Skiing: The call of the wild

There is nothing more intoxicating than the experience of skiing in the wilderness, as Jane Slade discovered on a mountain safari
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Andermatt was not a pretty sight. This was the meeting-point for a ski-touring adventure, which was to last six days and take us - a group of six - over big mountains and deep valleys, via the elegance of the Swiss resort of Klosters. Lovely though the area is, the weather cast a black cloud on the proceedings.

Jimmy, our guide, was pessimistic. "I think tomorrow will be pretty bad too," he said, as we nervously prepared ourselves for the trek. He loaded our powder skis, skins, avalanche bleepers and airbags into the van. Our group - I was the only woman in the party - included two Scottish doctors, both called Iain, a German medic from the Black Forest, a banker from Zug and an architect from Frankfurt.

Visibility was nil. It was cold. Very cold. The lifts to the mountain top were closed, so we put our skins on to our skis and legged it up the piste in minus 20 degrees and blizzard conditions. On we went for two- and-a-half hours, until through my fogged goggles I could just make out smoke curling from the chimney of a refuge. I had never been so pleased to see the bright red Swiss flag. The couple who ran this gentrified shed were the only people who remained in the mountain village during winter.

In the refuge we defrosted on warm local wine, and tucked into melted cheese and played a strange game of table croquet which had us transfixed until about 1am. The jovial banter in English, German and Swiss German soon gave way to loud, boisterous singing and the arrival of some unusually potent coffee.

Next day, still in the driving snow, we slogged up to 2,843m and had our reward: an hour later we were bouncing down a 1,000m vertical drop of fresh powder snow all the way to the railway station at Bitziruti. The trek had been worth it, all the more so because the fat powder skis made me feel as if I were floating on a pair of blow-up dinghies.

More uphill trekking, then more skiing in feather powder through the trees, travelling on and through a desert of white isolation.

The snowfall over the past two days had been tremendous, the effect of which we were about to witness. Great slabs thundered down a slope some 50m from where we stood, and were crushed into all-too-familiar minced rubble. It all happened very slowly, but the huge weight of the slide would not have spared a single skier.

Now we were getting technical. Some of the lads were having problems remaining upright on their ordinary skis, while Jimmy and I had cruised through the fluff like butter.

"Get sailing, boys, and go for the boats," I advised. The next day Big Iain and Black Forest Martin converted. Then there were the skins, which we had to attach to the underside of the skis when we went uphill. It took all my strength to separate them, and just as I teased them apart, a gust of wind would blow them back together again. I also had great trouble making right-angle turns going uphill without my heels being attached to bindings, as they are on downhill skis.

But all this hard work has its reward. We would find ourselves at the top of a peak which earlier had seemed dauntingly far off, and in front there would be virgin powder fields as far as the eye could see. Jimmy would bolt off towards the horizon, bouncing and tallyhoing for a full three minutes before coming to rest as a dot in the distance. He said he had never known such fantastic conditions, and in late March, too; the wonderful snow also meant that we didn't have to do the one-hour walk out at the bottom of the slopes.

Jimmy had the nice habit of congratulating everyone after a "hike", which usually involved much back-slapping, hand-shaking and, in my case, cheek- kissing and hugging followed by a ritual swig of tepid, sweet tea from his flask. He also had the unnerving, but endearing, habit of stretching out his arms and bursting into a rendition of "Always look on the bright side of life", which he sang as he danced like a demented puppet down the mountain.

Spring had made an appearance. The bleak midwinter of the first day now seemed a distant nightmare. The clouds had kept their distance, and we were touring in T-shirts, in glorious sunshine. Once up and over, we completed the last leg on skins; it was fairly steep and crusty, after being melted by the sun. Then it was hugs all round, and lashings of tepid tea.

The climb was well worth it, and the prize, an amphitheatre of mountain peaks. We could even see Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.

Once again our guide donned his fresh track crown and led us through powder field upon powder field all the way down to Bristen in the valley, where a Land Rover met us and took us, tired and triumphant, back to Andermatt and a celebratory drink. Or two.

Jane Slade paid pounds 582 for the Safari ski week with Alpine Adventures, which included half-board accommodation. Allow an extra pounds 100 for lift passes and ground transport. Flights are excluded.

The nearest airport to Andermatt is Zurich (two hours by train). Make sure you can get off at Goschenen, and then take the mountain cog train, the Lurke Oberald Bah, up to Andermatt (15 minutes). A full-price return train ticket Zurich-Andermatt costs about SFr75. For brochure and further information, contact Alpine Adventures Mountain Reality, Post Box CH-6490, Andermatt, Switzerland (0041 41 872 0900; fax: 0041 41 872 0950).

There are still deep snow skiing weeks available in Andermatt, from 15 and 23 March, price SFr1,410 (excluding flights), and from Ski Touring in Bivio from 22 March for seven nights, price SFr1,085.

E-mail: bergschule.uri@mail.tic.ch.

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