TRAVEL:The spirit of stem Christies past

Long before the days of lift queues and apres-ski discos, a handful of skiers could have a whole silent mountain to themselves. Can that sense of independence and adventure be recaptured today? Chris Gill has some suggestions
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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST they look like escapees from a Vogue fashion shoot, in their checked slacks, shades, furs and billowing plus-fours, stylishly

photographed in black and white to evoke the glamour of a bygone age. But look more closely and these ski photographs from the 1920s to the 1950s have a timeless innocence and informality about them, like snaps from a family album: the laughing sisters teetering uncertainly on the streets of Chamonix, the snow-covered rear of a fallen skier, the boy engrossed with his skis under the watchful eye of his parents.

Skiing was like that once. Long before anyone invented Gore-Tex, salopettes, fluorescent sunblock or laminated lift passes, it was possible for a family or a small group of friends to have a whole mountain to themselves. Skiing was a way of making the most of the fresh air and the breathtaking winter landscape, as far from the madding crowd as a pair of wooden slats strapped to the feet could get you.

Early this century, skiing was for the seriously intrepid. It was an adventure and an escape, taking its hardy participants into the Alps where they shared something of the privileged world of the mountaineer. In the 1940s and 1950s, its appeal broadened. Anyone who could afford a Continental holiday could go skiing, but they had to find their own accommodation and plan their own itinerary. Skiing was an individualistic, maverick pursuit, as far removed from the package holiday as fondue is from flamenco.

Where can you go to experience that charm and individuality today? Skiing is now a mass-market "product" - the skiing experience - affordable and accessible, but also regimented and predictable. Even if it remains a minority activity, the concentrated nature of Alpine skiing has made it a sure way to find that madding crowd, not escape it. To increasing numbers of skiers, the standard Alpine skiing holiday - competing for space on mountainsides peppered with people and cluttered with machinery - is no longer satisfying. To many non-skiers, it must seem an unappetising prospect.

Happily, a skiing holiday doesn't have to be like that. Of course, you can strive to find the space to get away from lifts and fellow skiers even within the framework of a conventional ski holiday: not every mountainside is as intensively developed as the slopes above Courchevel; not every ski slope is as overpopulated as the main home run above Les Deux Alpes. By deliberately steering towards the sleepier resorts that are off the international beaten track, you improve your chances of enjoying quality skiing.

When you go matters. If your experience of skiing is confined to high season, you might be pleasantly surprised at how different it can be at other times - not only in January but more especially in December and April (when snow conditions allow). These are times when it really is possible to have a mountainside to yourself; you may have the bars to yourself as well, but the serious seeker after quality skiing is not going to be concerned about that.

Even within the boundaries of a standard holiday, in a standard ski resort, there are ways of making the experience more magical. You can leave the marked, patrolled and prepared pistes, for example, and employ a guide to lead you to hidden places. But this is a half-hearted solution. In the end, a ski resort is a ski resort. There are only so many "special" off-piste runs to be found in the vicinity of a lift network - and the number of people who find such runs desirable can easily be enough to reduce them to near-piste status, especially in a keen skiers' resort like Val d'Isere. Can't more of the original adventure of skiing be recaptured?

Well, yes. Different elements of the original experience certainly can be rediscovered - and only the most dedicated nostalgia-freak would deny that modern equipment enhances that experience. To begin with, there are still some blissful ski areas where the trappings of the typical ski resort are absent. Cross-country skiing, done properly, takes you right back to skiing as a form of transport. Ski touring is an approximation to Alpine skiing as it was practised before lifts took over - with an element of mountaineering thrown in. Heli-skiing is a costly, high-tech extravagance reeking of environmental incorrectness; ironically, though, it can hoist you up to the kind of silent terrain and virgin snow enjoyed by skiers decades ago. NON-RESORTS THE VILLAGE is just a huddle of stone and wood barns. In the lanes you might spot two or three skiers, but no more. No crowds, no discos, no crepe stalls, no snowboard shops. There's a small hotel; a few apartments to rent; a baker for breakfast baguettes; a couple of everyday bars serving plain food. Above, a broad mountainside of deep snow lies largely undisturbed. There are skiers up there, but they are so few and far between that from below they are invisible - lost in space.

It could be Val d'Isere or Verbier in the 1930s, before they were swamped by the holiday industry. But this is Ste-Foy today - down the road from Val d'Isere and sadly affected by traffic as a result, but in other respects a real Alpine backwater. It is one of those few treasured resorts which for one reason or another (stubborn, old-fashioned owners, lack of capital or lack of the necessary permissions) have had their development stunted. Such places, by definition, don't appear in international package-holiday brochures, but they have cult status among skiers who live nearby.

