Tim Hughes is in awe of the athletes racing in France’s Pierra Menta mountain ski race

Every skier will tell you, it pays to get up early. You beat the queues to the lifts, get the slopes to yourself, and, if you’ve been having a little too much fun the night before, you can clear the hangover quickly with a dose of cold, clear mountain air.

But what’s going on here?

I’m stumbling out of my hotel an hour before sunrise, skis over my shoulder and clutching a paper cup of espresso so thick and sweet I could stand my poles in it. And I’m stuck in a queue for the lifts... in the dark.

Around me thousands of skiers, many equipped not only with coffee but with French flags poking from their rucksacks and head torches over their woolly hats, are making their way up the mountain for one of the most extraordinary, and extreme, events in the sporting calender – the Pierra Menta.

This annual feat of endurance and ability has drawn some of Europe’s toughest skiers to the stunning Arêches-Beaufort area of the French Alps for 30 years.

One of the Holy Trinity of great Alpine races – ‘Les Grandes Trois de Ski de Montagne’ – this mind-bendingly difficult stage of skiing’s ‘La Grande Course’ sees 700 pairs of wiry men and women skiing down precipitous slopes, and then back up the other side, by attaching abrasive ‘skins’ to the underside of their skis.

This high-altitude ski touring marathon calls for ludicrous stamina on the way up, and impossible technical prowess on the way down – with competitors racing for up to six hours a day

The cumulative altitude, over the four days, is 10,000m – and all on the most extreme terrain: downhills as steep as cliffs, through terrifying 'couloirs' and over razor-sharp arêtes. And there is no let up.

It is almost always won by the home side – though this year a pair of Italians took first place in the men’s race – though a French lass, Laetitia Roux, won the women’s event with a Swedish team mate.

We took the easy way up, for the first section at least, on a chair lift.

Below us, locals strode, as sure-footed as mountain goats up the mountain, almost keeping pace.

Above us the sky turned golden and red as the sun broke over the mountains. The views in every direction were divine, though no one was really looking. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air, mingled with the Alpine chill.

At the top, we stretched skins of our own over our skis and strode off. To anyone only accustomed to downhill skis, the equipment involved in ski touring is unusual and takes some time to get used to.

Bindings release the sole of the boot from the ski, with only the toe attached. This allows one to walk up, without removing your skis – which is just as well, as to take them off would render you helpless.

Like almost everything in the mountains, it’s all about technique, and after some fumblings and stumblings – much to the amusement of our tanned and healthy-looking fellow spectators – we soon mastered the motion– hitting a rhythmic stride, powering up the mountain. After a fashion.

Arriving at the summit, legs burning with the exertion, we felt like Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing rolled into one – we had arrived. We weren’t champions though, but mere spectators.

Around was silence. We waited and watched.

On a mountain face opposite we saw them, snaking up through the snow in a zig-zag of tiny dark specks, moving up like a jagged, sluggish snake wriggling up to the summit. They hit the top, hurtled down, then up again. In no time they were upon us – greeted with a riot of air horns, cheers and a flurry of tricoleurs.

They smiled casually and nonchalantly skied off.

They had already accomplished what we could only dream of – and it was still before breakfast. And the worst part: they looked less exhausted than I did. As the French say: “Courage!”

The facts:

You don’t have to be an extreme athlete to enjoy the stunning Beaufortain valley. With a range of slopes for all abilities, and a notable absence of crowds, this is the perfect place to come as a beginner or to hone your technique as an intermediate skier, or to try ski touring. And because it’s a little off the track, prices are favourable too.

Getting there:
Chambéry is the closest airport, being just one hour drive by car. Geneva, Lyon and Grenoble are also nearby.
There are no organised transfers, so hire a car, take a taxi, or let the train take the strain, by travelling from Geneva to Albertville and then a bus to the resorts of Arêches, Hauteluce or Les Saisies


There’s a great range of hotels and chalets across the region.

  • The two-star Hotel Les Ancolies in Arêches-Beaufort is a perfect base. Near the lifts and in the heart of the action, among the restaurants, bars and shops. Prices from 75€ per night for a double room B&B


  • The three-star Hotel La Ferme du Chozal in Hauteluce, along the stunning valley, is a rustic beauty. Out in a secluded spot, at the foot of the slopes, and a short walk from some fabulous homely restaurants. You may never see another tourist. Prices from €170 per room per night.


The Arêches-Beaufort has a combined 50km of slopes. A day pass for all lifts is €28.60
The area is a favourite for ski touring and plays host to the famous international ski mountaineering race, the Pierra Menta. Those new to ski touring also love the area and come to try it for the first time. From last year, they have marked ski touring routes which can be accessed for free. 
The introductory track offers a climb of 470m in altitude and is 3.2 km long – a perfect way to familiarise yourself before going to conquer the nearby peaks. 
The Arêches Dynafit Experiences are accompanied night time excursions with equipment included. They run on a Tuesday during the winter season. Reserve with areches-beaufort.com


On the slopes in Arêches-Beaufort:

  • l’Alpage

Plat du jour : 14.50€ - Menu Plat du jour + desert for 18.70€


On the slopes in Les Saisies:

  • Chalet les Marmottes

Plat du jour: 13€ - 3 courses : 19€


In Hauteluce:

New Auberge du Mont Blanc

3 courses meal : 27€

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