Thursday, 04 April 2024 11:27

Off-Piste Skiing in Flaine with Action Outdoors / UCPA

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When I first considered embarking on an 'expert' off-piste skiing course at the UCPA (Union nationale des centres sportifs de plein air) . National union of outdoor sports centres) hostel in Flaine, nestled in the French Alps, I was dubious.

Would it feel like a rowdy club 18-30s holiday, or perhaps reminiscent of a Hi-de-Hi getaway, complete with school canteen dinners? But Flaine, whose name comes from "Flainoz, meaning "pillow" in Savoyard dialect cushioned my concerns - and some of my tumbles, offering an experience far beyond my expectations.

Although I’m a fairly confident off-piste skier, I realise there are some techniques I need some guidance in mastering. And by the end of the week, I was attempting things that I’d tinkered with before- but not convincingly - like 180 jump turns, drops and 360 spins.

UCPA Accommodations and Atmosphere

Contrary to my initial doubts about staying in a hostel, the UCPA facilities in Flaine exceeded my expectations. Unlike traditional hostel setups, Flaine boasts basic but comfortable twin rooms or accommodations for four to six individuals, complete with attached bathrooms. While guests are expected to clean up after themselves during their stay, from making up their bed upon arrival,  to cleaning their table after meals, everything is spotless, and the atmosphere is welcoming and conducive to forging friendships.

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Action Outdoors: Affordable Excellence

Action Outdoors, the UK arm of the French not-for-profit organisation UCPA, offers all-inclusive ski holidays starting at just £555 per person. This package includes lift passes, food, accommodations, and rental equipment, making it an unparalleled value for skiing enthusiasts. The hostel is nestled in Flaine Forum, within one of the resort's iconic 'brutalist' buildings, and offers convenience with its proximity to the slopes and amenities.

For our off-piste instructor, Simon Miocec, Flaine is his favourite resort that he’s worked in for this reason, as it means you can come back and have a hot lunch rather than a sandwich in a picnic room, and everything is on your doorstep.


Speaking of food, the dining experience was exceptional. Given its France, it's hardly surprising - and you will never go hungry. Moreover, in true French fashion, indulging in leisurely two-hour lunch breaks became the norm. These breaks provided a welcome respite for my weary legs after a morning of skiing, rejuvenating me for another three hours of coaching in the afternoon. Despite the canteen setup, the dining options were abundant and diverse, catering to various dietary preferences including vegetarian choices, including fish kebabs, savoury pork chops, stews and curries and, of course, fondue and tartiflette served on our final night. There was also a generous selection of fresh vegetables, a salad bar, and an assortment of desserts and fruits each evening. While the buffet tempted me to sample everything, we were reminded to avoid overloading our plates and having to throw food away.

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Skiing Logistics and Equipment

Navigating skiing logistics was also a breeze. In terms of arranging your skiing, everything is planned on their website and you can look up your group number and meeting point at the start of the week. The UCPA is also well-equipped, including an in-house ski shop and boot room, and high-quality ski equipment is included in the package, making everything very hassle-free and you won't break the bank.

Social Scene

Despite my fears, the social scene at the UCPA was one of the best parts of my trip. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the evening activities, including quizzes, karaoke and lively discos. They even create a WhatsApp group for your particular week to let you know what’s going on every night.

With a large bar and lounge area, ping pong and pool tables and a stage for DJs, it’s the perfect place for forging camaraderie among solo travellers, like myself. It’s perhaps unsurprising that after a day exploring Flaine’s off-piste terrain, you do end up bonding with your group. So an excuse to relax and laugh at videos of yourself headplanting and slideslipping down gulleys over a beer is most welcome.

It was also great to have a real mix of nationalities and ages attending, with Swedes, Chinese, and Americans as well as French and a few British holidaymakers.  It was easy to get on with everyone and make friends, as doing an activity together like skiing is a great ice breaker.

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Ski Conditions

Adding to my concerns was that there had been a real lack of snow in the Alps this season and it hadn’t snowed for weeks.  Would there be enough to practice off-piste techniques?

But I was pleasantly surprised.

Snow arrived in substantial amounts midweek - It was so much so that even resorts at lower altitudes had hope of seeing the season out in April.

Simon described it as: “Not normal”

“We are very very lucky. We had these conditions three or four times during the season. And last year we didn’t really have these conditions at all, maybe just one time”.

Why Flaine?

As for Flaine itself, Kevin Lecot, who’s in charge of staff at the centre tells me it gets a lot of snow “because of its specific location in a natural bowl.

It also has “one of the best views of the Mont Blanc from “Les Grandes Platieres” at almost 2480 meters.

Flaine's relatively high altitudes, unique topography, and its many north-facing slopes all contribute to its favourable snow conditions.

“The best thing in Flaine is that you can ski at the top at 2500 metres, which is great if you have good snow, but if it's foggy you can also go down in Samoens or Le Carroz  - [all part of the Grand Massif] where there's a lot of forest”.

“It’s a really nice area and for the skier you can discover a lot of different places.”

There is also the Cascades piste - the longest blue run in Europe and the second longest piste in France, with 1,800-metre descent from Les Grandes Platieres.

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How does the off-piste course work?

If you’re coming by car there are several car parks at ten euros a night, or free parking about 15 minutes away with a free shuttle bus that brings you back down to Flaine Forum.

You can check in on Saturday and collect your equipment and lift pass at the UCPA, then meet your instructor. On Sunday you can have a full day’s skiing and explore the area on your own before the course starts on Monday.

Day One

We meet at 9 am after a breakfast buffet, ( you can order a packed lunch but there really isn’t any need here). The conditions on our first day were gloriously sunny, with low avalanche risk, but there hadn’t been much fresh snow.

