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A Weekend Skiing in the French Alps

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We had long ago planned an extended weekend with Friends down in the French alps, and finally the time was here.  We’d be heading to Val Thorens, which is part of the Three Valley’s area (that includes other resorts I’ve skied at in the past such as Courchevel and Meribel).

Unlike most times when I’ve gone with my brother or The Girl and stayed in hotels, this time the group of us rented a huge ski chalet right on the slopes.  Pure awesome and to make the best of it, it was cheaper than a hotel!  Although this entire structure wasn’t our palace, we did occupy about half of it, and  the second apartment wasn’t rented so we were free to come and go as late and early as we wanted without having to consider others outside of our group. which may or may not have led to some late night dance parties ;)

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Getting down to the area required about 4.5 hours between two trains, and then a 40 minute taxi up the winding roads to the ski village.  But it was so worth it.

Lots of skiing:

We did so…much…skiing.  We lucked out in that the weather was great there for us, more or less sunny the entire time.

Val Thorens is part of the Les 3 Vallées (The 3 Valleys), which is the largest ski area in the world with some 180+ lifts.  It’s basically a series of smaller ski areas (such as Val Thorens), of course, small is all relative here since Val Thorens has 29 lifts just by itself, and tops out at 10,564ft (3,220m).

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Most of the lifts you’ll take are gondolas or cable cars.  Though there are certainly chairlifts, often in less busy locales or places where they want to rate-limit the number of people a bit (such as some of the more difficult peaks).  For example, we took a small chairlift up to the top of one peak to ski down the face through the rocks (that’s the wind screaming over the rocks to the left there, causing the snow plumes):

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Here’s a video I took from the Zeal HD2 goggles of that little bit of fun we did:

(For the record, it’s not out of bounds, the little sign you see is simply telling you to get out of the chairlift unloading zone, with the fences keeping you from going off the backside.)

Of course, the views from up top of any lifts are really just amazing.  Sometimes they even have little maps telling you where all the peaks are.

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Or just signs to figure out which resort you’re headed to:

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There were even circular rainbows.  No lens tricks or magic here, it actually looked like this with your own eyes:

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The best day was probably Saturday, which in most European resorts is considered changeover day.  Unlike in the US where many would just go skiing for a weekend or extended weekend, many in Europe would go for a full week to a resort.  Thus many apartments/hotels/etc are only bookable in week-long segments.  And, those segments near universally start and end on Saturday, therefore earning the name changeover day.

On that day however, the slopes are nearly empty.  And we’d get a lot of empty chairlifts and gondolas:

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Speaking of lifts, they have magic carpet tunnels.  Which are hilariously awesome and perfect for getting around the village:

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But perhaps the best part about skiing in France is the food on the hills itself, there are seemingly endless quant little lodges like this hillside:

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Where you can sit outside and eat a feast:

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Or, just enjoy sitting in the sun and have drinks brought right to you:

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And there’s even a massive bar with DJ up on the hillside too.  Epic big:

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Of course, we could cook up just as much food as we wanted to inside our ski chalet too, which, astoundingly even included a Raclette machine.

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Perhaps after the meat and cheese festivus we put together it was good that we skied a lot.

A bit of ziplining:

While stumbling through the website for Val Thorens we noticed they had some crazy zipline listed.  One that was only accessible to those skiing/snowboarding.  It said it reached speeds of 110kph over nearly a mile, while being about 750ft above the ground (that’s the height of the Space Needle in Seattle).  Sign us up!

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Turns out, the ‘sign us up’ part takes a bit of time.  In our case, we spent 2 hours in the line standing there at the top of a mountain at 10,000ft.  At the completion of that 2 hours, we signed our life away and got all harnessed up:

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Then we headed up the platform for a moment of silence to reflect upon the mistake of signing up for such craziness.

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Five of us in the group made such a mistake.  The others were smarter.

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We’d watch each of them going off, one by one. Soon it was The Girl’s time to go (I was last, after her). She had put on the Zeal HD2 camera goggles to record the journey (I had a GoPro on).  The way it works is that after getting all connected to the zipline attachment, you wait for the green light above you.  This waiting period takes a few minutes of just dangling there, hanging off the line.  Here’s her run as filmed from the goggles:

Yes…she got stuck at the end.  She wasn’t heavy enough to make it and had to jump a bit to get close enough.  Here’s a much better (read: hilariously funny) view recorded by our friend David:

After she was all set, it was my turn to go.  I had the Hero4 Black attached to my helmet.  Here’s another view of what it looks like, this time from my run on it.  If nothing else, notice the quality difference between the 720p video from the HD2 from goggles, vs the 4K video from the GoPro.

