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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...