Snow is probably the most important ingredient of your ski holiday, and it is what Val d'Isère is most famous for. In a snowy winter, Val d'Isère offers much of the best skiing in Europe. In a less snowy winter, it offers pretty much the only skiing...
Last season was an absolute epic, with more snow having fallen by mid-January than falls on average in an entire season. But the pisteurs didn't just sit back and watch it fall: there was work to be done making the slopes safe and stock-piling spare snow in case of a sudden thaw. It never came. Powder snow was still falling on 26 April, just 4 days before the lifts finally closed on 1 May 2012. For a day-by-day view of last season, visit our 2011-12 Flickr photo album.
Being high (1850m - 3200m), Val d'Isère gets snow when the westerlies are dropping rain elsewhere. And being tucked into the Italian border, it also catches one or two major falls per winter from the east, which don't even reach neighbouring Tignes.
But the exceptional snowfall is just half the story. How well it lasts is even more important. A ring of high ridges and glaciers protect Val d'Isère from warm southerly winds, while the steep climb from Bourg St Maurice and narrow gorges just outside the village keep out the warm air of spring. Most of the slopes are tilted slightly north, which preserves their snow. You only have to look at the un-skied south-facing side of the valley to see how clever Val d'Isère has been with its geography.
Added to these natural advantages is one of the world's biggest snow-making systems, guaranteeing snow on 47 of Val d'Isère's 150km of marked runs. Val d'Isère alone now boasts 557 snow cannons, and it has several healthy streams to supply them. Ski resorts are not allowed to empty their streams, and there are strict quotas, so Val d'Isère is fortunate that it has plentiful running water. Indeed, one of France's biggest rivers, the Isère, rises on its slopes. In a typical winter the resort produces about 1.8 million cubic metres of artificial snow - enough to cover the M4 from London to Bristol a foot deep! This might not sound very important, compared with the 500 million cubic metres that fall naturally, but the artificial snow forms a hard base on the lowest and busiest runs early in the season which the natural snow will lie on. It is a major reason why even at the very end of the season nearly all of Val d'Isère's runs are fully skiable right to the bottom.
Finally, Val d'Isère has an impressive fleet of ratraks grooming the snow overnight. Some have winches enabling them to push snow back up even the steepest slopes. Obviously, every ski resort works hard to keep its pistes in the best possible condition. Val d'Isère, realising that its snow is a God-given advantage, just seems to work particularly hard and well. It has been many years since the last time we heard anyone say 'Apparently the pistes are in better condition in.....'!