TRAVEL / Spring fever starts here: For new and seasoned skiers alike, March and April are the best, and cheapest, months to take to the slopes. Doug Sager reports

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'SPRING is when serious skiers come out to play,' says Konrad Bartelski, the first British racer to win an international reputation on the World Cup circuit. 'It's the ultimate skiing experience,' insists Mike Wiegele, guide and guardian of 3,000 square miles of Canadian wilderness.

British skiers seem to be getting the message. In Verbier, Zermatt and Chamonix tourist offices report hotels and chalets booked up right through March and into the first week of April. Fair-weather skiers are flocking over to North America too, both for piste skiing and for the wilderness experience. Wiegele's helicopter skiing operation in the north of British Columbia, for example, has added budget-priced April weeks dedicated to snowboarders and spring snow skiers.

The attraction of late season skiing is both economic and aesthetic. March may still be high season in the better-known resorts, such as Courcheval, Saas Fee and St Moritz. But in many Austrian resorts in particular, and in middle-market areas such as the Portes de Soleil, prices drop steeply as the spring sun rises higher in the sky.

The month of April, after Easter, is the time to find exceptional bargains, many of which are announced only at the last minute. Chalet companies are usually required to pay staff and apartment leases until 3 April. And the canny skier willing to shop around will find package deals at less than 50 per cent of high season prices, though some of these bargains will only be found by diligent phoning around.

But spring skiing at any price is an experience to be savoured. All the objections raised by mid-winter whiners are erased by the soothing rays of the spring sun. Riding a chairlift in April is, I suppose, the moving equivalent of soaking up rays on a sun lounger by the sea in August. The very snow itself is transformed by a molecular process that results in billiard-table smoothness.

One confusing aspect of spring skiing is that the snow quality varies considerably at different altitudes and on different exposures to the sun. The secret in getting the best quality snow is to follow the sun.

For expert skiers, adept at skiing off-piste, spring opens vast regions of mountain terrain inaccessible in mid-winter because of avalanche danger. Intermediates who do not seek advice on where snow conditions are best at different times of the day may, on the other hand, find themselves mired in slush or shuddering over ruts of early morning ice.

In mid-winter, piste conditions are pretty much the same all over the Alps. In spring it matters a lot more where and when you go. The interaction of snow and sun becomes more crucial as the day grows longer. In early March skiers will notice a tendency to shed layers of clothing and to lather on the sun cream. But the snow is little affected. By early April the choice of resort is paramount.

In the Alps only the highest altitude resorts, with a choice of north- and south-facing slopes, will do. This means, among others, the Trois Vallees and Espace Killy (Val d'Isere and Tignes) in France, Zermatt and Verbier in Switzerland, Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy and St Anton in Austria.

In North America the Pacific maritime climate brings mega-

dumps of (usually wet) snow to Whistler in Canada and Mammoth in California. Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Taos in New Nexico have exceptional late-season skiing, right into June in Mammoth. The only resort in Europe that has similar maritime snowstorms late in spring is Sierra Nevada in Spain, where it is possible to bathe in the sea and ski on the pistes on the same day.

Avalanches are the greatest threat to the off-piste skier. In spring, generally speaking, conditions are safest. This is the season when ski tourers venture out on week-long treks such as the classic Haute Route from Saas Fee in Switzerland to Chamonix in France. March and April are also the months when off-piste itineraries such as the Vallee Blanche descent over five glaciers and 22km are at their peak.

Avalanche danger is highest during periods of heavy snow, in high winds and when temperatures shift radically. By late spring most of the snow that's going to fall is already on the mountain, and it has had time to consolidate. April showers do bring fresh falls of powder snow, but these are seldom great enough to affect the stability of the underlying snowpack.

For the off-piste skier these factors are a matter of life and death. Spring skiing in the wilderness is by no means without danger. Rather, the hazards are measurably more predictable than in mid-winter. That's why mountain guides wait until spring for high-level touring and for the more ambitious ski itineraries.

Intermediate and beginner skiers, however, benefit most from spring conditions. Learning to ski on the icy, wind-blown pistes of mid-winter is off-putting. In spring the days are longer, warmer and sunnier. In fact, there is every excuse for lingering over breakfast.

March and April pistes can be bone-jarring first thing in the morning. Late afternoon sun melts the snow, which freezes into ruts overnight. Not to worry. By 10am the

beginner and intermediate slopes warm up to a consistency which yields softly to the ski edge.

At this time of year, even early intermediates are tempted off-piste by a phenomenon called spring snow, or 'corn' in America. Spring snow is a total transformation of the snowpack. Each layer of the snow - as different underneath as sections of sedimentary rock - melts and reforms. The result is a uniform substance which smooths out all surface irregularities.

Snowboarders in particular thrive on spring snow. The slick surface allows mammoth traverses of terrain that were previously inaccessible. In spring snow resistance to skis or snowboards is so slight as to induce a sensation of frictionless flight. The texture is uniform too, so there is no fear of encountering ankle-grabbing 'crud' snow or pockets of powder.

Where to find spring snow is a matter of assessing conditions according to altitude, pitch and exposure of slope and local weather patterns. In general, south-facing slopes below 3,000m will acquire spring snow transformations after a week of hot, sunny days and cold, clear nights.

In high-altitude resorts such as Chamonix it is actually possible to ski both powder and spring snow on the same day. Even as late as May in Zermatt, for example, dry powder snow lies cool and deep in north-

facing chutes at around 3,000m. Coming around to more southerly facing slopes, or lower down on a long valley run, soft spring snow makes for a sensuous transition into long, sweeping turns.

The joy of spring skiing is being in the right place at the right time. The cushion of soft crystals on the top of solid spring snow can melt by late afternoon into a quagmire. The transition zone between silky powder and smooth spring snow can lead through 'breakable crust', a character-building type of snow best avoided by even the most masochistic.

Being high up in the spring sunshine, finding the right snow textures at the right time of day, gives the skier a rush to beat bounding down the blackest of marked pistes. Intermediate skiers introduced to spring snow terrain by an instructor or mountain guide will discover a freedom and confidence that will ruin red piste skiing forever.-