All in all, pretty awesome – oh, and only €50.  Very reasonable in my mind.  In case you’re wondering, your skis were attached to your back.  So you just kept on skiing from there.

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Additionally, they have a secondary line that you see in the video to the right with the red balls on it.  That’s how they get all the extra metal zip things and harnesses back to the top via a little robotic cage carrier:

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They also had this totally awesome scale you stepped on prior to going on the line. Although I’d question now their calibration skills after several re-run videos of The Girls “did I make it”, zip line fail!

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We did get lucky though, as the next day the winds were too high to operate – so it’s definitely a bit limited on the weather front.  Also, across all the devices that we wore, as a group we topped out in speed at about 50-55MPH.

And the gadgets!

Speaking of those gadgets, I brought a small pile of them.  I was really only truly testing a few of them.  But others were along for the ride, or being used for other upcoming posts.

So in the bag was… Some Garmin watches, mostly focusing on the ski/snowboard mode so I can show how it works in both upcoming and past reviews, such as the FR920XT review:

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It really is impressive how well it works – quite cool.  It automatically keeps track of my runs and I don’t have to touch it at all after starting it at the beginning of the day.

Next was the Zeal HD2 goggles that have a built-in 1080p camera in the front of them for both videos and photos:

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Then I loaned another pair of goggles to one of my friends to capture data for the Recon heads up display system (seen left below).  This was valuable in that it’s their new software platform just released last week that shares the codebase with the upcoming Recon Jet system.  Lots of little tidbits in there where you could see integration points for cycling and running.

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And afterwards, it produces pretty sweet overviews of where you went and run stats (until it runs out of battery anyway):

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This is one area that I wish the Garmin watches did a better job on in the post-skiing analytics department, and could really learn from Recon.  The Garmin views are no different than the views for going for a run.  Whereas to have the Recon dashboard break-down that was skiing specific is much more appealing.

Next, I had a small gaggle of action cams that I was doing live streaming to the internet with.  Some of you even tuned in for a few ski runs.  Post on that tomorrow or Wednesday.  The cams were the HTC RE, the Sony AS-100V and the GoPro Hero4 Black.

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Finally, I was doing some long battery tests with the Fitbit Surge during the day, trying to see how long a GPS activity I could create.  I was actually quite impressed here – it exceeded their 5-hour estimates by going some 7hr 45min+ before it died.  Full details here.

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Of course, I probably had a few other things in my bag, but we’ll just keep it at that for now.

I’ll be back in the cold tomorrow though, headed up to Sweden for work for about 24 hours.  Gothenburg, here I come!  (Don’t worry, I’d never heard of the town before last week, either).

Thanks for reading!

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56 Comments

  1. Juro

    I was a bit worried when you said you never heard of Gothenburg – but then I realized you are neither a soccer fan nor a death metal fan :-)

    • Fwiw, in most English speaking countries, kph is considered normal/acceptable.

    • Adam

      So, did the zip-line actually reach 110 kph?! I trust you were tracking it ;)

      It doesn’t look super fast from the footage but I guess the height and camera lens may be distorting that somewhat.

    • We as a group topped out in the 50-55MPH range, so about 80kph-88kph. I suspect the problem there being that we’re all fairly ‘lightweight’ compared to others. And for this contest it’s about 95% weight based.

    • dan

      If you need to boost your average speed, get me a job at the company you work for and I’ll bring the weight to your next ski trip. :)

      In all seriousness, that looks like a blast. I miss skiing in the Alps. My resort of choice was Montafon in Schruns.

  2. Val Thorens looks fabulous! We’ve skied Chamonix, Verbier and Zermatt but haven’t been to any of these areas your reference in the post. Love chalet deals via AirBnB when you hit it just right!

  3. Viacheslav

    Awesome photos! Circular rainbow in IMG_3955.jpg is called 22 degree halo.