Many people who work in Val d'Isere go to Ste-Foy for a day "away from it all" whenever they get the chance. A handful of other resorts in Europe have the same time-warp feel. But for the cult non-resort par excellence, you have to go to America - and to Alta, in Utah. Although it has rather more accommodation than Ste-Foy, it has nothing like the amount justified by the quality of its skiing and - particularly - the exceptional depth and quality of its snow. It is largely on the strength of the snowfalls in Little Cottonwood Canyon - shared by the next-door but quite distinct

resort of Snowbird - that Utah gets away with the boast: "The Greatest Snow on Earth".

Alta is the winter weekend playground of residents of Salt Lake City, less than an hour away by car. At the end of the canyon, where once stood a prosperous silver-mining town, there is nothing but a couple of car parks and a dozen small hotels and condominiums dotted around the valley floor, amounting to 1,100 beds altogether. In principle, it should be virtually skier-free on weekdays. But if the day dawns bright after a fall of two or three feet of fresh powder, Salt Lake City is suddenly afflicted by a sudden outbreak of the mysterious viral illness called Alta Flu, which results in large-scale absence from work.

Even so, the slopes are usually quiet, and they are never crowded. Ticket sales are limited at peak holiday times, so it's unlikely you'll run into lift queues. Slow, old lifts give you plenty of time to study the terrain as you ride up, and slope capacity remains well ahead of lift capacity. Though the main appeal of Alta is to powder-hounds (who can cope with the deep snow on the steep slopes above the lift bases, and at Devil's Castle), it is also excellent for beginners and is even bearable for intermediates. They must be content, though, to focus on quality and not quantity.

It's doubtful if anywhere in Europe can match Alta's snow, but Ste-Foy's record is a good one by Alpine standards - and in other respects the skiing is just as compelling. The lifts start some way up the mountainside above the village, going up in three stages from 1,550m to 2,620m. There are easy and intermediate runs on the lower half of the mountain, in the trees, with tougher stuff on the open, blissfully under-populated slopes above. Don't be put off if the top chair seems shut - they're probably just waiting for a customer.

The black run here often offers a close approximation of off-piste skiing, but if even greater seclusion is required there are excellent off-piste routes well away from the lift system. Especially worth a try are the one that passes through the "village classe" of Monal, and a second descending the north face of the 2,930m Fogliettaz, starting with a walk of an hour or so. Guidance is needed, and available.

Ste-Foy: tourist office/ski school 00 33 79 06 91 70; mountain guides 00 33 79 07 24 59. Alta, Utah: lodgings, reservations 00 1 801 942 0404; ski school 00 1 801 742 2600. CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING TO MOST downhill skiers, cross-country skiing means plodding around valley-bottom circuits a few kilometres in length - but that's as it is practised in downhill resorts. For a lot of less-than-athletic holidaymakers who have never known anything better, this may be a source of some satisfaction. But it is scarcely as good as it gets.

For the real thing, look elsewhere - at least to resorts where cross- country is more than just a pastime for deserted spouses, and preferably to places where the cross-country trails take you deep into the countryside, away from resorts. You'll discover the satisfaction of travelling serious distances entirely under your own steam. You'll find that a hill of nursery- slope gradient, in downhill terms, can offer thrills you've never imagined. Most of all, you'll find what downhill skiing so rarely provides: a landscape populated by nothing but trees, wildlife, and you.

Cross-country is the modern equivalent of skiing in its original form - a means of travelling. Devotees ski down hills, though rarely down slopes as steep as those that Alpine skiers tackle. They ski up hills, too - using something like the "herringbone" technique familiar to Alpine skiers. And they ski on terrain that goes neither up nor down to an appreciable degree, with less effort than walking and much less than is required of a downhiller on the flat.

The essentials of cross-country equipment are that the skis and boots are light; that the two components are connected only by a flexible binding at the toe, so your heels can lift off the skis as you stride along; and that the ski has a sole that grips the snow when you want it to, and slides easily over it when you don't.

This last is the key ingredient in making efficient progress on the flat (though there is also the more energetic "skating" technique). The traditional solution is to apply wax to a smooth ski sole. Provided it is of the correct type (there are different kinds for different temperatures), you will get the desired effect. The modern solution, for recreational skiers if not for racers, is to have a ski sole with a surface texture that grips when you push it one way, and slides when you push it the other. Like downhill skiing, cross-country can be done on prepared trails or on untracked snow, where slightly beefier skis with metal edges (like downhill skis) are better.

The best cross-country resorts tend to be well away from the extreme gradients favoured by downhill skiers. Scandinavia in general, and Norway in particular, are the places where terrain, weather and facilities favour the cross-country skier best. In Norway, various options are available. At the tamer end of the spectrum you can stay in a village hotel in a resort such as Geilo, and explore the local trails. You'll find comfortable valley loops on which to practise your stride, but also circuits at higher altitude offering long distances, exciting descents and gloriously secluded picnic-stops such as you'd never find in an Alpine resort. On the wilder side, you can tour from one mountain refuge to another (bookable through and often run by the DNT, the Norwegian mountain touring club). Occupying the middle ground is a formula that suits skiers who are keen, but not super-hardy: welcoming hotels in isolated settings, geared towards cross- country skiers, from which full-day outings can be made.

