And I'll take the slow road

Why take the easy option of using a ski-lift when you can simply don some snowshoes and mount the piste the pioneers' way?
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The Independent Travel

The first English downhill skiing championship took place in January 1911. Called the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup race, it was run on a course which dropped more than 1,500m from the glacier of the Plaine Morte, at the top of what is now the Swiss ski area of Crans-Montana, to the village of Montana itself. The winning time for the descent, on an unpisted slope marked with flags, was 61 minutes.

The first English downhill skiing championship took place in January 1911. Called the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup race, it was run on a course which dropped more than 1,500m from the glacier of the Plaine Morte, at the top of what is now the Swiss ski area of Crans-Montana, to the village of Montana itself. The winning time for the descent, on an unpisted slope marked with flags, was 61 minutes.

But as Jim Ring recounts in his book How the English made the Alps, published next week, the descent was the easy part of the race. To get to the top of the course the competitors had to leave Montana the previous day and trek up to the Wildstrubel hut, where they spent the night before the 10am start. Nowadays, of course, the ascent to the Plaine Morte involves nothing more demanding than to queue for the Violettes Express lift, and then switch to the Funitel gondola, a journey which - on a good day - takes as little as 20 minutes. You'd have to be mad to walk up.

I do like a good ski-lift: sitting on a three-seater chair on a clear day, preferably alone, watching the panorama grow wider as you climb away from a crowded resort-base into the mountains, can be as good as skiing back down the slopes. But lifts are noisy, rattly things, their mechanical structure of pylons, cables and winding machinery an ugly intrusion into the natural environment. Nostalgic feelings for an era whose death-knell was sounded in 1936, with the installation of the first chair-lift at Sun Valley in Idaho, have often made me think how good skiing must have been in the bad old days. Imagine the moral gratification of putting so much effort into the climb, and the intensity of the sensations of the descent; think of the benefits of all that exercise, and the pure pleasure of skiing in an unspoilt landscape.

So at the end of last season, I set off to climb the north face of Mont Tremblant, just outside Montreal. In the uncharacteristically soft and slushy weather, the staff of the hire shop regarded my request for a pair of snowshoes as peculiar, to say the least. Thinking I had in mind to tramp through the backwoods they pointed out that, since the resort's meagre snow resources were all being shovelled onto the pistes, all I would need was a stout pair of boots. Oddly mollified by my much crazier plan - to ignore the eight-seat gondola and tramp up to the summit - they handed over some snowshoes, and I started off up the Beauvallon Bas piste, carrying ski-boots and a pair of snowblades in a large knapsack.

With skiers whistling past and lifts grinding overhead, this was no authentic recreation of the exploit of those racers who ascended to Plaine Morte in 1911; and although its resort-base is built - to a seductive design by the world's leading ski-resort planner, Eldon Beck, in neo-Alpine-village style with borrowings from traditional Quebec architecture - Tremblant cannot have much in common with the village of Montana before the First World War. But my venture did feel heroic, thanks to the effort expended.

Snowshoes have sharp teeth to dig into a hard, icy surface, and a flotation deck to prevent them sinking into deep snow; but they are not well equipped to deal with soft slush. The only way to prevent them sliding was to stamp down hard with my feet and set a course straight up the slope - the hard way. There was, it must be said, little enjoyment in the climbing, apart from watching the bemused expressions on the faces of passing skiers. I did get some pleasure, however, from seeing the gondola come to a halt above me; but soon I too had to stop, after sustained protests from my 50-year-old cardiovascular system.

Earlier in the day, I had timed the gondola's ascent: it took eight-and-a-half minutes, without a rest. My first breather, after 15 minutes, was an experience so ecstatic that I was loathe to wait too long before repeating it. On the final slog up a piste called Kandahar - does that name sound familiar? - I did more breathing than climbing.

The ascent was 2.5km long, and climbed 650m. It took me 1 hour 25 minutes dead - well, it felt like a near-death experience, although ascending to the 3,000m Plaine Morte must, as its name suggests, have been a lot closer to the real thing. Despite the venture's absurdity (I did have a lift pass hanging from my jacket, after all), the sense of achievement on the summit was as unforgettable as the physical relief. The brightly coloured façades of Tremblant village, and the lake beyond, looked much more than 85 minutes away; and the insouciance of the skiers clambering out of the gondola at the summit to just dash back down the slopes seemed even more absurd than my own, authentic experience.

It turned out that the village was only 14 minutes away: that was how long it took to get back down on snowblades, not much of a return on the investment of 85 minutes' climbing. On skis, in clear weather (clouds had closed in after my large, languid lunch at the summit restaurant), with good snow and without the encumbrance of a pair of snowshoes swinging from my knapsack, the descent would probably have taken half as long.

A troubling thought struck me on the way down: if there were no ski-lifts, how many runs would I do in a day. The answer, obviously, is one. And when was I planning to repeat this exercise? Never. I thought, too, of 61-year-old Pat O'Donnell, president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Skiing Company, who climbs up to the top of Snowmass every Sunday and snowboards back down. Even today, almost 90 years after the first Kandahar race, there are still some tough guys around.

Jim Ring's 'How the English made the Alps' is published by John Murray at £19.99 on 28 September. For more information on Tremblant, contact 00 1 819 681 2000, www.tremblant.ca

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