TRAVEL / Spring Skiing: Now we're dreaming of a white Easter: Climatic changes and the snow cannon mean good skiing can be had well into the spring. Doug Sager schusses in the sunshine and, overleaf, reports on late-season bargains

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The Independent Culture
THE SKI season is getting longer. Easter may remain the traditional skiing finale for mainstream tour operators, but die-hard skiers and bargain hunters alike are pushing back the calendar. The reasons are compelling. Changing weather patterns have put more snow on the ground at Easter than at any time in December. Tour operators and resorts, reacting to the trend rather than inspiring it, are responding with offers which make skiing holidays seriously tempting - even if you have already been once this season.

More resorts are staying open later. For the first time ever, for example, 24 Austrian resorts have banded together this spring in a 'Sunshine Skiing' consortium, all pledging to remain open until 24 April or later and all offering incentive pricing. For generations, the April skier had no alternative but to take up ski touring to get up the mountain. But now more than a dozen Alpine resorts keep the lifts running into May.

Deep-winter skiers, frustrated by a spate of off-white Christmases, may be surprised to learn a basic fact of mountain life: the snowpack is now at its maximum depth late in the spring, not in the middle of winter. Deep powder, the skier's Holy Grail, is conventionally associated with the short days of January. But I have skied fresh powder in Verbier in May for four out of the last five seasons. In Saas Fee, Zermatt and Chamonix, powder-skiing as late as June is no longer an anomaly.

But powder snow will always be a high-altitude phenomenon in spring. Far more extensive at this time of year, and only at this time, iscorn snow, or spring snow (neige de printemps). The easiest of all snows to ski, it is widely misunderstood by recreational skiers, who for the most part have stored their skis in the garden shed by the time it appears. After prolonged periods of hot, sunny days and cold, open nights, patches of corn snow begin to appear, spreading by April across entire mountain ranges.

Corn snow is often thought of as crust, because it is frozen hard on top in the morning. In fact, corn is a total transformation of the snowpack right down to ground level. The layers of snow which has fallen through the winter - as separate as sedimentary layers of rock - melt in the spring sun, and the new snowpack re- forms as clusters of ice; it is a bit like skiing on slippery popcorn kernels. The snowpack has a uniform temperature, and all the formerly distinct layers merge into one. Aside from reducing avalanche danger, this spring transformation has the effect of collapsing all ruts and irregularities in the snow.

For beginners and intermediates, this is heaven. A mountainside which previously threatened patches of hard snow alternating with pockets of ankle-grabbing soft stuff is now as smooth as a baby's bottom. With the snow so consistent, turns are effortless. Off-piste skiing across an entire mountain face is possible for intermediates, since this is an easier surface to ski than the best-groomed piste.

Corn snow can't be booked. Like the cuckoo's call, spring snow is elusive. Attention to angles of exposure is required to ski the corn in its peak condition all day as the sun moves across the sky. Sunny resorts with vast open spaces, such as Davos, Les Arcs and the Three Valleys, are paradises of spring snow whenever high-pressure weather systems prevail.

April showers bring powder showers at high altitudes. The most perfect skiing day possible involves dipping into deep powder on a steep north face above 3,000m, then rolling out on to a firm field of corn stretching right down into the trees, 1,500m below.

But sunshine, not snow, is the make-or- break factor in the ski holiday business. Hard- core skiers may return home in a state of extended epiphany from a mid-winter week of sub-zero temperatures. However, for many more it is the UV-factor - the deep bronze patina calculated to arouse envy among colleagues - that is the real lure.

So this is an ideal time of year for beginners, for whom slush is a comforting cushion. Advanced snow-making systems, especially in Austria and the Italian Dolomites, and the siting of easy skiing areas on gentle slopes above 2,500m, as in Zermatt and La Plagne, allow less-than-expert skiers to sample well-preserved snow later into the season.

The economics of late skiing have encouraged British skiers to book later and hold out for last-minute bargains. Many are booking a full-price, standard winter holiday in December or January and then shopping around in April for an extra week of skiing, depending on how the pricing and the snowpack develop. Bargain packages are available directly from resorts, as well as from tour operators. Most chalet party companies rent properties from December until the end of April and so have a strong incentive to find late-season skiers.

Even overpriced resorts such as Verbier (30 per cent off after Easter) will reduce the price of lift tickets in April. And there are many special package deals in hotels, such as those offered by the Austrian 'Sunshine Skiing' consortium. Bargain hunters must be aware, however, that only half the piste and lift network may be working late in the season. And there are never any snow guarantees.

Late-season skiing is not for everyone, though. It appeals more to individuals, if not eccentrics, than to the masses. Many skiers, particularly Italians and the French, are unhappy unless resorts and pistes are jam-packed and ringing with high season animation.

Even though the upper slopes are white, resort villages themselves can look dirty and dingy in April, when many of the hotels and night-spots have closed and shuttered blocks of flats contribute to a ghost-town atmosphere. One must often import one's own ebullience to offset the inevitable fin de saison weariness displayed by ski instructors and shopkeepers.

The natural joys of spring skiing, however, are bound to win over all but the most jaded. Riding up a chairlift in the sunshine, over fields of flowering white and purple crocuses, wearing only a light pullover and inhaling the scent of sun-warmed pine, is an auspicious start to a long day of skiing. Off-piste encounters with cavorting marmots celebrating the end of their hibernation and chamois foraging for food signal that life is returning to the mountains, now that most of the skiers are gone.

(Photograph omitted)