Col de la Cicle and Col de la Fenêtre ski touring

Skier hiking at Les Contamines

To the west of the Mont Blanc massif, Les Contamines ski resort makes a great starting point for ski touring. There are many possibilities here, both from the valley and from the ski lifts. The Col de la Fenêtre is a classic crossing point on the ridge dividing Savoie from Haute-Savoie. It’s often described as a beginner ski tour because you can gain a long descent with only 200 metres of climbing. However, the skiing is pretty challenging in places and there is a steep, technical climb too. It’s a beginner route in the sense of being physically short, but you need to be a competent downhill skier. Further along the ridge is the Col de la Cicle, which is reached by a longer, but less steep climb. A there-and-back trip to the Cicle is perhaps then a better choice for a beginner ski tour.

The routes to both cols cross potential avalanche terrain. Consequently, neither can be considered a true beginner tour in the sense of being 100% safe. However, with some awareness of the potential dangers, this area is a great ski touring playground. The routes described here are not as serious as those higher in the Mont Blanc massif, and the problem areas can usually be avoided.

Skier descending untracked snow below the Col de la Fenêtre
Untracked snow below the Col de la Fenêtre

The infamous roman road

Crossing either of these cols singly leads to a pleasant ski into the upper Montjoie valley. From here though, the route down to the Gorge Télécabine car park follows an ancient roman road. In summer this is a good walking track, but as a ski descent it is steep, narrow and usually icy. There can be exposed rocks to chew up your skis as well. Depending on the snow conditions, it is often a good idea to wear crampons on your feet and carry your skis down this section. Don’t try to walk down the ice without crampons though, as a slip on the ice here could be nasty. If there is no snow or ice, you can bring trainers or light hiking shoes to wear for this part.

As the roman road often makes an unpleasant end to an otherwise good day, we generally avoid it by climbing back up to re-cross the ridge. There are many variations, but the route we propose crosses the Cicle first and returns via the Fenêtre.

Ski tourer near a ridge close to the Col de la Fenêtre
Leaving the Col de la Fenêtre

Getting to the start

You need to head up the Les Contamines lift system to the top of the Buche Croisée chairlift. If the queues are big, it is better to park at Le Gorge and take the smaller gondola from there. Instead of joining the main Signal gondola, you can take the Montjoie and Olympique chairlifts which usually have shorter queues. At the top it’s a short ski/walk from the top of the Olympique to the top of Buche Croisée. Head south-east for about a hundred metres along a broad, flat ridge to reach the start point of the ski tour. This is very slightly uphill, so you can walk or put your skis on and skate. It isn’t worth putting skins on yet.

Col de la Cicle

Where the slope steepens, head right and make a long descending traverse across west facing slopes. Stay high to reach a flat area where you can stop and put skins on. Now continue south, making a gently rising traverse with steep slopes to your left and flatter terrain to the right. You’ll travel around the end of the south-west ridge of the Tête de la Cicle, taking care as you cross steeper ground. Then continue the gently rising traverse, now heading north-east, to reach the col.

Returning the same way is possible, although not the most exciting ski. It can be a safer option in unstable snow condition, but you still need to cross a steep south facing slope. If you do go back the same way, be sure to stay high and right at the start of the traverse and cross over the wide unnamed col at spot height 2283 to avoid finishing in the wrong valley. Retrace your route until you can descend to a track leading to the Val Joly pistes.

If you continue over the col as we propose, you’ll find a wide, steep north-east facing slope on the far side. You can often find great snow conditions here, so enjoy the descent for a few hundred metres, before heading left to reach a flatter area.

Skiers approaching the Col de la Cicle
Approaching the Col de la Cicle

Col de la Fenêtre

From the flat area, the shortest route is to traverse left. First descend slightly, then put skins on to climb gently until you are below the Col de la Fenêtre. Be aware of avalanche potential from the steep slopes above you to the left as you pass between the two cols. Now zig-zag up the steep slopes to reach the col. You’ll need your best kick turns here, and it’s often better to take the skis off for the last few metres.

If you want to make the day a little longer, you can descend further from the Col du Cicle, heading leftwards to reach the Refuge des Prés. This is a great spot to stop for refreshments. If you are lucky you’ll get some untracked snow on the approach too. Once you leave the refuge, skin up heading left then right to avoid a small cliff, then join the climb to the Col de la Fenêtre described above.

Col de la Fenêtre signpost, skis, jacket and panorama
One of the two Col de la Fenêtre signs

Descent to the pistes

At the col cross over and head left to reach a wide bowl. You can traverse or climb higher to the  left, or head down immediately depending on where the snow looks best. All routes funnel into a narrow gully. This looks difficult from above. It can be tempting to avoid it by going far left or right, but the alternatives are harder and often have thin snow cover. Descend the gully carefully with tight turns or sideslips. There is unlikely to be much fresh snow left in the gully itself as other ski tourers will have ascended it earlier in the day.

Once out of the gully, you can let yourself go a bit on the wider slope below. As the gradient flattens out, join a traverse line heading right. If the lifts are still open, you can descend rightwards to join the Route Col Ruelle green run. Follow the pistes to the Col chairlift back to the Les Contamines side of the ski area. If the ski area has closed, or is about to close, you’ll need to skin back up the traverse line to the top of the Buche Croisée chair.

Map showing the route described
The route described is in red, variations mentioned are in blue

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