TRAVEL / SKI SPECIAL: Downhill devotion

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The Independent Culture
WHERE do people who make a living out of skiersgo skiing? Do they look for the ultimate challenge, the most demanding ski experience? Or do they go for something less familiar and more relaxing, a contrast to the pace and activity of their day- to-day lives?

What the people in our panel have in common is 'ski cred'. Some, like Sylvain Saudan and Konrad Bartelski, are professional skiers with experience of the sport's outer limits. Others also serve - even though, like chalet girl Tiffany Findlay and ski bum Brett Thomas, most of their experience has been standing and waiting in lift queues.

The ski industry is one of the hardest in which to make a living. Mountain guides and ski patrollers work long hours in dangerous conditions for little financial reward. Our panel members are so dedicated that they would pay - rather than be paid - to ski. Like truck drivers pulled up in front of a roadside cafe, their endorsement carries a lot of weight.

The question I asked them was: 'Where would you go, what would you do? Tell us your skiing dream.' Destinations ranged from vibrant European resorts like St Anton and the Trois Vallees to the remote ranges of Kashmir, accessible only by helicopter. Some selected the sociable option of a family skiing holiday; others wanted only solitude, the tang of woodsmoke and the silence of the mountains.

HELENE STEINER ON AUSTRIA AND CANADA

' Heaven for me is getting way out in the wilderness, away from any kind of mechanical things. After five months high- pressure helicopter skiing, being lifted up by air and skiing downhill through the powder, I actually want to walk uphill by myself. My real ambition is to do the spearhead traverse. It's a ski touring route through the Garibaldi National Park near Whistler, Canada. You have to carry all your food, stay overnight in snow caves and climb up the mountains for three or four days. That's real peace and quiet. The other dream holiday on my agenda is cross-country skiing in Austria. There's an area called Tauplitz, in the province of Styria, which is ideal. It's on a high plateau, so the snow is good, with such great views and miles and miles of quite easy cross-country routes.'

Mountain guide

Leogang, Austria

Mountain guides are a macho bunch, especially in Austria. So, Helene Steiner did not have an easy time proving herself in the life-and-death world of rock and ice when she became the first woman to win the Austrian license. She has taken on the toughest job in the guiding profession, that of helicopter guide. She relaxes in the summer by running her own river-rafting and rock-climbing business.

BRETT THOMAS ON KITZBUHEL, AUSTRIA

' Well, there's so many places . . . even though I've been in Verbier for six seasons, I don't really know the rest of Europe. But I always wanted to ski the Hahnenkamm downhill course, so I'd go to Kitzbuhel. After Verbier, lift lines don't have much appeal. My dream is nice dry powder, unlimited off-piste skiing - but difficult to get to so there are no tourists jabbing ski-poles into your back. Respect for the mountains is what it's all about. I hate to see people toss cigarette butts out of telecabine windows. My ultimate dream is scamming a free ski pass. But so far I've had to do every kind of work there is. I learnt to ski at Dingo Dell in Australia when I was 13. There's no night life there. But in Kitzbuhel I hear they have the best bars and clubs in the Alps. Worth checking out, anyway.'

Ski bum

Verbier, Switzerland

BRETT is every chalet girl's idea of a ski bum. He's as easy-going as he is good-looking, always ready to take off on a road trip or hike up into the back country. The great love of his life was a Verbier chalet girl, working her way through winter in the Alps by cleaning and cooking. But true to the ski bum credo, Brett hung on in the mountains when his girl left Verbier to take

a job in New Zealand.

KONRAD BARTELSKI ON GALTUR, AUSTRIA

' Skiing for me has nothing to do with superlatives - how big the resort is, how many lifts, how steep the runs. It's being where the mountains can speak to you, with the right people - not necessarily the greatest skiers, but people who let the mountains put a smile on their faces. You're most likely to find the genuine mountain experience in Austria. It's not possible in France. It is in Switzerland, but there you have to pay for it. The skiing is great in America, but the mountain views in the Rockies are disappointing, and after a while the food all tastes the same. Perhaps the most perfect mountain experience I've ever had was in Galtur. I went there with some friends and it was just like skiing used to be 15-20 years ago: the tang of woodsmoke in the village - and no snowboards.'

Ski equipment importer

London, England

THE first British World Cup downhiller to catch the public imagination, Konrad has never forgotten his early days on the World Cup circuit, when British skiers were lucky to find a place to kip on the floor. He's involved with ski guide training, written one of the more useful books on skiing and greatly improved the standard of ski hardware now available in British shops.

HUGH SMYTHE ON ST ANTON, AUSTRIA

' This will sound like a bit of a busman's holiday, and it will certainly take some organising to get all five of us away for a month together. But it really is a dream of mine to take the family to Europe. We would stay in St Anton, and take day trips to Lech and Zurs. In my experience, this is where the quality of skiing is best in Europe, and where the variety of villages is most appealing. Being able to ski from resort to resort makes a trip here excitingly different from North American ski areas. It would also be a wonderful opportunity for our kids to live in a foreign country for a while. A ski vacation with children aged 7, 9 and 12 presents some challenges. But having grown up at Blackcomb, they can master any type of terrain - and they'd enjoy the variety they would find in Europe.'

