Ain't no mountain high enough

Fields of virgin snow are irresistible to skiers, but often impossibly remote. Felix Milns finds a way to rise above the obstacles

Heli-skiing has been banned in France since the late 1970s. Helicopter flights are noisy, disturb the environment and only benefit a small number of people; in direct contrast to the French philosophy of the common good taking precedence over individual freedom. However, it is this very exclusivity that is the draw. Once you achieve a certain level on ski or board, the concept of heli-skiing becomes a powder nirvana, a liberating feeling of being uncuffed from the usual cabled constraints of the lift system. With the aid of a helicopter, you can reach untracked peaks of pristine powder far from the madding crowd.

Heli-skiing has been banned in France since the late 1970s. Helicopter flights are noisy, disturb the environment and only benefit a small number of people; in direct contrast to the French philosophy of the common good taking precedence over individual freedom. However, it is this very exclusivity that is the draw. Once you achieve a certain level on ski or board, the concept of heli-skiing becomes a powder nirvana, a liberating feeling of being uncuffed from the usual cabled constraints of the lift system. With the aid of a helicopter, you can reach untracked peaks of pristine powder far from the madding crowd.

Valéry Giscard D'Estaing, when he was president of France, was a keen heli-skier and had his own apartment in Tignes. Legend has it that an angry demonstration awaited him as he heli-skied Mont Blanc. Bowing to intense pressure from the environmental lobby, he banned heli-skiing on the mountain in what was the first powder for votes scandal of its kind. Once mighty Mont Blanc had fallen, the rest of the French Alps swiftly followed suit.

Aimé Favre, our guide for the day, remembers the halcyon days of heli-skiing well. His father was a heli-ski guide and used to take his young son up with him when space allowed. At that time, three helicopters were based in the Espace Killy alone; yet the issue split the skiing population and deteriorated to the extent that in the year preceding the ban, skiers touring the area on skins would throw their poles at the helicopters' rotors as they tried to land.

Where there is a will, there is a way, however, and today the most common solution is to take off from nearby La Rosière, get dropped off in the Italian resort of La Thuile, then ski back over the border. Less well known and far more exclusive is the Tovière to Chevril descent in Val d'Isère, the only place where you can actually ski with a helicopter without leaving France.

The reason for this loophole is that the helicopter actually picks you up after you have skied. There is simply no other way out as the route finishes down a narrow gulley and opens out into an old quarry, surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs and the reservoir that stretches towards the Tignes dam.

Heli-skiing is all about patience; for two anxious days, we waited for the skies to clear. It is a common heli-ski story, though unlike in Canada, where you can be marooned in your lodge for days on end, in Val d'Isère there is the whole Espace Killy as compensation. The resort has had the best start to a season for years and the off-piste is superb at the moment. Last season only four metres of snow fell; this year one metre has already fallen. Consequently, our first day was spent up to our thighs in powder; the sheer volume and quality of the snow more than compensated for the lack of visibility.

The clouds evaporated the following morning and the helicopter was given the all clear. The only problem was that the route had not been skied this season and access was potentially dangerous. Aimé took me on a recce before lunch and we skirted under the shoulder of "Mickey's Ears" mountain range (so called because of a small pair of satellite dishes bearing a startling resemblance to the ears of Mickey Mouse), cut the powder without starting an avalanche and finally declared the route safe.

Rejoining the rest of our group, we made our way to the top of Tovière and headed for the vast tract of normally unreachable virgin powder between La Daille and Tignes. Before risking our lives, however, Aimé called for safety reinforcements in the form of two off-duty British instructors, one named Peter, one named Paul.

After an exhausting 20-minute trek along a razor-sharp ridge and a restorative swig of Genepi, I followed Peter as he flew into the Couloir des Gendarmes, so called because of the upright rock in the shape of a phallus as you enter. In mountain language, these sentinels are always referred to as Gendarmes but the irony of the imagery was not lost on us. The couloir was steep and deep and, after a hairy entrance sidestepping over a large rock in a narrow corridor through the cliffs, we opened out into a sublime sequence of waist-deep sweeping turns.

Earlier in the day, Aimé had said that the problem with British skiers in general was that we were too courageous and bypassed essential skills in our desire to progress. Your tool box should have a tool for every eventuality, he said, no matter how seldom you use it. Before too long, we put his theory to the test as we came to a halt by a large wooden cross ominously marking the death of another adventurous soul. All around us, Aimé detected cracks in the snow, a sure sign of an avalanche waiting to happen and further proof of why his back-up team was necessary. Tying a rope around the cross and his mid-riff he descended into the couloir and leapt around to test the stability of the snow. Fortunately it held and we were able to make our way down into the trees.

The woods, known locally as "Bois de la Laye", are visible from the road as you drive past the Tignes dam towards Val d'Isère but nothing can prepare you for their mysterious beauty from within. The highest altitude trees in the Alps, the Meleze trees are from the Pine family but, unusually, shed their leaves and cones in Autumn so stand tall, gaunt and skeletal in their crystalline magnificence. Most are more than 100 years old and are the subject of an attempt to place them under a protection order, meaning the possible end to skiing through them in the next few years.

As we carved around their twisted boughs the only sound to be heard was the noise of the snow shifting and compacting as we cut our lines through it. Down we went as the lake of the reservoir came ever closer. Just as the sun was beginning to set we found the tree-lined passage that skirted down the vein of the cliff face and spilled us out on to the postage stamp-sized floor of the old quarry. There really was no other way out. Framed by the dam and the valley sides, we stared down the lake at the pink Alpenglow on the slopes in the distance as the helicopter, completing the last piece of the jigsaw, clicked into view. We had been courageous, but at least we had our helicopter tool in the box.

The Facts

Getting there

Felix Milns stayed at the three-star Hotel Latitudes in Val d'Isère courtesy of Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk), which offers an extensive range of hotels, apartments and chalets. Prices start from £699 per person for seven nights, including return flights from Heathrow to Geneva with Swiss International Airlines, transfers and half-board accommodation.

Being there

A pre-bookable six-day adult lift pass costs from £132. Six-day adult ski and boot hire starts from £82 and four days' ski school (three hours per day) starts from £80.

Off-piste guides and heli-skiing can be booked through Evolution 2 (00 33 4 7941 1672; www.evolution2.com).

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