Most skiers - even the most dedicated downhill racers - share the same ideal: a perfect skiing surface combined with a clear, blue sky. But sun and snow don't easily co-exist. Although south-facing slopes may look attractive in the brochures, in the real world, the warmth of the sun will degrade the snow by lunchtime. True, in crisp January weather, a slight softening of the snow's surface may actually improve skiing conditions; but come the spring - when serious sun-worshippers head for the high-altitude resorts - soft snow will soon turn to slush.

Most skiers - even the most dedicated downhill racers - share the same ideal: a perfect skiing surface combined with a clear, blue sky. But sun and snow don't easily co-exist. Although south-facing slopes may look attractive in the brochures, in the real world, the warmth of the sun will degrade the snow by lunchtime. True, in crisp January weather, a slight softening of the snow's surface may actually improve skiing conditions; but come the spring - when serious sun-worshippers head for the high-altitude resorts - soft snow will soon turn to slush.

Richard Schollum, a piste-groomer at the Nevis Range in Scotland (whose main skiing face runs down towards the north), says: "Since north-facing slopes aren't affected by the sun, conditions remain much more consistent, and the snow stays better for longer, especially in the late season." Except, that is, where Schollum comes from: he's a New Zealander, and in the southern hemisphere, the reverse principle applies.

Piste maps rarely reveal the orientation of the slopes, but with a proper chart it is possible to pick out the resorts that have a more reliable, northern aspect - and those that offer the best of both worlds. Where pistes run down both faces of an east-west valley (as at St Anton in Austria) or drop off both sides of an east-west ridge (as at Mont Tremblant in Canada), skiers can catch the sun in the morning on the south-facing slopes, and then move across the valley when the snow conditions begin to deteriorate.

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