When I came back to Paris on Monday from my weekend in the French Alps, the same conversation came back a few times:
“You spent the weekend in the Alps? Cool! You managed to ski a lot?”
“Well I didn’t go skiing, I was ice diving.“
This year I had a very early opening of my scuba diving season with one of my favourite diving adventures: ice diving. Obviously, when diving in France, the best time of the year to go is during the winter, in altitude, when and where people don’t expect at all to see a scuba diving bag. It was so funny when I was on the platform in Paris, waiting to get on my night train, with my Aqua Lung bag while everyone else was carrying their ski equipment.
Since I passed my ice diving certification 3 years ago, I always wanted to do it again. So when I had the opportunity to join the friendly team of Evolution 2 in Val Thorens, to scuba dive below the ice of a lake which altitude is above 2000m, in the middle of the mountains, I immediately said yes. I couldn’t wait to see again the beauty of the ice from below and take better pictures this time with my improved skills.
Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe
Val Thorens is a ski resort in the heart of the Vanoise National Park, on the east side of the French Alps, along the Italian border. At 2300m of altitude, it is the highest ski resort in Europe: a promise of getting easily away from the crowd and enjoy the wilderness in the middle of the mountains. With a ski domain of 150km between 2300m and 3230m of altitude, it’s a favourite spot for many French ski addicts but also many people from the UK and all over Europe.
But what makes an ultimate difference in Val Thorens is the highest zip-line in the world and an ice diving lake you can only reach by hiking up for 40 min in snowshoes: Lou Lake (Lac du Lou in French).
Icy adventure into the wild of the French Alps
The most interesting point of going ice diving in Val Thorens is the exciting adventure around it. Evolution 2 team picks you up where you stay and brings you to “Chez Pépé Nicolas” restaurant. From there, you start a 40-minute hike with snowshoes, up to the 2035m altitude of “Lac du Lou”. As you cross skiers and snowboarders going down their trail, you head in the direction of the off-trail area of the ski domain, in the wildest part of the “3 Vallées”. As a few brave skiers dare to go there, you need to pay attention not to hit someone while you may be stunned by the view of the valley.
Once arrived, you may need a few moments to get your breath back. Above 2000m of altitude, unless your body got several days to get accustomed to it, every effort will be more difficult. For 2 weeks, before the trip, I made my best to go for long walks almost every 2 days, but still, once up there, I struggled. And the altitude doesn’t only affect you when hiking but also when diving. During the dive briefing, we were told that because we stay in shallow water, we don’t need to worry about the change of pressure because of the high altitude but about our breath. Every time you make an effort, it’s easier to suffer from breathlessness than usual.
Above the lake, I entered the simple but cosy mountain refuge where we were served hot chocolate while being briefed about the dive and the gear. Evolution 2 uses full dry suits with dry gloves and full face masks. Thanks to them you don’t need to worry about the 2°C water as your entire body will remain dry, warm and toasty! I did my first dive with their gear and my second one with my own to compare. I came back from my first dive with my hair completely dry (that was a first) as the drysuit has an integrated hood.
They gave us many details about what to do (stay playing just below the ice, no need to go deeper) and what not to do (breathing with your nose in a full face mask can lead to water leaking into it). Even if for me, it wasn’t my first ice dive, I could tell how kind and patient Evolution 2’s instructors were. Olivier and Thomas were perfect to reinsured even the most worried divers around me. For information, there is no minimum level required to do an ice dive, it can even be a discovery dive, anyone can do it!
Before putting our dry suits on, we followed them to the frozen lake to watch how they were preparing the holes in the ice. That day, the ice was 60cm thick! With axes and a long saw, they re-opened 4 holes including the main entrance which is the biggest one. They also keep the tanks near the lake, so you don’t need to walk fully equipped from the refuge to the lake (there is quite a steep slope).
Once the holes were open, they prepared all the equipment for us, putting the BDC and the two separated regulators onto the tank. They finally immersed the regulators in the cold water to avoid them going into free-flow at the beginning of the dive. We went back inside (out of breath another time after climbing the slope again), geared up in our warm 7mm full dry suit and went back to the lake 10 minutes later.
For information, Evolution 2 is renovating the accommodation part of the refuge of Lac du Lou, so soon it will be possible for groups of scuba divers to book an entire weekend to dive several times under the ice, including a night dive and a cheese fondue dinner. How exciting does it sound?
The beauty of the ice underwater
Thanks to the kind help of Thomas, while Olivier was already waiting for me in the water, I just had to sit on the edge of the hole. He equipped me with the tank and BCD, the fins and the final touch: the full face mask. Once you have the full mask on your face, you need to push on your second stage and grab it in your mouth to keep it in place.
Remember only breath with the mouth! When I was ready, Thomas asked me to put my left hand on my right side so I could easily flip and go into the water smoothly. First feeling: “I’m really warm in that drysuit!” The truth is at 2°C, the water is warmer than the outdoor air at -6°C that day. Sure the drysuit helped, but not only.
We descended only 1 to 2m below the surface, and the icy blue halo show started. The first moments of the dive were for me to stabilised and control my buoyancy. I was a little too positive with the drysuit, so I needed to fully empty the BCD and the drysuit itself.
Once this fixed, I switched on my camera and started to marvel at all these incredible photo opportunities you have below the ice. Luckily, I bought a wide angle dome for my underwater housing and got it on time before this trip. It was so worthy to take the pictures you can see below. I used my video torchlight in the direction of the ice to let the light reflects on Olivier who was my model for the day. While I was also shooting some videos, he showed me a few tricks that only ice divers can do: creating vortexes with the air trapped below the ice or standing upside down on the ice!