  4. Niklas

    Welcome to Göteborg (Gothenburg) home of Volvo and Göteborgsvarvet, link to goteborgsvarvet.se

  5. Mathias

    Welcome to Gothenburg! Very curious about what you will do here. Maybe you will tell us in a blog post down the road?

  6. Uwe Hercksen

    What you saw was not a rainbow. You can see rainbows only when the sun is in your back.
    But from a mountain, you can see also circular rainbows (in summer).
    You saw a circular halo link to en.wikipedia.org
    Ice cristalls and not raindrops in the air, you look into the sun.

    I really like your photos!

  7. Grant

    Awesome, I would love to see the HRM stats when you were on the Zip Wire or going down some of the more adventurous runs.

  8. willrun4fun

    What is that fettuccine in a jar?

  9. morey

    Pretty clear why there was nobody on the lifts… they were all at the bar!

  10. Greg

    Does he say “stop and frisk” when your wife gets to the bottom. Lol…made me laugh

  11. Clayton Montgomery

    Looks amazing to me, especially since we have nothing close to that in the southeast US.

    I’m more interested in the statement, “Of course, I probably had a few other things in my bag, but we’ll just keep it at that for now.” I’m hoping you’re talking about a final production Fenix 3 that you’re testing as that means we are one step closer to having them in hand. I will just have to be content with the other uses of that watch and not so much the skiing in the French Alps part!

  12. Glenn

    Welcome to Gothenburg!
    I hope you’ll enjoy your time here and come back more times. :)

  13. Agron

    Welcome to Gothenburg or Göteborg which is the correct Swedish spelling.
    Let’s guess Volvocars or Ericsson or maybe Astra Zeneca?

  14. Peter Felix

    Did you have a moment in the middle of the zipline where you hoped there was a very big pile of soft snow 750ft beneath you?! Felt like a horizontal bungee jump of sorts – but amazing fun!

    • Zero such moments. At that point I was just wondering if I was able to hold onto the harness any tighter.

    • MattB

      Hehe…. I noticed The Girl’s “Wheeeee!”s were full volume, yet your “Nonono nononononono” was strangely muted…. Just the different microphones, naturally ….. ;P

      Great video, the detail of the ski tracks in the valley floor from that height is incredible on the GoPro one. Looks like you had a great trip – I love the 3 valleys, it’s such an amazingly huge expanse of playground! Next year, knee, next year!!

    • Haha, yeah, it’s actually interesting from a camera standpoint. With the goggles the microphone is really close, whereas with the GoPro it was helmet mounted – so quite a bit higher up, and, I was definitely going faster. Still, hers is pretty funny to watch. :)

      It’s too bad that YouTube has ‘broken’ the 4K video so it’s only rendering in 1080p right now. It appears when I trimmed the ends it downres’d it. Will have to upload a trimmed version manually.

  15. Henry Collet

    I was up at the zip wire on Tuesday but it was just too cold to hang around. Great to see some footage from the journey itself!

  16. Tyler

    You mean you’re not traveling to this booming international metropolis? link to en.wikipedia.org

  17. Kalle Sundberg

    Sweden, jay! Gothenburg is actually the second biggest city in Sweden. Please do a Strava segment there, I will do my utmost then to beat it :-)

    • Christian S

      +1 on that comment! :)
      And please come back in time for Göteborgsvarvet half marathon. The world’s biggest half marathon in may: 60.000+ runners, 30-something bands and awesome atmosphere!

      Looking forward to read about it i a future post!

  18. Pablo

    Ray, will you do a product review about saddles? Im going crazy on them (balls numbness).

    Thanks for your web man! keep up the good work!

  19. andy from embsay

    Has the battery life got any better with the Recon HUD? I gave up using them when I realised they couldn’t do anywhere near a full day on the hill.

    • This is a bit of an older unit, but with the newer firmware we were getting roughly 5.5hrs of on time (no shutting off for lunch). The newer units I hear get more, enough to cover a full day.

  20. EF

    Hi Ray.
    Any idea on when to expect the new VIRB to be released ?
    Thanks

  21. LCP

    That part when she got stuck was hilarious!

    Good times, though!

  22. Urs

    Hmm.. Raclette…
    Greetings from Switzerland and keep up with the good blog ! :-)

  23. Justin

    Some knowledge to bore your friends with ;-) the rainbow is also known as a sun dog, apparently formed by the sun shining through ice crystals way up in the atmosphere.