Ski resort director

Blackcomb Mountain, Whistler, Canada

NOBODY knows more about ski resorts than Hugh Smythe. From ski bum to ski patroller, he worked his way up to managing director. Installing snowmaking and a high-speed chairlift on a glacier, Hugh has made Blackcomb undeniably the state-of-the- art ski resort. Hugh also oversees operations at two other Canadian winter resorts, Mont Tremblant and Panorama.

STEVE CASIMIRO ON JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING

' Most American resorts pale next to the Alps, but not Jackson. The Tetons are

America's most beautiful peaks. Big, wild and untamed, they're young, like America, and rough, like America. Far against the sky you see the bright red Jackson tram (cable car) cresting the jagged ridge of Rendezvous Peak. Skiers exit and drop nearly 1,500m down the steepest, most consistent pitch in the US. Below their skis lie the Hobacks, one of the best powder runs in the country, and Corbet's Couloir, the most famous leap of all. When I wake up in the night, heart pounding, hands clenched around imaginary poles and legs twitching in imaginary turns, the dream I always remember is power and speed: a run so fast that your eyes water and you giggle with fear. Jackson Hole. That's my dream.'

Editor, 'Powder' magazine

Dana Point, California

A TYPICAL California surfer. That's theimmediate impression Steve conveys when he turns up to test the skiing in Alaska, Antarctica or Greenland. Powder is the world's best ski magazine. Steve injected a new literacy into it, sending reporters out to remote areas to discover 'the soul of skiing', and even putting a little old lady in outdated ski gear on the cover of one issue.

TIFFANY FINDLAY ON TROIS VALLEES

' I've been skiing since I was seven, but I would say I'm really at the intermediate level. Like all skiers I dream of helicopter skiing in Canada. But to be more realistic, I would like to get to know the Trois Vallees in France. I know it's not the prettiest area, but with the interlinked resorts it has an immense range. There are some days when you want to take it easy. It's a nice feeling to cruise the motorway pistes with friends, maybe take a picnic. I don't like to do anything too challenging, where if you fall down it's a matter of life or death. I would love to do the Chamonix-Zermatt haute route, staying in the huts and climbing uphill with skins. The Trois Vallees are good because I love the French way of life . . . good wine and food, and you can ski to a different place every day.'

Chalet girl

Chamonix, France

TIFFANY claims that she adored her first year as a chalet girl. But as she's now gone up to Cambridge to study law, it's unlikely that Tiffany will return to the Alps as an indentured domestic. She got into the business after going on a Collineige holiday with her parents and applying on the spot. After tuition at a school for chalet-girls in Somerset, Tiffany was given her own Collineige chalet for the winter.

SYLVAIN SAUDAN ON THE MOON

' Wherewould I go? It would have to be the Moon] At least there you wouldn't have to stand in a lift queue. Where else is there left to ski? Actually, I guess there are still two places on earth I haven't skied . . . China and North Korea. Otherwise, I've already been to America, skied Mount McKinley, and all over the Alps. I skied New Zealand, Alaska, South America and even Scotland] Kashmir is the best skiing right now, but accessible only by helicopter. Of the resorts, I think Zermatt is the most beautiful. I'm going there at the end of November to give some special courses in technique. They're designed for middle- aged skiers who are starting to lose interest. When you lose power, you have to be able to make it up with technique. Then you can ski anywhere - and ski forever.'

Extreme skier

Gulmarg, Kashmir

SYLVAIN Saudan looks like any of a hundred of Chamonix's summer horde of weathered and vaguely hippy climbers. On the mountain, he stands alone. The 'skier of the impossible' is the only survivor of Chamonix's celebrated ski extreme daredevils: Patrick Vallencant, Jean-Marc Boivin and Bruno Gouvy died in the mountains. Now 57, he runs a luxury helicopter skiing operation in the Himalayas.

HALSTEAD MORRIS ON HELICOPTER SKIING, BRITISH COLUMBIA,

' There'sno better skiing on the planet than the powder at Mike Wiegele's. On the ski patrol we make dollars 7.50 an hour - so you can imagine I think long and hard about whether spending dollars 5,000 for a week's heliskiing is worth it. I've been there four times now. Even though we have some of the highest skiing and some of the best powder in Colorado right here where I work, it doesn't come close to the Cariboos and Monashees in Canada. Skiing through chest-deep powder in and out of those cedar trees and doing it all day long . . . that's awesome. The best thing about December at Wiegele's is that it is the only helicopter operation with unlimited free vertical skiing. With others, you pay dollars 50 for every 1,000m you ski over the first 30,000. I skied over 14,000m in just one day last spring.'

Professional ski patroller

Loveland Ski Area, Colorado, USA

AT over 6ft 6in, Hal is a reassuring sight storming out of the powder when you're down with a broken leg at Loveland, Colorado. As a professional ski patroller, he hauls broken bodies off the slopes, digs for those caught in avalanches and skis the virgin slopes after every fall of new snow to make sure everything is all right before the punters are allowed in.

(Photographs omitted)

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