One word of caution. A holiday in Norway need not be expensive, but it can be if you like a drink or two in the evening. The prohibitive taxes on alcohol mean normal-strength beer is painfully expensive, and wine ruinously so.

If your mountain holiday isn't complete without more affordable apres- ski, something like the real Nordic experience can be had in areas of France that are hilly enough for snow, but not hilly enough for downhill skiing - notably the Massif, the Jura, and the Vercors. If that still sounds too adventurous, try a resort like Seefeld, near Innsbruck in the Austrian Tyrol. Though some of its trails are not unlike the tedious loops you find in any Alpine resort, there are many of a more adventurous kind, leading off into the surrounding countryside. As a bonus for less- than-dedicated skiers, the resort's other sports facilities are excellent.

Norway: Norwegian mountain touring club (DNT) 00 47 22 832550 ; UK agents, Mountain & Wildlife Ventures 015394 33285. Austria: Seefeld local tourist office 00 43 5212 2313. Countless mainstream brochures include the resort of Seefeld. Package tours: for more serious cross-country skiing, there are three specialist brochures: Headwater 01606 48699; Inn-Active 01653 628811; Waymark 01753 516477. Waymark offers special instruction courses, too. SKI TOURING BY THE time the sun climbs above the rocky spires to the east, the little group has already been on skis for two hours. Not skiing, but climbing. There's another two hours' uphill struggle ahead. The pace is steady, the rests kept to a minimum; as the air temperature gradually rises above freezing, layers of insulation are relegated to the rucksack. Eventually, the zig-zag track the group has been making in the white wasteland meets the skyline.

This, for ski tourers, is what it's all about. The group gathers at the ridge. Not only is the climbing over, for the moment, but the view ahead is breathtaking: over the ridge is a panorama of sheer snowy peaks that threatens to stop your pounding heart. Your own efforts have brought you to one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth, high in the heart of the Alps. It's a damned good feeling - and the skiing hasn't even started.

For those who love the grandeur and solitude of high mountains, the satisfaction of making expeditions out into the wild like this is immense. The skiing is in a sense incidental; a day's touring doesn't provide much of it, and the snow conditions can be unpleasant. But a carefully timed outing in spring, the classic time for touring, will include some skiing on the most sensuous skiing surface of all, corn snow - a thin layer of granular melt on a smooth, frozen base. Any time of the season may be blessed by the other skier's dream - deep powder. But touring necessarily involves coping with all the kinds of snow that mountains can manufacture.

The pleasures of ski touring are not just available to experts. But you do have to be able to do effective turns, however basic, in any snow conditions, and retain your composure - physical and mental - when confronted with the worst. For many people, the most severe test is "breakable crust" - a thin layer of hard-frozen snow covering a soft base, capable of supporting your weight when it is distributed evenly, but not when you concentrate it in a turn. For serious ski touring, you need to be seriously fit.

The easiest day-trip tours are possible with standard downhill equipment, but they are hard work. It's much better (and essential for tours involving big climbs) to hire or buy special equipment. Touring bindings are the key ingredient, allowing your heel to lift off the ski when moving uphill. Devotees use specialised skis and boots, too. To get a grip on the snow when climbing, the skis have removable "skins" - fabric strips with surface bristles that lie in one direction, so that they slide across the snow one way, but resist movement the other way.

There are countless areas in the Alps where there is suitable high terrain for ski touring. Klosters in Switzerland is a good resort for piste skiers to make a start. The huge lift-served ski area it shares with Davos has lots of off- piste itineraries where you can build up competence and confidence in deep snow without spending a fortune on guides. It also gives access to some splendid easy tours. Easiest of all is a dinky day-tour that is the most painless introduction to touring you can get in the Alps: the anti-clockwise circuit of the Madrisa, going over to Gargellen in Austria.

For those who cheat and use the Klosters lifts to get to the shoulder of the Madrisa, the route over to Gargellen involves nothing more strenuous than a long traverse to the Schlappiner Joch (2,202m). On the way back, a climb of 300m to the St Antonien Joch is inescapable, even with the help of the Gargellen lifts. The run down goes to the village of St Antonien, whence buses and trains return to Klosters.

Confirmed tourers like to get further away from it all, and stay up there on the roof of Europe for two, three or more days at a time, sleeping in high-altitude refuges. One of the best places is the top of the Otz tal, in the Austrian Tyrol. Obergurgl is a possible starting point, but the even smaller village of Vent is better - surrounded by peaks of over 3,500m (including the Tyrol's highest, the 3,774m Wildspitze), their approaches dotted with refuges.

