Off-piste skiing was at one time purely the domain of the expert skier and something the rest of us only experienced by watching a James Bond movie or Martini ad. "It's a myth that you have to have been skiing for years before you start to tackle off-piste," explains instructor Jane McGarry from McGarry The Ski System. "I've seen skiers with 20 years' experience find off-piste really difficult because they are not centred on their skis, try to use big body movements to change direction, or are not using the inside ski effectively. On the other hand, a red or even blue-run skier can start to make turns in gentle off-piste if they have mastered the basics and stand well-centred over the middle of their skis."
Common off-piste mistakes include crossing the tips of skis under the snow, sitting too far back at the end of the turn, or coming too far out of the fall-line to be able to make the next turn. "You need confidence to make turns off-piste - a lot of it is pure gut," says McGarry.
You certainly need guts and a head for heights to take part in the annual "Extreme" off-piste clinic organised by McGarry The Ski System and led by mountain guide extraordinaire Pierre Tardivel who once skied Everest after climbing the South Summit without oxygen, and who takes his fearless clients clawing up ice waterfalls in order to reach the most exciting descents.
There are, of course, plenty of less terrifying off-piste options in the Alps such as the Vallee Blanche, near Chamonix - a spectacular 20km off-piste route that most intermediates can easily handle, providing they have the services of a good guide. Wherever you ski off-piste and whatever your level, hiring a guide is imperative, both for safety reasons and in order to show you the best terrain.
"There are still a lot of off-piste skiers doing crazy things," says Chamonix mountain guide Roland Stieger. "You wouldn't believe how many people ask if the Vallee Blanche is 'open' as if it's a piste just because they've heard the name so often.
"As a guide, it is your duty to rescue someone if you find them stuck in the middle of nowhere, which often means your clients are left waiting while you have to help someone who never should have left the piste in the first place."
MACHO MOUNTAIN MEN
Mountain guides are a breed apart and are predominantly male and macho with years of experience. Unless they also have an instructor qualification, they are there to guide rather than teach you, although many are eager to pass on some tips. Finding a good guide can make all the difference to your off-piste experience and it is worth trying to book their services before you depart.
The top mountain guides in Europe are treated among the skiing fraternity as gurus, and some of them can seem rather aloof and intimidating. That's certainly not the case with Roland Steiger, who I was lucky enough to ski with a few seasons ago in Argentiere. Like other top mountain guides, Roland is an incredible character and experienced rescue man who told us tales of woe of foolish skiers who had fallen down the many crevasses in this area, the corpses emerging perfectly intact at the bottom of the valley many decades later, preserved by the ice. It didn't take long to convince me that the best thing I could do was tuck myself behind him and stay in his tracks. It was an exciting and exhilarating day with lots of laughs and camaraderie. Despite the tales of danger I never felt in safer hands.
Other recommended guides include Pierre Tardivel, who despite being the world's number one extreme skier, is one of the most modest mountain guides, taking a genuine interest in everyone he skis with, regardless of their ability. Powder Byrne offers the services of the friendly and popular Swiss guide, Ueli Frei, who a few years back was voted president of the Grindelwald Mountaineering Centre. Patrick and Jean Zimmer are two brothers who run the Top Ski school in Val d'Isere, renowned for their off-piste instruction. They offer three levels of off-piste courses ranging from beginners to experienced powder hounds, all of which start with a test session on-piste. Collineige is a company which specialises in Chamonix and offers the highly experienced services of Jean-Marie Olianti, who is married to the company founder, Colleen. Fresh Tracks, which specialises in off-piste skiiing holidays, uses the services of a wide range of mountain skiing guides in a selection of resorts including instructors Nathalie Hagenmuller in Chamonix and Andrea Enzio in Alagna.
One must never forget that skiing off-piste is potentially dangerous as you are on unpatrolled territory in the unpredictable mountains. Always wear an avalanche transceiver as this can save yours and others' lives and keep it switched on during lunch, in case you forget to reset it.
Top Ski includes mountaincraft sessions in all its off-piste courses and places a huge emphasis on safety. For example, the company always gives one of the skiers in the group a back-up pack containing first aid and rescue equipment for, as Jean Zimmer points out: "It could be that the guide with all the essential kit is the one who gets buried in an avalanche."
