First things first: an apology. I recently moved to Sydney, Australia (before the beginning of Armageddon), so the last few months have been a blur and finding the time to write has been near-impossible. While we’re still in the preface, I’d also like to offer my own best wishes to you all and your loved ones during this difficult time – just hang on to the anticipated bliss of that first step back in the water once the beaches re-open (and there’s sure to be some Aussie surf blogs/vlogs coming your way from me). Nonetheless, one positive of lockdown is that I now have plenty of time to sift through all my footage from the past year (including the following content from Pra Loup). If you can’t get to the ocean, surely the next best thing is watching hours of GoPro videos while editing your next vlog?
If you’re here for surfing, though, you’ll need to wait for my next article. European ski season is well and truly over for the year, so I’m taking this chance to drop a blog and vlog combo from a recent (well, within the past 12 months) snowboarding expedition to the French Alps.
Pra Loup is an undiscovered paradise
Since I was based in Marseille at the time, the closest mountains were a mere 2-hour drive away. So, after spotting a good snow forecast a few days before, we booked a BlaBlaCar to Barcelonette for less than €40 and frantically began preparing.
If you’ve followed my previous blogs, you’ll know I’m a huge BlaBlaCar advocate – both as a driver and a passenger – although mostly for the great stories that come from it. This time was no different; our driver was an old yogi and surfer with tales of packing bombs at Teahupo’o in his youth. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks and eventually pulled into the little Alpine village.
We unloaded the car and dropped our bags at the AirBnB. In the unlikely event that anyone ends up in Barcelonette, I would highly recommend Severine’s place; the spiritual art printed on A4 paper and stuck to the bedroom walls really complemented the incense. (But joking aside, she was a great host.)
The resort, Pra Loup, is accessible in just 10 minutes by bus. We checked the bus schedule online, promptly lost track of time, and ended up running through the cobbled streets to arrive with 30 seconds to spare. We promised ourselves we would pay more attention to leave on time in future (spoiler: we didn’t).
Our lift passes weren’t valid until the next morning. So, after sorting the ski hire and putting on my new fluffy boots (while Clara lugged around her two rocks of moulded plastic – always a good reminder of why transitioning to snowboarding was such a great decision), I spotted some cheap plastic sledges and the afternoon’s plans were set.
Yep, those are socks on my hands – we forgot the gloves during the rush for the bus
No prizes for guessing how day 2 started:
…but yet again we jumped through the bus door with seconds to spare.
Clara was still recovering from a skateboarding knee injury from the week before (due to holding on to the back of my bike because she was late for a lecture… you can figure out the rest), so we grabbed some ice gel from the local pharmacy and headed to the lifts.
It helped that we were super lucky with the weather too; so much so that we had to ski in just our t-shirts most afternoons!
Albeit a relatively unknown resort in the Southern Alps, Pra Loup has over 100 miles of piste; the lift pass also provides access to Val d’Allos, where you can find another 110 miles of mapped runs. Moreover, since we went on a random weekend outside of peak season, we virtually had the mountains to ourselves.
After exploring the marked pistes around the resort, we decided to try descending one of the many huge expanses we’d seen under the chairlifts. Off-piste is a lot of fun, especially with fresh powder and so much empty space to explore. Somehow I still managed to end up crashing into a tree; serves me right for watching too many Candide Thovex clips that morning.
The next day started the same as the others; but I see running for the bus more as a beneficial warm-up than as a mistake.
Once in Pra Loup, we decided to go to Val d’Allos, the sister resort, and back. While the outbound journey passed without a hiccup, the return journey proved slightly more problematic. (Arguably a lot more problematic…)
It was late afternoon and we were deep into the labyrinth of beautiful, tree-lined runs. Since we’d practically been skiing alone the entire weekend, not seeing anyone for over an hour wasn’t disturbing in the slightest. We were having too much fun exploring – so much so, in fact, that we completely lost track of time. For anyone reading this who decides to book a trip to Pra Loup, I would recommend leaving at least 2 to 3 hours to return home from Val d’Allos. We had 20 minutes at most.
It was a race against time, and we lost.
Our final lift brought us to the top of a mountain – still 3 peaks from Pra Loup – at around 5:35pm. By this point the winter sun was already setting, and the light was beginning to fade. Thankfully we bumped into a resort employee locking down his hut after collecting the last of the piste markers. We flagged him down and explained our predicament:
“Excuse me, which is the best way back to Pra Loup now the lifts are closed?” we asked, hopefully.
A concerned look spread over his face. Pointing to a glacier in the darkness five-hundred metres below, he told us “There’s the road back to Pra Loup.”
“Err, is there a landmark or something we can aim for? I can’t see the road at all”
“That’s because it’s covered in about ten metres of snow”
The only way back to civilisation was a 3-hour taxi-ride around the mountain range. What’s more, it would be at least an hour or two before any taxis could get to us – assuming we could find the road at all.
Thankfully, the piste patroller took pity on us. One of his co-workers lived in Pra Loup and drove the mountain rescue van home each night, “Wait here while I radio down.”.
Sheepishly loading the skis into our saviour’s van
In a truly miraculous change of fate, the second worker was still shutting down his chairlift and instructed us to meet him at the refuge house half-way down. This was easier said than done; we were skiing blind in the dying light trying to count the ‘third pine tree on the left’ to know which forest trail to take, knowing full well that a mistake here would send us to the bottom of the mountain with no hope of rescue.
Somehow we made it. After a terrifying drive along an icy road around the edge of the mountain, we finally returned to the comfort of Pra Loup. As you may have noticed, poor time-keeping was the running theme of the trip.
Aside: It wasn’t the first time we’ve been stranded on a mountain at nightfall. After being captivated by a beautiful sunset atop Montagne Sainte Victoire near Aix-en-Provence, we realised we had totally lost the trail back down (which was already more of a climbing route than a footpath). As a result, we trekked 2 hours down a ridge towards some distant lights; which – upon arrival – turned out to be on the other side of a gorge. Fortunately, we stumbled across the Bimont Dam, jumped the fence and walked along the knife-edge between two 100m drops, before hitchhiking to make it to the local village in time for the last bus home. What’s life without a little adventure?
Anyway, back to our final day in Pra Loup; as you might expect by now, it began with some early-morning exercise.
Regaining my technique after a few days on the slopes, I decided to take a diversion through the snow park. It started well, but my confidence quickly outgrew my abilities and I ended up sending it much too high and much too far off a little kicker, completely overshooting the landing.
“It would be much safer to practise on the airbag jump”, I thought.
I was wrong.
Although it looks great on the video, the Corked 180 was entirely unplanned. The carpet on the ramp was a lot less slippery than the snow before it; so as soon as I hit the incline my board stopped and momentum threw me forward. Luckily I had enough speed to avoid face-planting directly onto the ramp itself, but instead clipped my arm on the apex as I was projected into an unintentional front flip. The extra hit caused a perfect horizontal rotation, which I managed to control just in time to land feet-first on the mat, much to the astonishment of a few impressed bystanders. I tried my best to walk away without a grimace and with an air of “one to try at the park tomorrow”.
The trip ended with another happy coincidence as we happened upon a free concert of the French boy-band ‘Kyo’. The return journey went smoothly and we made it back to Marseille to watch the WKA (windsurfing) World Championships the following day. All in all, a successful excursion.
Check out these discounts on snow gear at Urban Surfer to set you up for next season:
Until then, stay safe!
~ Will (@willdavies11)