I have been in Val d'Isère for all of half an hour. "Sankha!" - the exclamation rings out across the Rue de la Poste. Maybe I should feel more surprise. I turn to find the grinning face of Dr Me, last seen propping up a bar in SW4 on a messy night out. We exchange news: "If you had arrived a few days earlier you would have caught X and Y." With him is Paul, here with wife Sophie, their baby and the in-laws.
The bars of Clapham must be yawningly empty; entire families have snatched a chance to decamp to the Alps; whole streets back in London are shuttered and bereft of residents - the note to the milko reads "Gone Skiing".
I was last here seven years ago. There have been changes. The process of colonisation by the tribes of SW, already pretty advanced on my last visit in 1999, is almost complete now. London post codes SW3 to 12 have, apparently unnoticed by the powers in the Elysée Palace, crept up on large chunks of the French Alps and annexed them. By rights, the flags of Fulham, Battersea and Clapham should be fluttering proudly from the peaked gable ends of Val.
I am told that 35 per cent of the skiers in Val are British - but it seems a gross underestimate. You can go for days without hearing a foreign language (and by that I mean foreign to English). Everywhere I turn, I am wrapped in the warm cocoon of my manor.
We repair to the Pub Morris - so utterly British that it should have its own troupe of eponymous stick- twirling, knotted-hanky-wearing dancers. Dr Me is in reality an ophthalmic surgeon called Chris. From his hobble, I deduce that he is not so much a doctor today as a patient. He picked up a knee ligament injury on his first day; however, his appetite for après-ski was not hobbled. Sadly, my mate from Clapham is going back home tonight but I am beginning to intuit that it is impossible to be lonely in Val.
Our chalet is a few minutes' bus ride out of town in the hamlet of Le Fornet. It is a purpose-built affair and is accurately represented by the ski company as "compact but comfortable". The bedroom is also honestly described as "very small". The dining and slouching areas around the generous open fireplace are very inviting and cosy. Ideal, as it turns out, for banter with our fellow guests - a party from up north (about as "foreign" as it gets in Val).
Chris, a former Manchester City footballer, and his girlfriend Yvette are at the core of the group and they immediately co-opt my partner Julia and me into their posse. We are invited to join them on the slopes the following day.
The Espace Killy, as the ski playground of Val and neighbouring Tignes is called, is vast, offering 300km (186 miles) of interconnecting runs - and that's without getting into the infinity of off-piste possibilities. There is something for all levels - 23 green, 66 blue, 35 red and 18 black. Our group's commitment to piste-bashing is best described as dilettante - but we soon establish a common interest in schussing from café to bar to café.
Encouraged by a well-lubricated lunch and much brave talk, we pick out the highest point on the piste map - La Grande Motte (3,456m) - it seems simple enough. But our progress over the ridge into the Tignes valley is not elegant. Yvette has not found her ski legs. She reminds me of Jane Horrocks' ditzy character, Bubbles in Absolutely Fabulous and the illusion only deepens as she takes a series of tumbles accompanied by increasingly shrill squawks and expletives delivered in flat, northern vowels. Slightly ragged, we reach the Grand Motte funicular - just as it closes. Before us the colossal panorama of the receding ranges of the Pointes de la Sana and du Montet are catching the late afternoon rays. We opt for a quick beer on the sundeck and reflect that there is so much more to skiing than just skiing.
Our descent on a blue run called Génépy is glorious; we are virtually alone on the mountain. Below us the concrete cancer of Tignes spreads across the valley - from here it looks small and incidental. We misread the piste map and end up in Val Claret (the upper part of Tignes) to find we have just missed the last chair lift back to Val. Up close, the concrete towers of the resort look more malignant. We are stranded in the Alpine equivalent of the North Peckham estate.
A group decision is made - this involves a crisis drink, that becomes two, and then develops into an extended crisis. Amid the high-rise blocks we slump in deckchairs in the slushy snow - the sun is still warm enough for T-shirts. Chris and Yvette chat to two raw-faced snowboarders from High Wycombe. Yvette offers the sashimied duo some sunblock, but they look beyond the reach of medical science. The barman (from Fulham) is efficient with the vin chaud and tells us about a bus service back to Val. Later, he suggests that a cab might suit us better.
Eventually, an MPV turns up and takes us down through the Tignes sprawl. Great slabs of apartments, vividly at odds with their surroundings, are chained together across the top of the valley. Were planners involved in any of this? Low- rise Val d'Isère may well be a resort on a similar industrial scale but by contrast it feels like a village. And our chalet, probably no more than two years old, seems quaint after the brutalism of Tignes.
We are met with broad smiles and more vin chaud by Andy and Terry, the two chalet boys. Yes, boys. In the gender-neutral world of modern skiing male seasonaires are donning pinnies and displacing the "OK, Yah" Chelsea girls, for whom a ski season, slumming and partying, was an established rite of passage. Andy and Terry tell me there are more chalet boys than girls in the company they work for. The era of the decorative but essentially useless posh chalet totty is over. Gone, too, are their rudimentary culinary skills. Andy and Terry take professional pride in their menus - serving up Dijon pork and chicken stuffed with sundried tomatoes and mozzarella, in place of the stodgy stews and school-dinner puds of the old days. But some traditions die hard - banoffee pie is still on.
