Heading for the snowline in La Croisière Blanche

La Croisière Blanche is a relaxed Alpine rally with a distinctly Gallic flavour. Nobody seems to mind too much who wins, as long as the lunch is good. Jack Dyson packs his Michelin Guide and heads for the snowline

Snow crunching and crackling under your wheels, steep climbs and steeper-looking drops; winter driving is a trip. Going off-road on purpose, choosing to skid around in the freezing cold and dig your car out of deep snow, is perhaps not for everyone, but it is great fun.

This is the premise behind La Croisière Blanche (The White Cruise), a rally in the old sense, with the emphasis more on the journey than on any kind of race. It is held every January in Orcières, a small ski resort in the Hautes-Alpes of France, not far from Gren-oble, and this year marked its 30th anniversary.

The format is simple enough: three days of off-road action driving bikes, quads and cars through new-year snow. You bring your own vehicle, buy your ticket and, as long as your machine passes the scrutineering (a check to ensure you have the right equipment, plus emission and noise tests) you're one of the gang. Routes for the 270 or so vehicles take in all manner of terrain, from swinging rope bridges to woodland and breathtaking mountain views.

I am travelling in the Jeep entourage - four Wranglers, dripping with winches and chains - and we arrive in town to find one of the world's weirdest car parks, containing everything from old ambulances to brand-new Land Rovers. People wander up and down, comparing snow chains and wheel sizes, and the night before the start we all gather at the ice rink for a briefing.

Groups of men stand around the foyer, sizing each other up, comparing off-road moustaches and doing the "nudist's nod", that brief up-and-down glance, work-ing out who might be driving what, and if he is any good. It's a smorgasbord of facial hair, utility knives in leather belt pouches, and layer upon layer of Gore-Tex. But it's not exclusively macho; plenty of people have come with their families.

The French-Canadian PR for the resort translates the (mercifully brief) proceed-ings into enthusiastic Franglais, telling us such truisms as "conviviality and respect, zese are ze watchwords of ze Croisière", and as we file out everyone chucks a couple of euros into a bucket to contribute to the upkeep of the trails we are about to tear over. This provokes a fair bit of harping on about how we will be causing minimal environmental impact, as the ground is protected by snow (in the English press release there is a gleeful line about how the environmental protesters have been "eliminated", which seems a rather drastic solution).

Next day, there is a sense of anticipation in the cold pre-dawn air as, with cold toes, we go to the briefing, pick up the road map - more of a series of sketches than an actual map - and are told of one dangerously icy bit of road as well as three nice places to have lunch.

Back at our Jeep, we figure out how to put on the chains. It almost becomes fun as we hurl ourselves to the floor and fiddle, like a Berghaus-clad Houdini, behind the wheels, mirac-ulously turning cold, icy chains into skid-prevention devices. It seems a sort of proving ground for French cool; some people have (quite sensibly) bought little mats to lie on under the car, but these are frowned on by most of the fraternity as being a bit girly.

Once we're ready we head out of town in convoy and on to a snowy track. We often have to wait for others ahead to negotiate their way through narrow passes or over rocks, but that's all part of it. Quad bikes race up and down, much faster than us but on different trails.

Suddenly, everyone comes to a stop. Ahead is a tricky hill, and there is a roar of engines as people try, one at a time, to get to the top without stopping. The last thing you want to do is have to reverse back down for another go. The peer pressure is intense but, with only a few wobbles - we nearly run over an enthusiastic photographer on one bend - we make it. Then it's over the other side and along the track until the next obstacle, a steep, slippery decline that ends in a river crossing.

In between these tense interludes, we have time to admire the scenery. The weather is perfect: blue skies, just a hint of wind, and a deep carpet of snow. The tracks through the woods are like something out of a fairytale, with trees bowed down by snow, and as we return to open terrain huge vistas open up, offering stunning views of the valley.

Marshals patrol the routes, closing or rerouting them if they get blocked or there is not enough snow to protect the trail. The routes all stop near restaurants - this is France, after all - and it is clear the proprietors welcome the extra income in the tourist lull between the new year and half-term.

The days have an easy rhythm. When the convoy stops, car boots open and people rummage for thermos flasks and snacks. We walk ahead and wait in ambush for a car in our gang to catch up, at which point we pelt it with snowballs. Then it's down the hill for lunch at a charming little restaurant, happy to see car loads of clients arriving.

That afternoon we drive past "l'extreme" group's base. This lot are the real hardcore, camping out at night in the woods in a massive yurt, fires burning and a fug of Gauloises over the tents. I rather regret not going with them, until someone points out they start at four in the morning, blazing all the trails and digging out cars.

Other drivers range from a handful of sanguine Brits in old Land Rovers making jokes about yellow snow to bonkers Italians and Dutchmen haring around in bright orange four-wheelers. The problem is, of course, that if you compete in your only car, and break it, you've had it. Next time I plan to buy a rustbucket up here with a few friends; then we can dent it as much as we like, and sell it when we leave. It's by no means a glamorous, Gstaad-style, après-ski-oriented holiday, but it makes a welcome change from the usual snow package tour.



There are daily flights from a number of British airports to Grenoble and Lyons, the closest airports to Orcières. More details: expedia.co.uk


La Croisière Blanche is organised each year by Les Grands Randonneurs, who also organise similar events around Europe throughout the year. More information: grands-randonneurs-motorises.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
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
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice