Glaciers are perhaps one of the most magnificent constructs of the natural world. You can find one on every single continent (yes, including Africa). Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re more interested in the glaciers that you can ski down. So, we’ve summed up the best places for glacier skiing in France, both in summer and in winter.
Before we kick off this post, today is the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, so we’ve slung in some words on the topic. Expect a little rough-around-the-edges info on geography, desertification, glaciers, and climate change, along with our advice on where to ski the glaciers in France this season.
What Is a Glacier?
A glacier is essentially a massive, thick lump of ice that moves very slowly under its own weight. Glaciers start life when huge accumulations of snow continues to accumulate faster than the rate of ablation. Ablation – our new favourite word – means the loss or removal of snow or ice from an area. In other words, glaciers form when snow collects faster than it melts, evaporates, or falls apart. This can take decades or centuries to happen.
How Deep Is a Glacier?
Glaciers are layers of solid ice, and the nature of their solidity is brittle until a certain point. Once ice passes a thickness of around 160ft, or 50m, ice on the upper layers of the glacier begins to move faster than the layers of ice that are packed below. Glaciers never stop moving and migrate down frozen rivers of ice. Glaciers are pretty cool in that they come to life on land and literally change the shape of the physical geography around them.
Although it may not seem obvious, glacial ice is in fact the largest freshwater reservoir on the planet. In winter months they gather snow, which is then shed as water through melting ice in summer. The cycle of seasons allows glaciers to ‘trap’ snow and then melt and pour freshwater into our eco systems.
How Are Glaciers and Drought Connected?
If glaciers are the single greatest freshwater resource on the planet, then any threat to their existence is a direct threat to the people, plants, and animals on this planet. Sounds a little dramatic, but there ye’ go.
Enter, climate change, and the rising temperatures that are the focal point of the ongoing heated debates (pun fully intended) around the world. As temperatures get warmer, the ice melting rates start to exceed the snow accumulation rate. Glaciers are shrinking. And as they shrink, freshwater resources shrink too.
Shrinking glaciers in the Andean mountains have caused Bolivia to declare a state of emergency in the past and currently nearly a billion people in Asia are at risk of drought caused by shrinking glacial ice.
What Is Desertification?
So, what happens when there isn’t enough freshwater coming out of the glacial ice? Desertification happens. Desertification is a term of degradation, particularly concerning land in areas that are arid (areas with a severe lack of water), semi-arid, and dry sub-humid. To you and me, this means deserts, but desertification itself doesn’t mean that existing deserts are getting bigger. Instead, it means that the fragile ecosystems in these areas of dry land are at risk of degradation. The people, plants, and animals that rely on the land to survive are at risk of dying.
Overexploitation of the land, including mismanagement of any available water, deforestation, poverty, and overpopulation are some of the causes of desertification. The mission of the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought is to bring attention to these issues and in particular to flag the possibility of achieving land degradation neutrality through combined efforts the world over. Basically, this stuff is all fixable.
Which Glaciers Are Affected by Climate Change?
All of them. Every. Single. One. Glaciers are shrinking the world over, including in Central Asia, in Antarctica, in the Arctic Circle, and in the Alps. You may have heard of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and all around mass-disruption to ecosystems. Glaciers, climate change, and drought all sit at the heart of these issues. You may also have heard of ‘calving’, something that has become a major tourist attraction in recent years.
What Is Ice Calving?
Ice calving is sometimes called iceberg calving or glacier calving. It occurs when huge slabs of ice, 60m high, break off from the edge of a glacier. The calving is accompanied by monstrous cracking, creaking, and booming noises. The result of ice calving is typically an iceberg floating in the sea. However, glaciers can also calve and create crevasses, ice shelves, or ice fronts, depending on the location and size of the calving.
Ice calving itself isn’t all that terrible. The issue is that ice caps and glaciers aren’t able to replenish themselves as fast as they calve or melt. This summary statement is better explained in the movie Chasing Ice. James Balog undertakes an ‘Extreme Ice Survey’ where he travels about the planet, exploring the ice and the impact of climate change. He shows us how the planet is changing, drastically, as a result of rising temperatures. The movie, and footage, is as incredible as it is devastating.
Who Is Affected by Climate Change and Drought?
We all are, however poorer communities, and certain cities and countries are feeling it the most. Countries around the world are suffering with longer droughts and tougher, hotter summers. Meanwhile, places that you may not expect changes to occur are struggling too. For example, the Hindu Kush Himalayan region is going through an absolute nightmare of challenges caused by climate change and human practices.
UNICEF provides a country-by-country overview that straight up dishes out the numbers of people affected by drought. The WorldBank states that an additional 100 million people will be pushed into poverty as a direct result of climate change.
It’s not just poorer countries that will suffer; Cape Town is continuing to battle its own water shortage crisis. Cities like São Paulo, Cairo, Moscow, Istanbul, Miami, and London are at risk of facing their own water shortages in the near future.
Where Does this Leave Me, Glaciers, and Climate Change?
Certainly you can do your bit to help reduce the impact of climate change. Start off by re-thinking your diet, reducing your consumption of plastic products and recycling like mad. You can also support various charities like Friends of the Earth, Human Appeal, Oxfam, and WWF to name a few. Do a Greta Thunberg, and start actively, persistently, and peacefully protesting against current government environmental practices. You can also educate yourself on how drought is being effectively combatted in some parts of the world. There’s plenty that can be done.
At this point, we can acknowledge that these topics of climate change, drought, melting ice caps, and worldwide suffering are downright depressing. Eco-anxiety is a real thing, by the way. And whilst we can do tons to address this issue, it’s also amazing that we still have some of the natural world left for us to explore. So we thoroughly recommend that you get out and explore it, if you can. There are still glaciers in the Alps that you can marvel at, climb up, and ski down.
What Is Glacier Skiing?
Before we recommend our favourite French Alp glacier ski-spots, it’s important to clarify; you are not going to be dropping down a sheer face of solid ice.
You will be skiing on and down a glacier, but the conditions will be snowy, powdery, and…well, a little glacial. Glacier skiing is made possible because of layers of snow sitting atop the glacier. This means that the sensation can be a little different than on a typical ski slope.
Don’t skimp on the technical clothing; most glaciers sit at altitudes of over 3000m and it can get chilly.
Do the Alps Have Snow in Summer?
Yes! France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy all still have snow on their glaciers. These resorts offer access to glacial areas at ridiculously high altitudes. Not all snow is born equal though. There can be substantial quality differences between six-month-old spring or summery snow compared to fresh snowfall. Temperatures overnight freeze up the terrain. By mid afternoon, most of the snow will melt, causing conditions to become slushy. That being said, there are plenty of great places for glacier skiing in France, where morning conditions are just right.
Best Places in France For Glacier Skiing in Summer
Les Deux Alpes
This resort offers the largest skiable glacier in France, the Girose. Les Deux Alpes resort opens in summer, this year from June 22nd to August 25th. It runs 12 ski lifts up to its 3200-3600m glacier and snow park. The highest point, 3600m is called Dôme de la Lauze. The snow park is overlooked by the peaks of La Meiji (3983m), Le Rateau (3809m), and Pic de la Grave (3667m). Get your hands on a Glacier Experience Pass starting at around €40 per day.
The beautiful Tignes boasts the Grande Motte glacier, which offers 20km of summer skiing at between 3000m to 3456m. Enjoy six blues, six reds, and one black slope. The slopes are opened for the early morning at around 7:30am. They close by about 1pm because they are nothing more than slush chutes by the afternoon. The season kicks off this year on June 21st and wraps up around September 1st. Take the Perce Neige funicular for a seven minute journey to get to the glacier. There is also a snow park sitting at 3456m. The area opens around two weeks into the summer season and has 12 operating ski lifts. A single day ski pass starts at €35 per adult.
You can ski the Pissaillas glacier in Val d’Isère for a few weeks of June and July, although the summer season is very weather dependant. This year it opened on June 8th and is expected to close on July 12th. Ski lifts run from 7am to midday, with a ski pass costing from around €30 for a day. The general public can ski on the pistes of Moraine, Pissaillas, and Montets. Other pistes are open for private competitions only.
Best Glaciers in France for Skiing in the Winter Season
If you’re not too fussed about summer, or would rather try out the glacier skiing on your next winter trip, there are several locations in the French Alps you can visit.
Looking out from the Alpe d’Huez resort, you’ll struggle to see the peak of Pic Blanc Mountain sitting at 3330m high. Once you’ve made your trek up there, you can greet the Sarenne Glacier. Then, head off down one of three beautiful black runs, only for the bold to take on. Expect some incredible drops and, if you’re skills are up to par, take on the longest black piste in all the Alps for a good 13km of heart-pumping action.
Ever skied or snowboarded on a pillow? It’s pretty insane. The Vallée Blanche offers up a sumptuous cold-side-of-the-pillow experience, starting out from Aiguille du Midi and working along the Mer de Glace. Truly edible stuff. Hands down, this resort offers some of the best glacier skiing in France.
Once you’ve had a crack at that, head over to the Argentiere glacier in the Grands Montets region for more glacial runs. Expect brilliant conditions and truly spectacular views throughout the season.
Find the Glacier du Varet sitting upon the Aiguille Rouge mountain and prepare to dive into a world of deep soft snow and endless runs. The off-piste is magical and covers much of the mountain face. On-piste, you can enjoy fun reds or a great long black that brings you down to Villaroger. Go for the excellent conditions and superb back-country lines.
Les Deux Alpes
Couldn’t make it to the summer ski season at the Girose? Stop by this glacier ski spot to enjoy nine blues, a red, and a green at around 3200m altitude. The snow park offers up mega possibilities for those looking to get in some freestyle action; check out the Olympic-sized superpipe to watch pros practice their stomach-dropping tricks. The whole place is kept moving with 17 ski lifts and is definitely worth the visit.
Discover the Bellecôte and Chiape glaciers which contain up 15km of pistes at around 3250m altitude. This snow-sure location has two black runs that are not for the faint-hearted. The longer of the two blacks kicks the ride off with a rocky start (literally). You’ll enjoy steep, powdery, adrenaline-fuelled descents.
As mentioned before, the Grande Motte glacier is the beacon of glacial skiing in the Tignes resort. You will enjoy incredible views over the Vanoise Park, and it is open for all of the winter season, weather permitting.
Open for just a few weeks over the summer, during the winter months, the Pisaillas Glacier offers roaring runs at what feels like the top of the world. Arrive from any one of the three lifts depositing excited skiers and boarders atop the glacier; TK du Montet, Cascade Express, and TK Cote 3000. Beginner-intermediates can find their feet up here on some comfy blues, whilst more seasoned skiers can jump off-piste to enjoy the great powder conditions.
There are a total of six glorious glaciers that Val Thorens calls its own. The Peclet glacier stands at around 3100m and boasts a good collection of juicy red runs. In prime position within the Three Valleys, you can head to Moraine to check out the Chaviere Glacier (3130m) and then hit up Orelle to experience the runs on Bouchet Mountain. Go for guaranteed jaw-dropping views and excellent skiing.
Be Green and Ski Green in the 2019 & 2020 Season
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. It is a day to acknowledge progress and also serves as a stark reminder that lots more needs to be done. There is no doubt that we can, and will, adapt our lifestyles to meet the goals of land degradation neutrality and slowing climate change. Ski resorts around the world are joining the movement, from Jackson Hole in the USA, to Chamonix in France.
As a company of skiers and snowboarders, we are particularly fond of the mountains and the snow. Returning to the slopes each year gives us a sense of freedom and a connection to mother nature that is different to surfing the seas or hiking a jungle. As we head into our third winter season, we are always looking for things that we can do to help save our planet. We hope to share more of our plans and ideas to combat these issues with you in the coming season.
If you’d like to find out more about how you can reduce your carbon footprint and save the mountains, visit Protect Our Winters.
So, there you have it, a whole host of options for glacier skiing in France, whatever the season. We strongly encourage you to try glacier skiing at least once in your life. It’s truly a fabulous experience and, even if skiing and snowboarding isn’t for you, you will no doubt fall in love with the mountains.