Forget the beach-bums in Thailand and the hippies at Stonehenge. I'm dodging the fire-rope skipping and the bone-chilling hangover in favour of a magical moment in the mountains: skiing the Vallée Blanche by light of the full moon.
The curtain on this performance – on one of the long, illustrious off-piste Alpine descents – rises in the gods above Chamonix.
It's a classic expedition that dishes up a parade of the finest Alpine panorama – the Mont Blanc massif, Dent du Géant, Grand Capuchin, Les Drus – while it meanders through furling waves of glacial crevasses and icy seas of aquamarine seracs. It is a roughly 20km ungroomed ski route, not without challenges. Yet it can be skied, with the assistance of a guide, by competent parallel skiers and strong boarders. Doing it in the dark? This requires a little more strategy.
It's just before 4pm and I'm catching the last lift up in the Aiguille du Midi cable car. Around me, moonlight troops look like they are mobilising for war. Our group of seven skiers is equipped with the usual avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels required for skiing off-piste. We also have head torches, harnesses and not one but three mountain guides – including Jean Marie Olianti and Philip Henry from Chamonix's revered Compagnie des Guides. Stepping into the afternoon's final cabin, it's uncharacteristically empty. The longest single-span cable car in the world rises swiftly towards 4,000m; further up is Mont Blanc; down is a 240m drop.
After exiting the ice tunnel at the top, Jean Marie ropes us up to each other to negotiate the arête, a snowy, knife-edge goat track, furnished with fixed-cable hand-holds down the middle and a 40 degree drop on either side. To my right, there's a whole lot of nothing. To my left even less, where the unlucky would hit Chamonix 2km later. We step gingerly and mindfully down the perilous arête. Half an hour later, we've clicked into the safety of skis and the 5pm light is softening pink. Our shadows stretch like Giacometti sculptures across the mountain. Let the magic begin!
Best snow sports holidays
Best snow sports holidays
1/7 Québec City, Canada
With Old World charm by the bucket load and an average snowfall of 400cm per year, Québec City is a magical place for snow sports fans to get their winter kicks. Whether you try your hand at Ice Climbing at Montmorency Falls or visit one of the two world-class ski resorts, Mont-Sainte-Anne and Stoneham Mountain, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Québec City. Don’t forget to catch a game of ice hockey whilst you’re there.
2/7 Gstaad, Switzerland
A true winter wonderland, Switzerland is synonymous with all things snow related – and nowhere does it better than the ski town of Gstaad. One of the largest and most diverse winter sports regions in the country, Gstaad offers 220km of pistes at 3000m above sea level – and the slopes are even floodlit by night time, giving skiers and snowboarders the chance to experience a truly magical ride.
3/7 Gulmarg, India
When thinking of the world’s top snow destinations, India might not be the first place that springs to mind – or indeed, the second or third. However, you’d be missing a trick if you left it off your list, because Gulmarg is certainly a gem that deserves to stay polished. Sitting high in the Himalayas in the north of India, Gulmarg is a small hill station that is India’s leading ski resort. What’s more, it also boasts the second highest cable car in the world, offering truly spectacular views over the world below.
4/7 Nuuk, Greenland
If you’re looking for a snow holiday that’s a little off piste from the regular favourites, Greenland’s Nuuk could be just the place for you. With all the snow and slopes you could ever dream of, conditions are great for both cross-country and alpine skiing. What’s more, there’s a whole plethora of other activities available from dog sledding to climbing and mountaineering that will leave you wondering why you’ve never considered Greenland before.
5/7 Corralco, Chile
Just 50km from the exciting city of Temuco, Chile’s Corralco is a small but perfectly formed snow resort with tracks catering to everyone from beginners to experts. Situated in the middle of the Malalcahuelco Natural Reserve and on the Lonquimay Volcano, Carralco provides a breathtaking backdrop to your snow holiday.
6/7 Rusutsu, Japan
Considered one of the best ski resorts in Japan, Rusutsu is heaven for fans of off piste skiing. The ski area covers three mountains, offering a great mix of options for all levels and abilities. With excellent snowboarding and natural thermal springs to warm up at the end of a long day, Rusutsu is certainly the place to head for your fix of snow sports in Japan.
