Make your own tracks at dawn
Alf Alderson advises you to rise with the lark if you want to enjoy the best skiing
Saturday 16 November 2013
Few of us like getting up before the sun – particularly if the temperature outside is sub-zero. But if you're a skier, and if it's snowed heavily overnight, an exception has to be made. All the discomfort is worth it if you can be the first on the ski lifts – and it's easy to ignore cold toes as you ride a chairlift through fresh Alpine air with bright early sunlight glittering on a smooth, untouched layer of sparkling snow crystals. For skiers, the urge to get to the top is as exciting as Christmas morning is to a six-year-old.
Getting up early means you can hoon back down the mountain through all that fresh powder, smug in the knowledge that the slackers who stayed in bed five minutes longer than you will observe your fresh tracks with envy as they follow you up the mountain.
Once you've arrived at the top station there's the frenzy of ensuring boots are buckled and gloves, hats and jackets are fastened tight and then you're off into the sublime environment that big, fat modern freeride skis were designed for – powder that, for now at least, is pristine.
Even if your skills on skis are not quite up to searching out the best powder, you can still enjoy freshly groomed pistes that will both flatter and improve your technique. Lots of skiers look down their nose at rising before the lark to ski pisted runs, but that's their loss.
For instance, I hit "M" piste above Courchevel at 9am one Saturday morning and got in three runs in perfect grippy corduroy before fewer than 20 people had even bothered to hop on the lift. That's 1,740 vertical metres of wide, open slopes virtually to myself: all before 10am.
You can now access M and the other rack of great red and black runs off the top of 1850 even more quickly although, ironically, it's from Méribel thanks to the introduction last season of the fast new Saulire Express gondola, which gets you to La Saulire's summit (the meeting point of the two linked resorts) a minute quicker than residents down in Courchevel. That may not sound much – but when there's fresh powder around, a minute is a long time, especially if you're the one sitting on the lift watching someone else rip it up.
Some resorts, particularly in North America, help you score the best snow with a "first tracks" programme, whereby a limited number of lift tickets are sold early, allowing first risers to hit the slopes for an hour or so before the public.
For example, Whistler's "Fresh Tracks Breakfast" involves boarding the Village Gondola at 7.30am and heading up for a big breakfast atop the mountain at the Roundhouse Lodge after which you get to blast back down through the "pow".
Mont Tremblant in Quebec offers a similar programme: you're on the slopes by 8am with the option of ripping it up on freshly groomed pistes or enjoying coffee – my advice would be to hit the pistes, the coffee will still be there a couple of hours later; the untracked snow won't.
I've also enjoyed the first tracks programme at Steamboat Springs in Colorado, with just a handful of us playing in the resort's much hyped "champagne powder"(TM – yes, they really have trademarked it) in bright early morning sunshine; it was as near as you'll get to the solitude of cat- or heli-skiing without costing a fortune.
Back in the Alps, Les Arcs offers an option for just €10 every Thursday outside high season.
Of course you can beat the crowds without even getting on a ski lift if you choose a ski in/ski out chalet or hotel. Resorts such as Courchevel, Avoriaz, Flaine and Obertauern offer slopeside accommodation that will at least let you enjoy a short run before the hoi polloi get on it.
Or you could really push the boat out and stay right on top of the mountain: the ultra-luxe Eagle's Eye Suites at Kicking Horse Resort in British Columbia sit 7,700ft up at the summit of the resort. A night here ensures you get first tracks the following morning. Your own ski instructor is included in the price: a hefty C$1,750 (£1,035) per night. Being on the slopes first doesn't always come cheap.
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