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.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE
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.comReuse content