The Differences Between Skiing in France and the USA (and Why France Might Be a Better Choice)

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Mont Blanc is the highest peak in Europe.
Mont Blanc is the highest peak in Europe. Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin
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The first thing you notice skiing in France is that you’re less likely to understand the conversations around you. Not a real surprise, there. But as it turns out, there are numerous ways in which the ski experience in France is significantly different than that in the U.S. Here are a few to know before you go.

Huge Ski Areas

The most stunning distinction of French ski areas is their sheer size. Three Valleys or Portes du Soleil can make sprawling resorts like Park City feel like a pop-up weekend carnival and a place like Killington feel like a miniature merry-go-round. Alpine villages in France are connected in clusters by the expansive system of chairlifts and cable cars at most ski areas, so it’s possible to explore several villages during your day on the slopes, using the lifts and your boards as transportation.

Cheaper Lift Tickets

At resorts like Menuires, you’ll often find lift tickets considerably cheaper than in the U.S.
At resorts like Menuires, you’ll often find lift tickets considerably cheaper than in the U.S. Christian Scheja

If you are skiing at Vail or Aspen over the holidays, you could be dropping close to $150 on a single lift ticket. At Three Valleys, the world’s largest ski area, in high season, an adult all-day lift ticket costs $65. If you buy passes as a couple or as a group or family, they’re even more affordable.

More Impressive Peaks

The rugged mountains of Chamonix.
    Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin
The rugged mountains of Chamonix. Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin

Maybe you thought the Rocky Mountains, Cascades, or the Sierra Nevadas were hypnotizing to look at. Then you strain your neck gazing up at Mont Blanc, and you know you’re dealing with some serious vertical. True the Rockies have a higher volume of tall mountains, but they also start at a much higher elevation. In the Alps, when the base area sits around 2,000 to 3,000 feet, those surrounding 12,000-foot peaks are awe-inspiring monoliths. With all of that vertical, you can spend well over an hour descending from top to bottom on a single run.

Lower Treeline

You’ll find fewer trees at ski areas in the Alps, as the majority of the slopes are above the treeline.
You’ll find fewer trees at ski areas in the Alps, as the majority of the slopes are above the treeline. Patrick Nouhailler

You’ll notice that the majority of slopes in the French Alps are above treeline, which instills the true sensation of being on top of the world or gliding through another universe completely. The point where trees stop growing varies depending on latitude across the globe. In France, it typically falls around 7,000 feet of elevation. This contrasts significantly with the largely tree-lined slopes of Colorado, where trees grow up to an elevation around 12,000 feet.

Party ’Til Dawn

In France, après ski is arguably as important as skiing itself. While several U.S. resorts offer a nightclub or two where you can start the party while still in your ski boots, they typically make a last call at 1 a.m. at the latest. In France, the party goes all night, several clubs throbbing with bouncing bodies and Euro beats until 5 a.m. You’ll see people stumbling back to their lodges at the same time ski patrol is clocking in for duty.

Runs are Marked Differently

Resorts like Chamonix mark trails differently than in the U.S.
Resorts like Chamonix mark trails differently than in the U.S. Christian Bertram

Green is universally the color for beginner slopes, blue for intermediate, and black for expert, but what is red? In France, red is the color rating for trails that rank in difficulty between blue and a black—high intermediate, if you will. Also, you rarely find ropes or barriers denoting trails in the Alps, which can be especially challenging on snowy days when visibility is low. Trails are typically marked with a few small sticks, so examining a trail map to plot your route is more important here.

Avalanche Dangers

With all of the fences and ropes marking the trails in the U.S., it’s pretty clear when you venture into avalanche territory. You usually have to hike through a gate with several warning signs letting you know that the slope is not controlled for slides, unmarked obstacles are present, and you’re skiing at your own risk. While you do find these signs marking some extreme terrain in France ("avalanche" is a French word, after all), not all unmitigated slopes are marked, including the powdery slopes you see between groomed runs. If you are a powder junkie, you’ll feel compelled to leap off the well-traveled path into this inviting, often untouched sea of white, but be aware that it could be avalanche-prone. It is not uncommon to see avalanches directly under the chairlift. In France, oftentimes if a trail is not groomed, it is considered off-piste and could very well be subject to avalanches.

Lift Etiquette

If you’re accustomed to politely alternating in the chairlift line, you’d best adopt more of an "après vous" mentality during your French vacation. In France, getting onto the chairlift is more of a free-for-all. Europeans also pull the safety bar down immediately upon leaving the lift terminal (unlike at many U.S. resorts where for some reason, we risk falling to our deaths by riding up from top to bottom without the safety bar). Just fair warning—when you get on the lift, heads up. Also, at most French resorts, your lift ticket is a hard card that you scan at a machine at every chairlift or gondola, and it often has to be placed directly into the machine like a subway card to lift a gate and let you pass through, so make sure to keep it in an accessible place in your pants or jacket.

More Stops to Smell the Roses

Skiers in France typically take more time to pause and enjoy the scenery and alpine amenities
Skiers in France typically take more time to pause and enjoy the scenery and alpine amenities Jérôme Decq

OK, there are no roses in the Alps in winter. But at French resorts, skiers typically take several breaks during their ski day to enjoy a croissant and cappuccino, an extended lunch at a cozy on-mountain hut or a steaming cup of vin chaud in the afternoon. The French pause to take in the scenery. They kick back on sunny patios (yes, often with cigarette in hand) and welcome opportunities to lounge for a few minutes to soak up some rays.

The pace is different in France. In general, skiers absorb the joy of each moment on the slopes more than record them on a GoPro or selfie stick. They savor every turn rather than track all of their vertical. While there are plenty of high-speed chairlifts and high-tech systems at every French resort, skiing in France feels like taking a step back in time. It harkens back to a place where cell phones are out of sight and the view before you demands all of your focus.

Originally written for Atout France.

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