Saturday 12 February 2005
As I write, conditions couldn't be more different from those of spring skiing.
As I write, conditions couldn't be more different from those of spring skiing. It's early February and the Tarentaise in the French Alps is gripped by viciously low temperatures - described as temperatures Canadiennes by the ski office in Sainte-Foy near Val-d'Isère. I've been wearing every conceivable item of clothing, including a pyjama layer, in an unsuccessful attempt to stay warm in temperatures of -20ºC. The snow is squeaky and abundant, right down to the valley floor. So much for global warming.
Yet in less than 10 weeks, when the days become longer and March rolls on into April, I'll be poring over the weather reports, trying to find out where the snowline ends and the mud begins, resigned to the prospect of paddling on skis through the slush. Such climatic contrasts bring home the brevity of the skiing season and the need to make informed choices about where and when to go when the thermometer starts to rise.
Even though I say so myself, I'm a bit of an expert on skiing when things warm up. It all started in the Seventies on a cheap summer holiday in the French Alps. We were staying at Les Menuires, one of Europe's highest and ugliest resorts, mainly because it was empty and they were more or less giving the apartments away. Someone suggested that we try summer skiing on the glacier above Val-Thorens.
Summer skiing is not a good idea for complete beginners. My crash course consisted of painfully misunderstanding the white stuff on which I was failing to ski. It wasn't soft and fluffy like the snow I had played in as a child, but icy, granular and unforgiving.
Skiing at the tail end of the season isn't quite like that, but you have to be aware that with the sun, blue skies and rising temperatures comes the payoff of variable snow conditions. The usual advice, of course, is to aim high. In Europe, that means the clutch of French mega-resorts with skiing above 2,500m and their high Austrian and Swiss equivalents. But it's not quite as simple as that. You'll also need to keep an eye on the weather and be as flexible as possible with your forward planning. A late-season cold snap can produce superb skiing, at bargain prices from operators selling off last-minute holidays.
Get it right and you can enjoy wonderful skiing in the most benign conditions. Classic late-season skiing involves an addictive cocktail of sun and snow. But be warned: there's no going back to January temperatures once you have cast your Michelin Man thermal layers to one side and skied in a sweater - or even a T-shirt. I know plenty of people who won't consider an alpine holiday until the onset of March.
So what's so special about March and April in the Alps? For a start, it suits those who like a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast. Gone is the manic need to catch the first lift, elbowing the local pisteurs out of the way. If you are daft enough to go skiing at 9am, you'll be greeted by steel-plated slopes on which you'll suddenly be doing 50km/h - and rising - with no apparent way of slowing down. That's because you are skiing on ice, not snow - the result of the daytime thaw/night-time freeze cycle that's typical of the late season.
I learnt my lesson at Les Gets, a pretty resort in the Portes du Soleil ski area near Geneva. While my sensible friends enjoyed an early-morning coffee on the terrace, I caught the first gondola in pursuit of maximum ski mileage and slid back down to base on a corrugated piste that rattled the fillings in my teeth.
You have to rethink your daily schedule the later it becomes in the season. By mid-morning, the sun will have softened those rock-hard pistes. There's a window between then and around 2.30pm when the skiing can be sublime. Your skis do what you tell them to do; you regain the composure and confidence you lost on those icy slopes and almost convince yourself that you're an expert skier. Nothing becomes too steep, not even the meanest blacks, which you easily bounce down on fluffy, grippy snow.
By 2pm or 3pm, the snow is starting to turn to slush (at least on the runs back to the resort), so it's time to call it a day - which means a late lunch on a sunny terrace and plenty of time to soak up the views.
Late-season skiing also gives you an insight into the mindset of a leathery mountain man. I now have at least 10 words for snow. Not much by Eskimo standards, but more than my elementary understanding of the white stuff on that glacier in Val-Thorens. Alpe-d'Huez was a great teacher. The resort, in the southern French Alps, sits on a sunny shelf. At 1860 metres, with skiing up to 3320 metres, it ticks most of the boxes as a late-season destination, though the snow cover at this "island in the sun" can suffer in comparison to shadier places.
Of course, the higher up you go the less you're likely to suffer the thaw-freeze cycle. Val-Thorens, at 2300 metres, is the highest resort in Europe. Close your eyes to the architecture and you're rewarded by sensational, snow-sure skiing. But don't forget that altitude comes at a price. The sun doesn't always shine in March and April, and Val-Thorens and its lofty equivalents can become bleak, inhospitable places when winter unexpectedly returns for a final fling.
You won't find trees up high either. I'm a big fan of skiing through the trees and am prepared to sacrifice guaranteed top-quality snow for the experience. I keep my eye on the snow reports and weather forecast and it usually turns out just fine. I might be lucky, but I've enjoyed fabulous spring skiing at Serre-Chevalier, an underrated resort in the southern French Alps, and its even more enchanting neighbour Puy-St-Vincent. The skiing here peaks at a modest 2,735 metres, but who cares when you're enjoying some of the area's 300 days of annual sunshine?
