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Portes du Soleil offers a dozen ski resorts in France and Switzerland

By LEAH LARKIN | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 13, 2014

The Swiss Wall. American skiers often call it “the wall of death.” Indeed, skiers have perished on the infamous steep, treacherous slope in the Portes du Soleil ski region. The wall is one of those legendary slopes good skiers want to say they have conquered — another notch in the belt.

In my younger days, I skied around those mammoth moguls on the Wall, but last winter I employed reason and decided not to risk it. I was happy cruising on the wonderful red (intermediate) runs that abound here.

Portes du Soleil (“Gateway to the Sun”) ski region with slopes in both Switzerland and France claims to be the largest ski area in the world with 194 lifts in 12 resorts in two countries.

The Wall is a challenging slope en route to Switzerland from the French resorts. But there’s no need to risk your life. You can ride a chairlift or ski other slopes. An American who did perish on the Wall years ago made the mistake of taking his skis off, thinking it would be easier to walk down. He slipped and fell, hitting his head against a rock. No matter how difficult the slope, you are safer with your skis on, experts advise.

During my visit last winter, I stayed on the Swiss side of Portes du Soleil. Snowfalls and patches of dense fog added an extra challenge to those first few days on the slopes. Friends and I decided to stay in Switzerland and ski the blue and red (beginner and intermediate) runs above the village of Les Crosets. We were in awe of the grandiose scenery with few other skiers to tarnish the natural wonder. The better skiers ventured off-piste for adventure in powder.

Lunch on the mountains is a highlight of a ski day. On the slopes above the Swiss town of Champéry, we took shelter from the foul weather at Chez Coquoz, a delightful retreat, cozy with a fireplace inside and a terrace surrounded by sensational views outside. The eatery features unusual, innovative offerings made from mountain flowers and herbs. Proprietor Agnes Coquoz, a friendly soul who, in her younger days, was a member of the Swiss Olympic ski team, persuaded us to try the special of the day, hay soup, made from dried mountain grass and herbs. Very tasty. We returned the next day for gnocchi made with mountain grass, plus cheese, cream and nuts.

A few days later we ventured to Avoriaz, France, and beyond. Avoriaz is a ski village with high-rise apartment complexes, lots of restaurants and some futuristic ski lifts. Express chairlifts whisk you to both red and black (intermediate and difficult) runs in Les Hauts Forts above the town. We continued down the valley to Les Lindarets, skiing scenic routes bordered by towering pines. Our return to Avoriaz by the Prodains Express was impressive — a high-speed, sleek lift with a dozen 35-passenger cabins. At the end of the four-minute cable car ride, an escalator awaits for the last leg of the ascent.

The ultimate Portes du Soleil adventure is to ski a circuit from village to village. If you are a strong and fast skier, you might be able to hit all the resorts in one day, but with little time for lunch. The Portes du Soleil ski map has a suggested route. Follow signposts on the slopes to the resorts on your route. Begin early to make sure you arrive back at your starting point before the lifts close.

Champéry was my base for this ski vacation. The Old World village with its wooden chalets, interesting shops and restaurants, and a church, whose bells chime frequently, is a charmer. Although it has no ski slopes, it’s a short walk or free shuttle bus ride from most of the town’s hotels to the 125-passenger Planachaux cable car for the ride to the top from where you head off in one direction to ski Swiss slopes, or in another direction to French resorts, including Avoriaz.

While Champéry does not have ski slopes per se, you can end your ski day on skis — not crammed into a cable car for the descent. From the top of the Ripaille lift, there is an intermediate trail to the Grand Paradis ski area adjacent to Champéry. Shuttle buses run from its parking lot to the village. It’s a perfect leisurely and scenic finale to a day on the slopes.

Contact Leah Larkin through her website, www.leahlarkin.com, or blog address, www.talesandtravel.com.

 

Portes du Soleil ski resort

Getting there: There is trainervice to Champéry, about 78 miles from Geneva, the closest international airport. Also, many military-based local ski clubs travel to Portes du Soleil.

Costs: A one-day lift pass for all Portes du Soleil slopes this season costs 48.50 euros for adults.

Accommodations: National Hotel Restaurant (lenational.ch), Champéry, a small family-run hotel in the heart of the village with a gourmet restaurant. Walk or ride a free shuttle bus to the Planachaux cable car.

Food: La Ferme à Gaby (lafermeagaby.ch), a farm restaurant on the Swiss slopes, with lodging also available. Specializes in homemade cheeses and regional products. Chez Coquoz Champéry, Valais, Switzerland. Phone: (+41) (0) 24 479 12 55.

Information: Champéry website: www.champery.ch; Portes du Soleil website: www.portesdusoleil.com.

Low clouds fail to obscure the higher peaks of the Portes du Soleil region, which stretches from Switzerland to France.

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