Les Marécottes: why small ski areas are just as juicy

In the hoary depths of Chamonix’s midwinter, it’s best to sleep with a shovel and snorkel by the front door: monster snowfalls could strike at any moment. When that happens this particular season, a few local powder connoisseurs will be whistling nonchalantly, skis over their shoulders, as they try to clunk quietly past Elevation 1904…

The town’s famous cafe-bar will be quiet anyway, apart from the odd Chamoniard drinking wine for breakfast. No-one ‘waits for snow to settle’ here. Not long after dawn on powder days, rows of frozen skiers begin forming. Numb-toed in plastic boots; red-nosed in the cold air nipping through the various lift stations: waiting in eager anticipation.

LesMarecottes

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And hours later: probably still waiting. It can take the Compagnie du Mont Blanc ages to throw their sausage-shaped bombs around, prep the slopes, and get the lifts open on days like this. Then the orgy begins, line after line is deflowered, and it’s all over.

Meanwhile, those powder connoisseurs will have crossed the road to a graceful building; very French-looking, with a row of v-shaped gables pointing to the peaks behind it. Here, they’ll have boarded the Mont Blanc Express and sat back in the warmth, as the cogwheel train wound around forests, gorges, mountains, and clunked up to a secret little powder sweet-spot.

No it’s not Bruson, if that’s what you’re thinking. You used to be able to drive an hour from Chamonix and dive into untracked powder all day at that quiet, 4-lift, Swiss gem. However last year Bruson was swallowed by its glamorous neighbour, Verbier, and joined by a slick gondola, sob. However, shh: there’s still Marécottes, a tiny village ski area in between Chamonix and Verbier…

The best way to get there is by train (good news for those heading to Chamonix for a car-free holiday). While the roads to Marécottes detour around three sides of a mountain-chunk called Arpilles, the 100-year-old rack-and-pinion railway takes the direct route, which, in an unusual twist of fate, also happens to be the scenic route.

For the past couple of years, it’s been an off-putting schlep to Marécottes: due to train tunnel-works you had to board a bus mid-train journey, or drive past said tunnel, then board the train. The work is finally done, and the pretty Swiss Valais village is once again a simple train journey from Chamonix this winter. But not everyone will know that…

I remember the first time I went to Marécottes very well. After crunching through narrow wooden alcoves between quaint buildings, and past a picturesque 100-year-old church, we laid our skis down on the snowy base of Mont Luisin. The ski area is small, very small: just a few kilometres of slopes; a local family area. But there are secret sides to Marécottes.

Mountain walls encircle the ski area; basically hugging a little playpen of snow, which funnels down to the village. The layout provides a worry-free environment for parents: several were happily sipping vins chauds in the restaurant that day, seeking refuge from the snowstorm while their kids pinballed happily down.

We hoped the little darlings wouldn’t follow us as we began hoovering up fresh powder off the sides of the piste. Only the lower lift from Marécottes (1110m) up to La Creusaz (1777m) was open so far, but that was all part of the plan. The top lift would be open long before the ones in Chamonix, as Marécottes is a much smaller operation. And, in the meantime, the lower slopes happen to offer a tree-skier’s unadulterated utopia…

While the pistes are beginner-to-intermediate (three blues, three reds, one black), the tree-skiing here is definitely intermediate-to-advanced. And there’s no-one there. Helmets firmly on, we slalomed through tightly-spaced trunks and enjoyed some jibbing au naturel.

The trees were the perfect place to be in the white-out: offering definition and protection from the elements while securing prime powder stashes. It was thigh-burning but, because the ski-slopes zig-zag through the forest you can easily nip off the side for a steep tree-section, then take a quick piste-break.

When the top lifts opened we headed up to explore the bowl above. The clearing sky hinted at the stunning terrain a bit of hiking can access. Ski-touring tips? A north-facing slope and a lake are the keys..

When you’re worn out and hungry, the local ‘apéro’ spot is Café des Marécottes, but don’t expect a wild one. The nightlife is so quiet you can hear cows moo-ing in barns. Not much happens here ’til May, when the social calendar peaks with the Valais region’s annual cow-fighting festival. The winning cow of the local feisty breed is crowned Queen, and its owner ‘King among cow-farmers’, all accompanied by days of heavy drinking.

You’ll probably fall in love with the place and want to see it in summer too, so you could always come back for that. In the meantime, I suggest catching the train back to Chamonix and popping into Elevation 1904 for a cheeky demi. Your smiley face and worn-out legs will probably give away what an epic day you had. But if anyone asks, you were in Chamonix all day, right?