Going uphill on all fours

With so many skiers now driving to the Alps, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is one piece of equipment you don't want to be without, says Stephen Wood

Most people can make the logical connection between four-wheel drive and mountains. Where is the need for good traction most acute? On steep, slippery slopes. For me, the connection is emotional, too.

Most people can make the logical connection between four-wheel drive and mountains. Where is the need for good traction most acute? On steep, slippery slopes. For me, the connection is emotional, too.

When, a couple of decades ago, Audi launched its first entry-level four-wheel-drive model (the 80 saloon, a car with all the charisma of a Vauxhall Cavalier), it did so with a journalists' jaunt to St Moritz. The drive went well: snow fell on cue, and the Porsches and Mercedes that overtook our Audi 80 convoy in the valley had to pull over to fit snow chains while we drove non-stop across the Julierpass to the resort. This was my first trip into the Alps. In the evening I stood in St Moritz's main square, gazed up at the awesome mountains surrounding the town, and decided to take up skiing.

My two-wheel-drive trips into the mountains have never enjoyed such a positive outcome. First there were the snow chains, which – as I discovered, late at night and only half-way up the road to Isola 2000, above Nice – were the wrong size for my car. My wife and I spent the night parked by the road in a snowstorm, waiting for the morning's first snowplough to pass. Even after it had done so, the car still couldn't get up the steep road. At least, not going forwards. The dozen kilometres we still had to cover gave me a pain in the neck, but the sight of obviously deeply confused Britons reversing a right-hand-drive car up their side of the road no doubt gave the locals a good story to tell in the bar that night.

More recently, in January, there was another unhappy experience involving a two-wheel-drive car and a pair of snow chains. A previous renter of the car – who I like to imagine being tortured for information he or she does not possess – had damaged one chain, but then simply replaced it in the box to avoid the risk of having to pay for a replacement. As snow fell at night on Les Arcs, I went out to fit the chains in preparation for an early-morning departure. One, of course, did not fit. After a couple of hours spent under the car trying to effect a repair, I gave up. There was little choice but to beat a retreat before the snow became too heavy. So I drove through the night to Geneva airport, arriving five hours before my flight was due to depart.

Imagine my delight, then, at the phone call from Land Rover. Would I like to borrow one of its Freelander models when next driving to the Alps? Yes, I would. With a pair of two-wheel-drive cars in the family and no snow chains, my wife and I had been wondering how we were to get ourselves and another couple reliably to Les Carroz, in France's Grand Massif ski area, for a week of late-season skiing. But here lay the answer.

There comes a point – usually somewhere near Dijon – when driving to the Alps seems a stupid idea. It's about an eight-hour journey from the French Channel ports to the country's handiest resorts, and when you have passed 300km of farmland France can seem unnecessarily big and air travel unnaturally attractive. But a lot of British skiers put up with it: four out of five clients of Erna Low, the longest established UK ski operator, still choose to drive to the Alps (it would be more, had the company not introduced the alternative of travel by train or plane in recent years).

They do so because the mid-journey pain is outweighed by the pleasure of departure and arrival. When you are going to stay in an apartment – as we were, in one of the properties in the excellent MGM portfolio – the list of things you discover you can't do without for a week becomes a long one. Along with all the usual clothes and equipment we loaded the Freelander with items (sharp kitchen knives, Thai basil, CD player, pepper mill) that we wouldn't dream of lugging to the airport. And at the other end of the journey we were spared a long, tiresome coach transfer, instead bowling the 60km from Geneva along the valley and then straight up to Les Carroz.

Along with Morillon and Samoëns, Les Carroz provides a back entrance to the Grand Massif ski area, the fourth biggest in the Alps, the majority of whose 265km of pistes are set around the purpose-built resort of Flaine. That resort, designed by the celebrated Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, is much maligned for its grey concrete blocks, often compared to those of a council estate: the outlying villages are regarded as being nicer places to stay. But Les Carroz is no charming Alpine settlement. An untidy, slightly sprawling small town with a central square that is now little more than a traffic island, it serves as a good argument for the pedestrianisation from which Flaine benefits.

The ski area, though, is superb – one of the few to be awarded the maximum of three stars for all types of terrain (beginner/intermediate/expert/snowboarding) by the Good Skiing Guide. Flaine itself is set in a bowl that offers a range of excellent blue and red pistes, plus a single black, running back down to the resort. They are served by a fast, high-capacity gondola that drops skiers off at the 2,480m Grandes Platières. It offers probably the finest panorama in the Alps, a 180-degree sweep of peaks, with Mont Blanc at its centre.

Off the top of the bowl is a wide pitch dropping towards the village of Sixt (which – be warned – has no lifts to take you back up), with a black run and plenty of off-pistes on its higher reaches and a blue winding all the way to the valley bottom. The concentrated slopes of Samoëns, further along the valley, drop off the area between Flaine and Les Carroz, as does the limited but more wooded area of Morillon. Finally, Les Carroz itself has a dense network of mainly reds and blacks that flow down to the resort, a couple of hours of skiing away from the Grandes Platières.

Late-season skiing has advantages and disadvantages. The weather this week has been superb, warm enough for a T-shirt and shorts in the valley; but the ski surface has been wet enough for paddling towards the end of the afternoon. And naturally no fresh snow fell, which meant I had no chance to enjoy the Freelander's extreme capabilities. Still, it was comforting to know that they were there.

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