The ski rep pops in to sell tickets for organised entertainments - the obligatory pub crawl (miss), the pub quiz (miss), the English stand-up (avoid like plague) - but the perversity of "Henry's Avalanche Talk" tickles me. Why do skiers want the living bejaysuz scared out of them? The talk is held in a Val institution, Dick's Tea Bar. From memory, I recall a grungy club with black-painted walls, fluorescent murals that light up under the glow of UV lights and the reassuring familiarity of stale beer fumes and crunchy broken glass underfoot. Absolutely nothing has changed except it is still too early for the UV lights and the crushed glass.
The audio-visual presentation is billed as Henry's Avalanche Talk - I am unclear who exactly Henry is, but he is Awol from his talk. His stand-ins are a couple of young Scottish off-piste board dudes. Both are snowstruck puppies, their panting enthusiasm is occasionally mixed with a faux school teacher gravitas.
We see footage of a kamikaze skier hurtling through some rocks down a vertical face; he triggers a slab avalanche that shears in a line above him and threatens to take him down the cliff. Instead of passively accepting that his time has come, the skier sets off on an amazing racing traverse to outrun the avalanche, even as the slope is crashing down around him. He makes it to firm snow just as the slab he has been travelling on breaks off in a huge, boiling white cloud.
One of Henry's stand-ins gleefully blurts "you gotta love that guy for his sheer cheek", before being checked by his colleague, who reminds us that it was a pretty stupid situation for the skier to get himself into. They revert to didactic mode and tut solemnly.
Overnight it snows heavily. In the morning the cloud base is low and snow is still drifting down. Visibility is bad. Outside, I hear deep ominous booms echoing around the valleys - the work of the helicopter, as explosive teams attempt to set off controlled avalanches.
The day brightens. Over lunch at one of the piste restaurants, I tell Julia about my last visit to Val on a boys' outing. It is the story of how my friend Julian met Caroline at a nightclub and how they are now living happily ever after in Clapham - married with two kids. As I finish, I am tapped on the shoulder. "Sankha!" - I turn and see the same Caroline. Though we live five minutes apart we have not met in ages. Julian is outside on the restaurant terrace.
Our reunion is joyous and incredulous. What are the odds against such a chance encounter? The variables seem infinite but the meeting also seems inevitable. Call it dumb luck, call it kismet. We join Julian and Caroline's ski group, which includes a novelty - real French people in the shape of Marc and Dotty. We spend the afternoon catching up on each others' lives as we glide around the Espace Killy.
Marc, an experienced skier, leads us off-piste into the inviting fresh snow. It is my first taste of powder - I am told to lean back on the skis and try to maintain my momentum. Lean back? This goes against all my skiing reflexes.
We traverse, which is hard work because there is no firm snow to push against - it's all fluff and air. Then we launch downwards and I have to let go. Against my instincts, I lean back and the skis take off - aquaplaning down the slope, gathering speed. Turns are not easy. It's rather like manoeuvring an ocean liner as opposed to a small, agile dinghy. The sensation is totally different to any other skiing I have experienced.
I am out of my comfort zone in one sense but within it in another. Val d'Isère is part of our shared lives. And when we say our goodbyes we promise to meet up at home in Clapham - and even though we are almost neighbours this will require phone calls and planning around busy diaries. But up here in the magic mountains friendships are uncluttered. They are a force of nature - as elemental, as random as an avalanche.
My favourite restaurant
L'Atelier d'Edmond (00 33 479 00 00 82; atelier-edmond.com) is a new addition to the fine-dining scene in Val, and is making an immediate impact. Located in the quiet hamlet of Le Fornet, far from the buzzing après crowd. Neither the owner or the chef is called Edmond - the venue is named in memory of the owner's father, who was, apparently, a DIY fiend. His tools are scattered around the rustic-themed interior - hence "l'atelier". The atmosphere is cosy and warm, ingredients are local and the standard is high.
My top chairlift
There is no shortage of thrilling views from the chairlifts that thread around the Espace Killy - each with its unique vantage point over the mountains. Even so, the Lessieres Express which straddles the ridge between the l'Iseran and Solaise valleys is something special. The lift takes you up a vertical wall of snow and, as you clear the ridge, a cold blast of wind flays your face. The chair swings like a fairground ride and the views on to La Grande Motte and beyond are breathtaking. Not for vertigo sufferers.
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HOW TO GET THERE
Sankha Guha travelled with Ski Val (0870 746 3030; skival.co.uk) and stayed at Chalet Pomme de Pin, Val d' Isere. A seven-night stay costs from £505 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick to Chambery, transfers, and catered chalet accommodation, styaing in a double room.Reuse content