    Exactly the same thing had a huge effect on western religion in 212AD. The Roman emperor Constantine was about to fight a battle for control of the empire at the Milvian bridge and was inspired by seeing the same circular rainbow in the sky. He took it as a sign from God and had his soldiers paint it on their shields. He won the battle, attributed it to help from God and made the Roman Empire convert to Christianity (his new pet fave religion) and a similar shape, the chi-rho became a standard symbol for Christianity.

    Looking at your photo and imagining the impact of such a thing 2000yrs ago, I can see why.

    Have a great holiday

  24. Neil

    Hi Ray, I’m interested in what sort of battery life you got out of the FR920XT using it to track your skiing – did you get a full day’s skiing-worth? And was that with it mostly nice and warm under you sleeve, or was it exposed to the cold all the time?

    • Easily a full day. In the case of the FR920XT, it was mixed between above and below sleeve, though mostly below. I think I was seeing about 50% battery usage over the course of the day.

    • Neil

      That’s pretty good, and hopefully promising for the fenix 3, though whether or not I’ll get my hands on one in time to try it on the slopes this year is another matter…

  25. Grazza

    Reading this has made me really excited for my ski trip to Meribel at the end of Feb – the zipline looks awesome!

    I was just wondering if you had any information on how well a standard gps watch would track skiing data. My FR620 doesn’t have a skiing mode itself but is there any way of importing the data into a third party application that could then crunch the data to give info such as number of runs, time going up lifts v down runs, time spent on different run colours etc. As you mention Garmin analytics for skiing aren’t great but the Recon Dashboard looks great!

    Also, without a long strap – is GPS signal likely to be strong enough with the watch on my wrist under a ski jacket?

    • No problems tracking skiing, even under a jacket. Unfortunately as you noted – no mode there for runs on the FR620. Too bad, as might make for a nice watch.

      There are some phone apps that do it though, my friend was using one and our numbers were pretty close actually.

  26. Chris Decker

    Every try out the V800 on the slopes? Heading out to Breckenridge this weekend and thought about trying out the ski mode on the V800 and wondering if it functions similiar to the Garmin.

    Thanks!

  27. Mark Skelton

    Hi Ray,

    are you able to give any indication of when the ski/snowboard profiles will be available out of ‘beta’?

    Also when will you be posting your full review of these features?

    Thanks

    Mark

    • I don’t know for certain. I suspect what might happen though is that when the Fenix3 ‘ships’, you’ll see the FR920XT get an update around the same time that switches those features from beta to production.

      In general, some of the little tweaks folks have been seeing in the FR920XT updates (beta mostly) are really there more for the Fenix3 release than anything (obviously they’ll be kept for the 920XT). But this helps keep the codebases similar.

  28. Those magic tunnel lifts are amazing!

  29. Ryan

    Ray, nice review. I just purchased the 920xt and can’t wait to try the ski function when it’s available so I can officially see how slow I am! lol. Secondly, after reading all of you power meter reviews I’ve decided to buy the Vectors PM for this upcoming tri season. But I’ve heard many grumblings of Vector 2.0 or some sort of updated version coming out soon. Do you recommend I hold off or will it be awhile before 2.0 in your opinion? Thanks Ray and keep rockin!

  30. Denis

    Thanks for the post. I love French Alps, especially Trois Vallees. This year however I went for skiing to Italian Bormio. Would recommended that for advanced skiers.

    Ray, have you tried the iPhone app “Ski Tracks”? This year I was using it and was amazed by all the it records. What was the most interesting for me that it distinguishes lifts from the descents. I’m not interested in how many km I’m going up, rather in how many km in snowboarding down :-)
    I’m missing that in strava and endomondo

  31. Sebastian

    Is there any site where I can/should upload my skiing activities?
    If Garmin Connect nor Strava provide a nice overview and analysis of the activity, where else should I go?

    I have a fenix 2.
    Manual upload totally acceptable.

    Thanks!

    Cheers
    Sebastian

    • I just end up uploading them to Garmin Connect. Not because it’s ideal for skiing, but just because that’s what the default is. I’m now aware of any ski-specific sites that can consume Garmin files.