Klosters: tourist office 00 41 81 691877; ski school 00 41 81 691380; Bruno Sprecher, guide 00 41 81 691155. Vent: tourist office 00 43 5254 8193; ski school 00 43 5254 8123; mountain guides' office 00 43 5254 8106. Packages: the Ski Club of Great Britain (0171-245 1033) offers various week-long packages based on ski touring.

IT MAY seem paradoxical to use the ultimate modern transport toy to recreate the lost quality of skiing's early days. But the British tourists who invented recreational skiing early this century didn't hesitate, either, to adapt new technology to make it more fun and less hard work: they made the mountain railways, usually shut above village level in winter, stay open so they could enjoy three or four powder runs in a day.

Heli-skiing is the direct descendant of this revolutionary idea. But helicopters go higher, and faster, so the runs can be longer, or more numerous, or more mind-blowingly powdery. For those who want skiing in great quantity as well as great quality - and whose credit-card can take a pounding - there's no skiing like heli-skiing. You don't have to be an expert to enjoy it, and it's now common practice for those who are less than expert to use "fat" skis that make off-piste skiing as simple as on-piste.

The idea is simple: fly up the mountain in a helicopter, and ski down with a guide - preferably on virgin snow - to a remote spot whence the chopper, summoned by your guide's radio, lifts you back to a new peak. Even by the standards of an expensive sport, it is very expensive (pounds 2,500- pounds 3,250 per week in Canada, including flights; pounds 75-pounds 250 per day in Europe, including guide). But most keen skiers who try it judge that occasional half-day outings constitute a worthwhile extravagance, and some affluent skiers go back for weeks of it, year after year.

Leaving apart those rare cable cars where a 10-minute ride up gives access to an epic descent (as at Alpe d'Huez, for example), this is the only form of downhill skiing in which a good skier can spend more time descending than ascending. What's more, you're doing it on terrain that most of us lack the energy or fitness to reach under our own steam - ideally, out of sight of civilisation. More important still is the fact that heli-skiing, at its best, presents an opportunity to ski in heavenly powder snow.

Canadian heli-skiing is the most alluring in the world. The helicopters operate in high, remote parts of the Rockies, where there are such vast areas of wilderness that airlifted groups of about 10 skiers can ski one virgin powder slope after another - perhaps eight or 10 runs a day. It is the kind of skiing many people dream of, and with luck it goes on for a week at a time. A week's skiing in a remote wilderness implies a week's residence in a remote wilderness, staying in a lodge. The skiing will take place, you hope, in the best conditions known to man - but the weather is crucial. Have your hopes fulfilled, and the high cost of your week in the Bugaboos or Monashees will be deemed worth it. Have them dashed by poor snow or poor weather, and you may reach a different conclusion. Take plenty of reading or writing material, in case you're grounded.

Closer to home, in the Alps, heli-skiing is not widely available. Where it is, you will be offered excursions from a conventional resort involving two or three drops in a day, skiing two or three mountains top to bottom (payment is usually by the day, the half-day or the individual lift). Smaller helicopters are used, taking three or four skiers plus guide; the total cost per flight is fixed, so you need to fill the aircraft.

There are environmental concerns. In Austria, heli-skiing operations have been forced to close - except in fashionable Lech, where money talks louder (though even there it is not heavily promoted). In France, there is a total ban on helicopters landing on mountain tops and delivering skiers, but not on other chopper movements. In the right resort (such as Flaine), you can practise heli-skiing in an inverted form: take lifts to suitable peaks, ski down into liftless valleys and be helicoptered out of them.

In Switzerland and Italy, environmental concerns are less evident; heli- skiing is available where supply and demand coincide. The biggest operation is in Zermatt, where on a fine spring day the heliport resembles a London terminus at rush-hour, with departures every couple of minutes. Drops are permitted at only three or four points, so the runs from these get horribly busy when conditions are good. But there is an advantage: it's easy to find other skiers to make up a cost-effective chopper-full.

A more satisfactory base is the Aosta valley in Italy, of which the best- known resort is Courmayeur - just through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Chamonix. A couple of companies in the area do heli-lifts, notably Lacadur, based in Valgrisenche. Directly west of the village is the 3,486m Testa del Rutor, whose glacier-draped shoulders offer runs in all directions, in France and Italy. There are lots of other possibilities nearby - the peaks along the Val Ferret, north of Courmayeur, for example.

Canada, the Rockies: the two major heli operators both have UK agents - Mike Wiegele, Fresh Tracks 0181-875 9818; Ski Scott Dunn 0181-767 0202. Also try CMH, Powder Skiing in North America on 0171-736 8191. Italy, Aosta valley: Lacadur Heliski 00 39 165 97138. !