7/7 Trysil, Norway
The largest ski resort in Norway, Trysil is a hugely popular choice with families and offers a great ski school for beginners to find their feet before hitting the slopes. But fear not, because with over 40 lifts and 70km of runs, you can be sure that there’s something there to please every ability! If you fancy improving your winter sport skills in the heart of Scandinavia then Trysil is the place to head.
Descending the Vallée Blanche by moonlight is a dive into a deep bath of off-piste pixie dust. As far as the eye can see are mountains – and only us. As we arc down the wide valley towards Italy, the smooth, grippy snow feels machine groomed, the invisible work of hundreds of earlier visitors. One graceful turn after another is awash in Alpenglow. The tiny red compartments of the Heilbronner cable car hang high above us like Christmas tree baubles. Eventually, we spot two randonnée skiers climbing in the distance like ants, hard cores aiming for the Cosmique Hut. The odd choucas swoops in for a look.
A glorious hour-long ski leads us beneath the spiky Dent du Géant followed by a final steep traverse across now-frozen gelée.
The sun's last rays have tipped the granite spires of Les Drus, the temperature's dropping and a whiff of wood smoke suddenly wafts past our noses. Out of the gloom, the rock-camouflaged Requin Refuge comes into focus. It is roughly the halfway point between our 3,840m start and the 1,000m valley destination. Inside, we sit down to a typical hut dinner and await moonrise over the peaks, tucking into mounds of gnocchi, hunks of fresh bread and local tomme de Savoie cheese, along with a soupçon of red wine for courage.
Outside the refuge, by 9pm the moon glows so brightly I can read the print on my transceiver as we do a final check before setting off. Bathed in eerie shadows, giant icy seracs lie in wait like sleeping monsters as we slip and slide slowly past. The crack and thud of not-too-distant rock and ice-fall echoes in the night air.
Headlamps on full, sensors on high, we split into small groups for the descent. Passing over the Glacier du Tacul, the potential for danger is real and imminent. Philip attaches his rope to a tentative skier; the thought of catching an edge in close proximity to these crevasses brings the word lunar to mind, not in a good way.
We've entered a silvery dreamscape that demands total respect. "Maybe you would like to turn off your head torch?" suggests Philip. We've made it to the smooth flats of the famed Mer de Glace and the moon is glowing fluorescent directly above us. The snow stretches beneath us like a long silver-white bleached bone.
With surprisingly clear visibility, we cautiously pick up a little speed, and the spiky tips of Les Drus stand sentinel above us.
The train stopped running hours ago. So, instead of the usual route, negotiating the 420 metal stairs up to the Montenvers station, we stop to fix skis to packs and boot up a steep hill. At the top of the climb, the twinkling lights of Chamonix lie at our feet. We push on, an hour of switch-back mud and snow road lays ahead, alternating between skiing and walking, walking and skiing.
Finally, the Long Walk dumps us out at the Planards car park, and it's just past midnight – well timed for a little Chamonix après ski for anyone with the energy.
By the time I collapse on to my heavenly pillow in the splendid Chalet Valhalla, it's nearly 2am. The following morning, a king's feast of a breakfast is cheerfully served long after the sun is high. Feeling blessed and lazy after the night's exertions, I paddle around the giant outdoor Jacuzzi and soon call it a well-deserved down day, stretching out in front of a blazing fire and letting the lovely Collineige masseuse work her deft magic with only a stuffed moose head overseeing the process. (I checked for moving eyes. Nothing.)
Full moon worshippers may miss first tracks the next day but the prospect of quality skiing is more than an early alarm bell.
Being guided with near-private access over a route that attracts more than 80,000 people a year? That's worth a little lunacy.
Geneva is the nearest airport, served by a wide range of airlines from the UK including: easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com); British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com); and Jet2 (0800 408 1350; jet2.com). Transfers from Geneva to Chamonix are offered by Mountain Dropoffs from €24pp (020 7043 4874; mountaindropoffs.com).
Leslie Woit was a guest of Collineige (01483 579242; collineige.com). A week at Chalet Mazot les Tines starts at £730 self-catered, for up to four guests; from £6,240 at Villa Terrier fully-catered for up to eight guests; and from £10,200 at Chalet Valhalla for 12.
Collineige works exclusively with Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix; ski guiding with Jean Marie Olianti costs from €335pp per day (chamonix-guides.eu). A moonlit guided tour of the Vallée Blanche starts at €250pp with lift pass, dinner at Refuge Requin, and guide fees.
The next full moon occurrences this year are on 3 February, 5 March and 4 April.