'Slowly, slowly!" cries André as I jam my foot down on the accelerator and the vehicle lurches towards a mountain hut. We are 2,270m up, in the French ski resort of Serre Chevalier and, luckily, there are no skiers in my path. This is certainly the strangest drive I have ever been on.
After just one circuit, I've taken the wheel of a 10 tonne piste-basher – those mysterious beasts that prepare the mountain for skiers by night. There is a huge fork used to move snow on the front and huge caterpillar tracks underneath. The steering wheel is surprisingly sensitive. My heart pounds as we career up and down mounds of snow, and take corners at an alarming angle. Frankly, piste-basher driver André Payan need not fear for his job.
He's one of 40 drivers in Serre Chevalier, who work in two shifts (5pm-1am, and 2am-8.30am) driving 20 piste-bashers to prepare the 250km of runs in the resort every night. It's an aspect of ski resorts that I've never really thought about before, but preparing the pistes is essential so skiers can enjoy their holiday.
Up until now, I've only ever seen piste-bashers as dots of light, far off in the distance, lumbering up the mountain. And, of course, I've skied freshly groomed pistes first thing in the morning, with the distinct feeling that life doesn't get much better. I'm keen to learn more, so André agrees to show me – as a passenger – what driving a piste basher is like at night.
In the dark, snow swirls around in the wind outside the cab. We're high up the mountain, with lights of the village far below. Doesn't it get lonely up here? Isn't it eerie? It's like swimming through the snow, André informs me. He likes it. He also does a sort of wave with the light to greet other drivers he spots in the distance. Clearly an expert, he has been driving a piste basher since 1986.
I, however, am most certainly a novice. I feel a bit queasy. We take slopes at a gradient of 35 degrees, up and then down, very slowly, like a warped rollercoaster. I'm tipped back, then forward, with strange views of the mountain outside. It feels a bit like the edge of the Moon.
We drive for nearly two hours – preparing the mountain is a laborious process that must be done bit by bit. Every night the snow has to be redistributed after a day of being churned up by skiers. There's also the weather to contend with. Piles of snow are cleared or moved, the ground is smoothed out, and bare patches are covered over. It's essential work to ensure safe and enjoyable skiing.
Serre Chevalier has changed a lot in recent years. On a previous visit, it had felt disjointed; skiing between the villages of Chantermerle, Villeneuve and Le Monêtier les Bains usually involved awkward journeys. However, since Compagnie des Alpes invested in the lift system the villages have become more smoothly linked, creating a vast area that offers at least a week's worth of skiing.
Serre Chevalier is France's largest standalone resort (not being connected to any other resorts), encompassing the three villages, plus another 13 hamlets and the Unesco-listed town of Briançon. Yet, despite its size it still retains a traditional alpine village feel. Much of the accommodation is in chalets, and the area is lived in year-round.
For beginners and low intermediates, being able to go high up the mountain after just a day or two gives the great feeling of being among the mountains, particularly since there are plenty of beginner slopes high up.
For more advanced skiers, there's some great skiing at the top of the Monêtier end of the resort. Once you've warmed up, the Luc Alphand run (named after a local ex-racer) down into Chantemerle will give you a challenge. The vast Milky Way ski area, straddling the French-Italian border, is also just half an hour's drive away.
Le Monêtier les Bains is home to Les Grands Bains spa. Upstairs, away from the crowded pools, there are saunas and steam rooms in which to rest your aching legs after a day's skiing. I go there just as the light is fading, and sink into an outdoor hot tub. I look over to the mountain, and see a row of four lights shuffling uphill – it's clocking-on time for André. I lie back in the bubbles, content that he'll have the mountain ready again by morning.
Frances Booth travelled with Inghams (01483 791 114; inghams.co.uk) which offers one week's catered accommodation at Chalet Amandier from £499pp, including flights from Gatwick to Turin and transfers.
Inghams offers a six-day lift pass from £185, with ski hire from £60 and boot hire from £36. Six days of skiing lessons from £129. Piste basher rides (00 33 4 92 25 55 00) are also offered every Friday for €25pp. From 16 years of age and upwards.
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