This was matched by a week of leaden skies one Easter at St Anton, the legendary high and mighty Austrian resort. So the moral of the story is to keep your options open. If you have to book well in advance for peace of mind, choose the highest resorts. But you can do just as well - or even better - at a lower, more amenable resort or ski village if the weather is right.
And there are more reasons than ever to get to grips with the mystical meaning of snow. Easter is early this year, which means that for most of April, when the crowds have gone, many resorts will still be open for business. I'm now off to the slopes in Sainte-Foy with yet another layer of clothing - the tourist office is promising temperatures Sibériennes.
The Ski Club of Great Britain (0845 458 0780; www.skiclub.co.uk) operates an excellent website with information on snow conditions and weather, covering a huge range of resorts. Registering is free, though there's a more comprehensive service for paid-up members
LATE-SEASON SNOW: WHERE TO GO
It has not been a banner season for snowfall in the Alps. Most of the major resorts faced a tense, month-long wait from Christmas through to late January when little or no snow fell to boost the meagre early-season covering. Happily, that's all changed in the past few weeks with heavy, regular falls bringing powder heaven to most. Whether it's enough to see us through to April and whether it keeps coming remains to be seen.
If you plan to travel over the early Easter break or afterwards, your best bet is to pick a resort with high altitude terrain. Ideally, find a centre with a glacier summer ski area to be doubly sure, with slopes that can be easily accessed by high-speed chair or gondola lift from the resort centre.
In France that means resorts like Val d'Isère or Tignes in the Espace Killy; Val Thorens in the Three Valleys or the Paradiski area above Les Arcs and La Plagne (pick one of the higher base villages). In Switzerland Davos, Verbier, St Moritz and Zermatt (pictured) are all safe bets. In Austria try Solden or the Tux or Stubai glaciers. Italy has Cervinia, from where you can ride one of the world's few cross-border chairlifts into Switzerland to access Zermatt's glacier skiing and there's more skiing above 3000 metres at Alagna in Monte Rosa, the Marmolada glacier near Arabba or at Cortina.
Scandinavia's ski areas have been investing heavily in new lifts and hotels in recent seasons, taking seriously the increasingly devastating effect of global warming in the Alps. The northerly latitude of Norway, Sweden and Finland's ski areas make them a better bet for snow surety through into May and it's a good time to visit for the long hours of daylight too (you can ski under the midnight sun in Riksgränsen from late May). It's a good opportunity to go and check out Scandinavia's biggest lift, an eight-seater chair which opened this season at Norway's Hemsedal.
Closer to home there's also been a slow start to the season at Scotland's five ski areas so far too (not good news for the new owners of Glencoe and Glenshee), but consistently low temperatures have now enabled all to open at least some higher terrain.
In North America, the season to date has seen very mixed fortunes. Lake Tahoe has been feasting on vast powder falls and there's already talk of resorts like Squaw Valley staying open to 4 July for the Independence Day celebrations. Colorado and Utah are also having very good seasons, but be wary of booking April trips here as many of the big name resorts such as Telluride switch off the lifts early in the month (3 April is closing day there this year), even if the snow is 10ft deep with fresh powder falling.
A few hundred miles to the north however it's a very different picture on snowfall with the Pacific North West resorts of Washington state beleaguered by warm temperatures and rain, bringing conditions so disastrous for the state's £5bn ski business that virtually all resorts are currently closed. The chances of a late season recovery are not good. Further north in Canada, however, Jasper and Banff are both enjoying above-average falls.
Alagna: 00 39 0163 922988, www.alagna.it
Arabba: 00 39 0436 79130; www.marmolada.com
Banff: 001 403 762 6500; www.skibanff.com
Cervinia: 00 39 0166 949136, www.cervinia.it
Cortina: 00 39 0436 3231, www.cortina.dolomiti.org
Davos: 00 41 81 415 2121; www.davos.ch
Hemsedal: 00 47 32 055030, www.hemsedal.com
Jasper: 001 780 852 3816, www.skimarmot.com
La Plagne: 00 33 479 097979, www.la-plagne.com;
Les Arcs: 00 33 479 071257, www.lesarcs.com
Riksgränsen: 00 46 980 40080, www.riksgransen.nu
St Moritz: 00 41 81 837 3333, www.stmoritz.ch
Scotland: 0845 22 55 121, ski.visitscotland.com
Solden: 00 43 5254 22120, www.soelden.com
Stubai: 00 43 5226 8141, www.stubai-gletscher.com
Telluride: 001 970 728 6900, www.telluride.com
Tignes: 00 33 479 400440, www.tignes.net
Tux: 00 44 5287 606, www.tux.at
Val d'Isère: 00 33 479 060660, www.valdisere.com
Val Thorens: 00 33 479 000808, www.valthorens.com
Verbier: 00 41 27 775 3888, www.verbier.ch
Zermatt: 00 41 27 966 8100, www.zermatt.ch
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