Before we set off, Simon gave us some avalanche transceiver training and before each session we would carry out a send and search test.

We took the Tete des Verds chair lift to access a few runs on-piste so that Simon could assess our technique. He gave us a few on-piste pointers, such as my skiing with my legs too close together and not leaning forward enough, before heading off-piste.

Off the Grand Vars chair, we then went off-piste, in the sunshine in the Desert Blanc including a fun stream crossing.

Our group of five were all ‘expert’ skiers and I was definitely the least confident with things like jump turns and drops. But overall a good match to keep up with each other and for no one to feel too frustrated.

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Simon, who’s been teaching skiing and snowboarding at the UCPA in Flaine for ten years now says he can quickly see the different mistakes people make, such as leaning back too much or not being on the downhill ski, “and after that, we can make a good programme for progress”.

He admits sometimes teaching off-piste can be tricky:

“You need to stay focused on the safety of your group all the time while enjoying skiing different lines. You need to make the best decisions every time and to check the weather every time.”

After lunch, we took the Aup de Veran and skied like pinballs down a canyon and practiced some slide turns trying to keep a straight line. We then headed to the Aujon drag lift to access some easy angled slopes for some more avalanche transceiver training.

Day Two

We started slightly later the next day at 9:30 to give the snow a little more time to soften.  Taking Les Grandes Platieres cablecar we  accessed the famous off-piste area at Combe de Gers. We were able to ski several slightly different off-piste laps here thanks to the steep drag lift at Gers. Some faces were in better condition than others- and some were pretty challenging, with crusty hard hard-packed snow, changing quickly to powder patches and icy patches. All good for practice though.

After lunch we worked on technique again practicing jumps and freeride turns ( with less edging and more drift) in Le Désert Blanc, then enjoyed some rooftop apres ski, with the UCPA chef spinning tunes on the decks.

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Day Three

Today was the beginning of what I’d describe as an “Indian winter”

It was a free morning for ‘full timers’ and with quite a bit of snow coming down some of us decided to ski, while others relaxed. In the afternoon we took the telecabin Aup de Veran and the Tete des Verds chair lift and and practiced some techniques through the trees. This time I was reminded to emply techniques for power, keeping my legs closer together so the snow wouldn’t push the skies apart. That evening over apero Simon gave a talk about avalanches and snow conditions, particularly here in Flaime where you need to look out for big holes, especially around Les Lapiaz.

Day Four

I was not feeling very psyched as we headed up mountain on Les Grandes Platieres telecabin. It was white out conditions with high winds and when we reached the plateau it was really blowing a hooley. I wobbled down the piste feeling like I was floating due to the low viz, but tried to stay a steady speed with legs flexed to absorb any unexpected bumps.

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We soon dropped down into the forest and out of the wind and had an extraordinary morning in knee deep powder. We lapped the terrain around the Tete des Verds chair lift in the morning, with me making some impressive forward tumbles into the fluffy snow which was almost too deep for me to handle. With winds highers still in the afternoon, there weren’t many lifts open, but we could access the easy angled off piste from the drag lift at Aujon and enjoy an afternoon of glorious - and safe- off piste skiing.

Day Five

With the persistent high winds swirling around us, Simon led the group to dig pits and assess the fragility of the snow layers. We conducted additional avalanche drills and practiced on-piste skiing techniques.

Simon proved adept at offering valuable pointers, emphasising the importance of leaning forward and adjusting leg positions based on the prevailing snow conditions. And we encountered them all this week, from powdery expanses to crusty patches and icy terrain.

He was also good at inspiring confidence:  "Continue to progress and maintain confidence," he encouraged, appreciating that “I had a good level” for someone who had started skiing in their late 20s.

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Legacy of UCPA

In France, the UCPA is quite an institution, as Kevin explains:

“The UCPA was created around 60 years ago after France did really badly at the Olympic Games and came home without medals,” he says. “The French government decided to create the UCPA to enable thousands of young people to try or improve at lots of different sports”.

It’s also the second-largest ski school in France, and despite historical age limits, there are guests here typically aged between 18 and 55.

The concept was initially for between 18 and 40 years old,  “but all these people really liked the UCPA and when they were over 40 they wanted to stay with us. So we created a specific product that’s available until 55 years old” explains Kevin.

Indeed, my group that week included only one person under 30, two of whom had teenage to young kids and had not been on holiday without their family since their children were born, so it was an unusual occasion. So it was great the snow delivered.

Our group dynamics may have been due to the time of the year. Kevin thinks there are a lot of people like me who come here solo - especially at certain times of the year, like March, rather than post-Christmas of school holidays, and they find they have a good time and create a  whatsapp groups to stay in touch and even organising another holiday together again, such as surfing in Lacanau or Alpinism in Chamonix.

A lot of people come alone and find friends because, with a sport,  it’s easier to meet people and speak with them at the bar and restaurant afterwards. It creates a good cohesion,” says Kevin.

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Should you go?

Arriving with some uncertainty about the weekend ahead, I left already planning my next off-piste adventure, perhaps even making it an annual tradition!

If you're seeking luxury accommodations, spas (although there's one conveniently located next door to the UCPA that you can use), and table service, this type of trip may not appeal. However, if your goal is to maximise learning opportunities, forge some  lasting friendships and clock in ample skiing time without breaking the bank, then the UCPA is an ideal choice.

Beyond skiing, Flaine has some breathtaking vistas and diverse terrain, although rarely as steep as the likes of Chamonix. With off-piste areas like Combe de Gers or serene the forests, Flaine offers some great adventures for skiing enthusiasts. Moreover, the resort is both family-friendly and has a vibrant après-ski scene so offers a well-rounded experience for all visitors.