Skiing: Le weekend break: the chain reactions

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The Independent Online
It seemed a good idea to whiz across to the Alps for a three-day ski break. But have you ever tried to drive up a mountainside in the snow? Without snow chains? Not

a wise move, as Richard Holledge discovered.

There is one, foolproof way to find out whether it is going to snow in the Alps. Not the cloud lowering over Mont Blanc, not the pine cones opening (or is it closing?), not even the advice of some gnarled, alpine Ian MacCaskill. You wait until you hear I am hiring a car for the short - huh - haul from Geneva to a nearby resort.

Snowstorms are guaranteed. One trip saw me and Ford Orion slide off the mountain in gentle spring snowfall below Val Thorens. There was the slow-motion skid into the crash barrier on the way up to Alpe d'Huez; the traumatic battle against blizzards on the way to Tignes; and as for "road blocked with snow" above Selva ... So it was that at midnight a week or so ago, as late-night revellers sat cosily in bars toasting a mighty snowfall, I was fighting a losing battle with snow chains just outside Chamonix.

The idea had been to prove to myself how easy it is to flit across to the slopes for three days without the help of travel agent or specialist organiser.

It started well. However, it is an ineluctable fact of travel life that the bits of the trip that work are equalled by those that don't. The journey from Luton to Geneva with easyJet took off on time and arrived early. The pounds 128 fare compared more than favourably with the pounds 408 quoted by British Airways, even if you did have to buy your own can of Stella and packet of Twiglets.

The flight took one hour 20 minutes, the baggage took 50 minutes to clear, the business of hiring the car took an hour and 10 minutes, the getting out of Geneva another hour. Nice place, Geneva, but not late at night in the rain, when all roads lead to centre ville and not autres directions. (Next time I'll cough up the pounds 16 necessary to travel on the two miles of Swiss motorway link from the airport to France's Autoroute Blanche, and bypass the place altogether.)

If it's raining in Geneva it's snowing in the mountains. And foggy. So by the time I reached Chamonix, at around midnight, the snow was piling down so fast that it was obvious I would not make the last few miles to my destination, Argentiere, that night.

Of course, being an experienced driver-off of mountains I had been remarkably percipient, and had persuaded the harassed girl on the Avis desk to sell me snow chains. Frankly, even as I did so I knew that I would never manage to put them on. So it was that I was parked in 6in of snow in a gale on a busy main road with cars either contemptuously rushing past spraying me with snow (chains on, smug bastards), or wobbling dangerously (no chains, stupid bastards).

The idea is that you slip the chains over and round the car tyres, simply click the hooks inside the tyre into place, and join up the outside links - all with a minimum of effort. However, it doesn't work like that. You need the muscles of a weight-lifter and the agility of a contortionist in the Cirque du Soleil.

I thought that if I lay down in the road and looked tragic - maybe even dead - perhaps somebody would realise that this was a pathetic Englishman and would come to my rescue.

I tried losing my temper a few times. Just an act, of course.

Back to Chamonix, where the concierge at one hotel smiled sympathetically, if rather sardonically, and told me there was only one bed left in the whole town. Spurred by my reluctance to spend a night in my otherwise very cosy Renault Twingo, I tore through the town, sidestepped a coachload of bewildered Asians and found myself in that very haven.

No food of course, just the left-over Christmas cake I had thoughtfully bought for my would-be companions of the piste. Next day, more snow, but this time, with daylight and under cover of the garage, I easily put on my chains - a mere 45 minutes of grunting, straining and cursing, and I was off.

How fabulous to have a car. Go where you like, move effortlessly from one resort to another, ignore other English cars struggling to put on their chains by the roadside. Freedom.

The sun came out, shining through snow-laden trees, the Chamonix valley looked lovely, the mountains looked inviting.

And so they were: the big, unpisted runs above Argentiere rimmed by mighty peaks, the easier, prettier runs of Les Houches packed with happy skiers. Lunch, lots of it, was taken outside. Sunbathing in December? Of course. Three days of perfect skiing, a meal to restore your faith in French cooking at the Chamonix's Auberge du Bois Prin - all foie gras, fish and lamb in glorious harmony - and it was back to Geneva.

A weekend away. Perfect.

Except that I haven't forgotten that first night.

Next time I'll think about going by train. For example, you can get to the resorts of the Trois Vallees - Courchevel, Meribel, Les Menuires - on one of three or four trains a day from Geneva via Chambery and Moutiers, and catch a bus or taxi to the resort. La Plagne, Les Arcs and Val d'Isere are reachable from stations further on down the line.

Better still, take the train direct from Geneva airport to the Swiss resorts of the Portes du Soleil. Take the train to Aigle, walk across the platform, take the telepherique, not just to the charming village of Champery, but to the cable car which connects to the dozen resorts and 200 kilometres of skiing that make up the Portes du Soleil.

Quite a handy place to have a car, as it happens. Maybe I'll go to evening classes in snow-chain assembly.

Le weekend: easyJet fare: pounds 128 (pounds 79 out, pounds 49 return).

The car hire: pounds 124 for three days. Snow chains, pounds 20. Unscheduled stay in Park Hotel, Chamonix, pounds 40.

Contacts: French Railways (0990 300003). Swiss Railways (0171 734 1921).

ski tip

To improve your ability to balance on steeper slopes, ski with your hands below your hips and in front of your thighs. This will allow you to turn your legs more powerfully and to absorb bumps and difficult terrain.

Chris Exall