Blue skies, sunshine and new snow ahead ... so beware

In La Plagne you can avoid the crowded runs without putting yourself or other skiers at risk.
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The Independent Online
Saturday afternoon in La Plagne. Thousands of French, plus a sprinkling of foreigners are racing up the mountains in second gear, scrambling for parking places in one of the country's most popular resorts. It is France en vacances. With admirable efficiency they unload their cars of grannies, provisions, pets, even a caged rabbit munching lettuce.

The sky is blue. It may be crowded but it s going to be a great week. And yet, as we unload and scramble for ski hire and passes and try to get in the first run of the week, a tragedy is being played out around us. In the midst of all this organised, mechanised, high rise familiarity, four skiers have been killed in avalanches. They weren't far off piste. A stretch of snow between two red runs on the Champagny side of the resort. No ski extreme here. No jumping off dangerous peaks. Just a little detour across inviting, virgin snow. It is so hard to resist the sheer exhilaration of scooting off the well-worn pistes, whooping and laughing, blithely cutting through the new layer of snow sitting precariously on the old, hard base. So easy. So dangerous. It happened to be La Plagne. It could have been anywhere.

I skied on the same area of resort the next day: the same blue sky, the same well-groomed pistes, the highly organised synchronicity of chair lifts, skidoos, mountain cafes and watchful helicopter patrol. Hard to imagine tragedy in such a user-friendly resort. Yet within hours the wind is up, the snow is down and the comfortable huddle of apartments and shopping malls is blasted by gales. It is perversely satisfying to find that even in a resort as tailored to the needs of the armchair skier as La Plagne, the mountain cannot be tamed.

It seemed sensible, once the storm had abated, to hire a guide. Laden with bleepers, ropes and an impressive rucksack, he pauses to explain how an inoffensive slope like the one we are on harbours such menace. The most recent snowfall can be seen clearly sitting on the snow from a week before, and the contrast is visible between that snow and the stuff that fell as long ago as December. Packed and hard it acts as a slide for anyone foolish enough to cut through the new and send it sliding down the hill. It is essential to ski in line, he tells us, not one below the other, and never wait below a skier when in the deep.

He is angry and aghast that even good skiers defy the ropes and warnings to ski off-piste. He is frankly derisory that, for all the helicopters and sophisticated rescue equipment, not enough is done to educate us before we take to the slopes.

So are we going to be stuck on the busy pistes with all this new snow waiting to be played in?

Not a bit of it. Even a big resort such as La Plagne, which caters brilliantly for first time and intermediate skiers, with its 111 lifts and more than 210 kilometres, stretching from a high and mighty glacier to big open pistes, has its secret corners.

We find ourselves weaving through the conifers towards the villages of Les Coches and Montchavin. There are thousands of skiers in La Plagne. We can hear no one.

In Montchavin the illusion of rural quiet is helped by a smattering of old buildings, a barn and a clutch of new chicks picking away at the cold earth. The authenticity is enhanced at the cafe Le Sangret a chairlift ride away. The owner, a colourful woman with red hair, blue hot pants and black tights insists on supplementing our saucisson and frites with a fierce local liquor. It all seemed so safe.

To ski La Plagne, contact Erna Low, 9, Reece Mews, London SW7 3HE. 0171- 584 7820; fax: 0171-589 9531.

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