Freeriding first in Courmayeur

11th March 2011, by Chris Gill

Far from the madding piste: from Cresta Youla, above Courmayeur

Far from the madding piste: from Cresta Youla, above Courmayeur

Author: Wendy King

Er, are we going in there? Sometimes apprehension can get the better of excitement. And as I nervously persuaded my very wide skis to side-slip onto the narrow traverse, my wow factor for the trip was tempered by a cautious fear. Suddenly the slope below me looked impossibly steep, the chopped snow sure to trip me up and send me plummeting towards the void …

We were near the top of Courmayeur’s mountain, starting a route from the Cresta Youla (2625m) to Zerotta (1525m), a vertical descent of 1100m that follows a wide snow bowl and steepish, narrow ravine before broadening to a flattish valley bottom. With guidance, it’s perfectly achievable by competent skiers and one of the ‘easier’ routes in the area.

For me, it was my inauguration into the world of freeride proper. Until now, I had dabbled with powder near the piste and tackled variable between-the-piste routes and itinerary runs, even climbed mountains in winter, but never really strayed beyond.

Just follow me,” said Gianni “ And turn where I do. It’s like the piste.” So, I was committed and making cautious turns down the heavily tracked snow. Our line took us between a rock band, then further around the bowl to where we could pick up some good powder.

As Gianni danced off through the powder, making it all look so easy, I took a few deep breaths before launching myself down the slope. In the shade, the snow was delightful; in the sun, a little crunchy. We re-grouped and paused to take in those views, up close and personal with Mont Blanc and a deserted snow bowl glistening in the morning sun. Not a sound apart from our excited (or nervous!) banter.

Gianni is a cheery chappie with over 30 years experience guiding skiers and boarders around the world’s mountains, off-piste, heli-skiing and mountaineering. He has lived and worked as a mountain guide in the Courmayeur region since 1978 and is well respected in the area.

Our group of five had met him the previous evening in our hotel bar, to discuss the day’s itinerary. We needed something less challenging than the Helbronner or Toula glacier descents accessible from the Monte Bianco cable car across the valley (sorry, Graham. Maybe next time, eh?).

Next morning, Gianni checked us out with a couple of warm-up runs down the pistes. Then it was up the tiny Youla cable car, on with the avalanche transceivers and off to tackle the run. You can go higher: another small cable car takes you to the Cresta d’Arp for a route even further away from the pistes, but eventually returning to Dolonne in the valley. After ten days without fresh snow, conditions were stable and the avalanche risk low at level 2.

The lower part of the Youla-Zerotta route drops into a pretty ravine that for us was full of big moguls – thankfully softened by the sun. To return to the ski area then involves a long and almost flat run-out along the valley, but you eventually rejoin the masses at the Zerotta chairlift.

So, my off-piste career was off the mark and without too much drama. Time to toast our route with a Prosecco and hearty lunch at La Grolla, well positioned for splendid views of Mont Blanc. From the sunny terrace we could look back up the valley towards our descent, wishing we had time to do it all again.

Eight hours later though we were back in the UK, having enjoyed two full days on the slopes as a Courmayeur short break and looking forward to more adventures off-piste. For competent piste skiers looking to progress to some back country terrain, the Cresta Youla-Zerotta route is a worthwhile start. Hire a guide and have a go. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Great fun.

Note: We’d like to hear about your first experiences off-piste, with a view to putting together a reader feature. Email us your story …

Further information:

Gianni Carbone is a qualified mountain guide, with winter and summer programmes available. Skiing adventures in the Aosta Valley are popular. For more information check out: Mountain Sports at

Ski Solutions arranges short stays in Courmayeur, notably at the Pilier d’ Angle hotel in Entreves. The 3- star superior hotel is traditional and welcoming with a spa centre. And they will organise minibus or taxi transport to the main lifts or resort centre. The Val Veny cable car is a five- to ten-minute walk from the hotel.

Eating there:

Don’t miss Chiecco: a fabulous spot with a varied menu and welcoming hosts. We also enjoyed lunch at La Grolla, above Val Veny.

Getting there:

Fly to Geneva or Turin, about 1.5 to 2 hours drive. Show Train ( can provide minibus transfers from Geneva.

I was there … Wendy getting a taste for powder, in the shadow of Mont Blanc.

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