vanoise region, and in the Oisans-Ecrins and Queyras sectors.

Opportunities for ice climbing in France can be found at:

  • Courchevel, the leading resort of the 3 Vallées complex.
  • Champagny-en-Vanoise, a village-resort linked to La Plagne.
  • Compagnie des Guides in Chamonix, below Mont Blanc.
  • Ice Ruissling in the Vosges Mountains, with the Ecole du Ski Français.