Clients quickly adopt the sensible habit of taking their own backpack with survival essentials such as dried fruit, water or hot tea, spare gloves and hat, first-aid blanket, probe and shovel.
It would also be prudent for you to check that your holiday insurance covers you for skiing off-piste.
The introduction of Fat Boys - wider skis specifically designed for use on powder - has opened up the off-piste possibilities for many intermediate and older skiers as it makes it so much easier.
One of the problems created by all the intermediate skiers using Fat Boys to enable them to ski off-piste is that it is no longer so easy to find that virgin snow in some of the more popular expert resorts. An inexperienced skier without a guide can quickly "ski out" all the fresh powder, as they don't have the skill or experience to traverse in the same line. Apart from increasing the risk of avalanche, this wrecks the enjoyment for others, which is why some more experienced skiers are taking up ski touring which involves trekking further afield, or even paying as much as pounds 100 a day to be whisked up to the top of a mountain in a helicopter.
IN SEARCH OF POWDER
You don't need to go further afield than the Alps to find superb off- piste. One of the most exciting regions with some of the best guides is the French Chamonix Valley which offers everything from the highly challenging glaciers of Les Grands Montets in Argentiere to the gentler delights of the Vallee Blanche. Experts will enjoy La Grave, the tiny French mountaineering resort near the Italian border. All the skiing here is unpisted, with high, glaciated, north- facing slopes and stunningly beautiful scenery. The Swiss resort Andermatt has some superb off-piste potential, particularly from the top of Gemsstock. The Monte Rosa area in Italy comprises the three villages of Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna, all of which offer great off-piste experiences with the advantage that the Italians tend not to be so keen on off-piste so that the powder slopes are often empty. In Austria, St Anton's huge off- piste potential needs little introduction to keen skiers, as does that of nearby Lech and Zurs.
Better known for its family facilities than its off-piste, the purpose- built French resort of Flaine actually caters successfully for both with the advantage that most of the families are too busy wiping their children's runny noses to wipe out the off-piste. This is a great area to make your first tentative turns in powder and the proximity of Flaine and Le Grand Massif area to Mont Blanc results in a unique microclimate which means that it has a much better snow record than the altitude suggests.
POWDER POWER: THE OFF-PISTE EXPERTS
Collineige (01276 24262). Chamonix specialists offering services of experienced guide Jean-Marie Olianti. From pounds 629 for a week's half board in a chalet and flights. Details on request.
Fresh Tracks (0171 259 5466). Powder and off-piste skiing hoidays for all standards in Flaine, Chamonix, La Grave and Alagna. Also heli-skiing and ski touring. From pounds 795 for a week in Chamonix includes return, half board and guide for five days.
McGarry The Ski System (0181 399 5823 or tel or fax 00 334 5073 2021). Ski clinics that teach you on-piste technique with the option of days off-piste with guide Robbie Fenlon. From pounds 399 for a week's half-board chalet accommodation in Chatel including five-day course but not flights.
Pierre Tardivel, based in Ancy, can be booked direct (00 334 5027 2287, fax 00 334 5027 1586). 1300-1400FF per day.
Powder Byrne (0181 871 3300). Off-piste course with Ueli Frei. Introduction to Powder Course from pounds 929, Powder Adventure pounds 899.
Roland Stieger (00 334 5054 4353, fax 00 334 5027 1586). Friendly and experienced mountain guide/instructor based in Chamonix. 1500FF a day.
Ski Club of Great Britain (0171 245 1033). Off-piste holidays to a variety of top destinations. From pounds 695 per person including half board, flights and guide, plus hire of Fat Boy skis.
Ski Weekend (01367 241636). A number of gentle off-piste, guided weekends for strong parallel skiers to Sainte Foy, 20 minutes drive from Val d'Isere. From pounds 739 per person to include return flights, four nights half-board accommodation and four days skiing with UK mountain guide Nick Parks. Also off-piste weekends in La Grave and the Monta Rosa area.
Top Ski (00 334 7906 1480). Ski school in Val d'Isere run by Patrick and Jean Zimmer who have been teaching skiers about the delights of off- piste for the past 20 years. Off-piste courses for all standards from 255FF per morning. Full details available by fax (00 334 7906 2842).