TRAVEL / SKI SPECIAL: Snow flakiness: If skiing leaves you cold, how about doing something really dangerous?

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS something about the frosty air of the Alps, or maybe it's something in the water. But normally sensible and staid people come over all frisky in the snow. Daredevil tendencies sprout like long hair on a lycanthrope.

Non-skiers in the past have languished as the wallflowers of the winter world, able only to grin and bear skiers' tales of slopeside antics. Now, it's the non-skier's turn to dominate the fireside with apres- ski stories of derring do - or, perhaps, rank idiocy.

SNOW RAFTING ON A SOLID SEA

The newest sport in the Alps, snow rafting is potentially so dangerous that no American resort will touch it with a bargepole. The idea is simple. And the attraction for the weekend warrior is that it's completely passive. All you do is sit there, scrunched down with eight others in a rubber boat while the ski slopes go whizzing by at speeds of 80mph. Assuming, that is, that the boat stays upright.

The raft is a heavy-duty Zodiac inflatable, the same vessel as used in river rafting. Snow rafting as an official resort- sanctioned activity is most widespread in Austria. Zweisimmen, a tiny resort near Gstaad, was the very first venue in Switzerland. But officials there were so worried about accidents that rafts only roared down the pistes on a handful of occasions last winter.

Seefeld in Austria boasts the most ambitious snow rapids course in Europe: the snow raft takes off down the 45-degree pitch of the Olympic ski jump runway, hitting 80mph over a run of just 300m before being braked by an onboard parachute, jet fighter-style. The 'driver' is an experienced river rafting guide.

In Zweisimmen the ride is longer, a full kilometre, but slower. The maximum speed reported is 56mph. In Zweisimmen, too, the raft is confined to a dug- out snow channel. Serious accidents can occur when snow rafts are let loose on open terrain, especially in hard snow conditions. And the problem of rogue rafters, unauthorised individuals appearing in resorts with their own rubber boats, is beginning to worry tourist authorities.

In Austria, Seefeld's snow raft ride is sold in a pounds 25 package that includes two raft runs and two toboggan slides. A milder version of snow rafting, for children and gutless adults, is tube sliding - a kind of personal snow rafting. You plop down in the middle of a large inner tube and bounce off the walls of a purpose- built course. At Seefeld, a 500m-long snow channel has been erected with 14 steep drops and one section where accumulated speed whirls you round a 360- degree roundabout, just like at a fun fair.

BREAKING THE ICE

Ever wonder what a fish must feel like in the winter? Now you can find out at first hand. In Val-d'Isere in France the adventure specialists Evolution 2 have employed impeccable Gallic logic to take ice fishing just one step further.

Ice diving is the ideal answer to crowded lift lines. As a conversation stopper, turning up in the hotel lobby after breakfast, all togged out in wet suit, scuba tank and flippers cannot be topped. Part of the fun is in the dressing up and smearing your face with waterproof grease. The other part is going underwater.

Ice divi ng bears little relation to warm- water diving. The ice is covered with more than a metre of crust. A sma1l hole exposes black, cold depths. Evolution 2 team leaders explain how to work the scuba tanks. They tie a rope around your waist, just in case.

Novices spend no more than 10-20 minutes underwater in the initial dive. As dive depths are only a few metres, diving expertise is irrelevant. The experience is anyway more like caving. Tubes channel expelled air bubbles down through the diving suit into the feet, and the diver is turned upside down.

Walking upside down on the bottom surface of ice is, to say the least, weird. Not all divers manage the feat first time. The bottom of the ice crust, surprisingly, is not smooth. It's more like the roof of a cave. Light filtering through the ice has an eerie glow. Don't look for schools of playful trout, though. The only fish down there are frozen.

CAREENING DOWN CANYONS

Canyoning is an extremely popular summer thrill in the Alps. The idea is to launch yourself down a sequence of steep, narrow chutes, twisting and turning through solid rock lubricated by fast flowing water under pressure. Now, a Swiss mountain guide has adapted the sport for ice and snow.

Certified guide Thierry Gasser escorts wintercanyoneers up ravines, scaling frozen waterfalls with front pointing crampons and an ice axe in each hand. In winter the trip down is even more exciting than in summer. Rapid currents drag canyoneers deep down under sections of surface ice and along to bubbling pools where breathing again becomes possible.

In practice, winter canyoning is far more fun than frightening. The water is scarcely colder than in summer, about 3C. And anyway, you are wearing a thick wet suit - but not, surprisingly, for protection against rocks. In the entire 400m pinball ride, you never once touch side or bottom. The force of rushing water is so strong it cushions you against any contact with the smooth rock slides.

(Photographs omitted)

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