Being quite remote, Lac du Lou has very pure ice, and the shape of the air bubbles trapped into it makes the view incredible. The quality of the ice is mainly because fewer divers come here: the advantage of hiking for 40 minutes.
You cannot go as far as you want as you will be attached the whole time but you have enough length to explore different areas with different bubble patterns in the ice. Dive time is 20 minutes only, the instructor only takes one person at a time, so enjoy fully every minute in total safety!
Who to dive with in the French Alps?
Located right next to “Maison de Val Thorens”, the tourism board office, Evolution 2 offers a broad range of snow adventures around Val Thorens area: skiing, snowboarding, dog sledging, ice climbing and of course ice diving! The ice diving team is super friendly and they use top quality gear such as Aqua Lung’s Glacia regulators (same as my own).
During my ice diving trip, I also had the opportunity to try the ice diving site of Tignes. This is the historical location of Evolution 2 ice diving school. If you feel less adventurous or have less time, the dive site is right in the heart of the ski resort so no need to hike but no true wilderness around. It’s also ideal for families during their ski holidays as there is an ice skating area right next to the dive site.
Treat yourself to a traditional hearty lunch
How do you think I felt after hiking in the snow back and forth, and ice diving for 20 minutes? Yes, pretty exhausted by the altitude, starving but delighted by another successful ice dive!
I simply went back to where I started my adventure, at “Chez Pépé Nicolas” traditional chalet restaurant. The place has been a family business for 3 generations since 1957. Originally, it was only an alpine farm producing local cheese. Then they slowly started to open a restaurant business in the summer only. It’s only 6 years ago that they started to open during the wintertime for the ski tourists.
The place is tastefully decorated with all the objects that embody the memory of the place. The view of the mountains from the terrace is breath-taking. I couldn’t wish a better place to enjoy the #1 culinary speciality of the Alps: the cheese fondue. Made of 100% Beaufort cheese, and served with a mix of bread pieces and salad with a hazelnut dressing, I loved it so much that I finished everything and could have skipped dessert!
Hopefully, I didn’t do that: my dessert was traditional for the region but with an innovative twist: a blueberry pie with crème brûlée on top… it was to die for! An espresso coffee on the terrace watching the snowy mountains and a hug to Youri the husky fiercely guarding the place was the perfect way to finish my day.
How to go to Val Thorens?
- Eurostar runs direct day trains to the French Alps on Saturdays between December-April and direct night trains on Fridays from January-April. Trains leave from St Pancras International in London and Ashford in Kent, direct to the French Alps. Eurostar trains stop at Moûtiers.
- Every Saturday from 24 December 2016 to 15 April 2017, the Thalys Snow trains take you to the most beautiful ski resorts of the French Alps. In just a few hours, you can travel from Amsterdam or Brussels to Moûtiers.
- From Paris, TGV trains take you every day, by day or by night, between December and April to Moûtiers.
Best fares are found with IDTGV and they include the shuttle bus to your final destination.(update 23/01/18 IdTGV doesn’t exist anymore)
- Chambéry Airport: you can fly from the UK (Southampton, Exeter, Birmingham, Cardiff with FlyBE), or from the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Rotterdam with Transavia)
- Grenoble Airport: you can fly from the UK (Manchester, Glasgow with Jet2, Edinburgh, London, Bristol with Easyjet)
- Lyon Airport: This is further away, but as a last resort all main airlines are flying to Lyon.
Shuttle bus to the ski resort
Once you arrived at the train station or at the airport, you will need to take a shuttle bus to the heights of the Alps. Make sure you book your ticket at least 24 to 48 hours in advance. From Moûtiers train station, Chambéry and Lyon Airports you need to book Altibus shuttle. From Grenoble Airport, it’s another company that will take you to Val Thorens: Ben’s Bus.
I decided to take the night train from Paris TGV station at 10.30 pm. In this case, the train is going slow to Moûtiers with an arrival at 6.00am. It was really convenient not to rush after a busy week to take my train and then it also saves a night of accommodation. Nevertheless, night trains to the ski resorts tend to be party trains for people going on their ski holidays (not complaining, just a fact).
As I was kind of expecting not everyone would sleep tight at midnight, I came fully prepare with a sleep strategy in mind. I prepared the X-men trilogy on my computer and watch it until 2.00 am. At that time, things calmed down dramatically. With earplugs, a sleeping mask, my travel cushion and a light cover, I slept well for 4 hours, waking up in the snowy Alps! The way back was much quicker in the evening, I went back to Paris in only 3h30. Regarding the shuttle bus, it super easy to find as the bus station is in the same building than the train station.
Where to stay in Val Thorens?
Val Thorens caters for every budget, whether you almost already spent all your money on transportation or if you want to splurge in a 5* hotel. The best way to find the perfect stay is to contact the tourism board of Val Thorens. You can also call them and their team is just super sweet, and yes, even if it’s France, everyone speaks English!
In my case, I was staying in a rental studio apartment, functional and clean, this is the cheapest solution and all I wanted for long night sleep and a warm bath between my adventures. If you are looking for some luxury with a spa in the snow and the view of the mountains, the boutique hotel right to my building looked amazing: the Altapura 5* hotel.
Do you want to discover other quirky dive sites in France? Have a look at these articles:
- Diving detours in the other south of France: Millau & the Gorges du Tarn
- Diving detours in the other south of France: Sète & Thau Lagoon
- Rediscovering my local dive sites in Brittany
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