Perfect mountain moments

Where did you experience the three best skiing days of your life? For Stephen Wood the answer lay in Scotland, Belgium and Colorado
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The Independent Travel

What's the best day's skiing you ever had? That's a risky question. Logically, those who have had the opportunity to ski frequently and extensively - through wealth, hard work or a job writing about winter sports - should provide the most telling answers. But they are likely to involve faraway places with far-out-of-reach prices and ski terrain far beyond the ability of the average skier. And how long might you have to wait for the knee-high powder and cloudless skies that made the day on a heli-skiing trip in the Himalayas, or an off-piste excursion just below the Argentine border at Portillo in Chile, or a descent of the legendary Corbet's Couloir at Jackson Hole, Wyoming?

The editor of this supplement probably thought my 1300-word answer to the question would range across the world's glamorous and exotic resorts. It doesn't. Among my best days' skiing - I have quoted three - the first was in the UK. The second was barely beyond our borders, in a country where most people would swear that skiing is impossible. And the third, though much further away, was in one of the less-celebrated ski areas of Colorado. In each case, the trips involved no more than a single day in the destination, primarily because a perfect day-trip needs a proper beginning and end.

To relive my best day's skiing I lie back and think of Scotland. In truth, it was no accident that the day at the Nevis Range, just 10 minutes' drive from Fort William, was so good. Scotland does get snow, but it also gets high winds which with depressing frequency blow the snow away. With this in mind, I rang the Nevis Range early in the 1996-1997 season, declared my intention to ski there, and asked to be informed when conditions would make the trip up from London worthwhile.

In Myrtle Simpson's long-out-of-print history of Scottish skiing, Skisters, an enthusiastic skier describes the weather in Scotland as "always indifferent to bad, and the great mistake lies in waiting for a good day, as it seldom happens". I waited the best part of three months, and then it happened: the Nevis Range rang to say that there was snow on the slopes and sun on the weather forecast.

It would be hard to think of a better prelude to a day's skiing than turning off the bedside light at Crewe on the Euston-Fort William Caledonian Sleeper and waking up to a view of beautiful Rannoch Moor, followed by breakfast with that morning's newspaper, thoughtfully picked up for the passengers when the train stopped before dawn in Glasgow. At Nevis Range, snow was thin on the ground below the gondola during its the 2.3km traverse from the road to the lift base, but what was available on the pistes had been carefully husbanded, leaving just some icy patches to keep skiers on edge. And on a crisp, bright day, the views off the 1,200m peak of Aonach Mor were sensational: the highpoints of the island of Rhum, out in the Atlantic, and those near Inverness on the North Sea were both clearly visible.

Best of all, the east-facing Colre Dubh bowl provided a cocktail of challenge and exhilaration. First there was a long side-step up a sheet-ice slope; then, from the lip, there was the view (also sweat-inducing) of the near-vertical drop onto a very steep slope; finally there were the sweeping turns - on deep, untracked snow - of the descent. Had its lift been working, and the avalanche-risk lower, I would have been in Colre Dubh all day; but then I would probably have missed the short blue run off Aonach Mor to the west, with its views of rugged Ben Nevis, Cam Dearg and Sgurr a' Mhaim.

Where next? Belgium. Low countries are not an obvious place for skiing, and I ended up in Belgium more by accident than design, encouraged by the snowflake symbols over the bit of continental Europe that used to appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the BBC TV weather forecast map. The Ardennes forest does not rise above 700m; but its hills boast a handful of ski areas, including Thier des Rexhons, just outside the town of Spa. This is no more than a snowfield with a single drag-lift, whose highest point is 540m. Obviously, experienced skiers do not go there - which is precisely why it is such an enjoyable place.

In most resorts, the nursery slopes lie at the bottom of the skiing, alongside the lift bases. Every skier - including the experts who have been skiing off-piste at the top of the area - is funnelled down onto the same patch of snow. To have effortless skiers passing by at speed makes beginners depressed and alarmed.

What happens when beginners have a whole snowfield - wide, and with a gentle gradient - to themselves? They spend most of their time laughing, at themselves and all the other prat-fallers. The atmosphere at Thier des Rexhons was exceptional: I have never seen skiers enjoying themselves so much, and in so infectious a way. The snow was poor, and the facilities rudimentary; but an afternoon's skiing cost me about £12, including ski hire. And the sight of the Ardennes' rolling ocean of pine trees covered in snow and lit by a huge, pink sunset was unforgettable. (See page 10 for further Ardennes skiing options.)

The Winter Park resort in Colorado is also something of an oddity. There are a lot of ski resorts around Denver; Winter Park, the closest to the city, is the only one to be municipally owned. In the post-Thatcher era, we regard "municipally owned" as an ominous phrase suggesting something derelict, depressing and dangerous after dark. But despite Winter Park's financial struggles in the late 20th century (it is now effectively a public/private partnership), it still feels like a place with a social purpose: the children's skiing facilities are the best I have ever seen, and the National Sports Center for the Disabled - which provides 17,000 winter-sports lessons per year - is of world renown.

The fact that Winter Park is just a stop up the railway line from Denver is one reason why the city's Manager of Parks and Improvements, George Cranmer, managed to get $30,000 (£16,700) of public funds for the first ski-lift, in 1940. It is also what makes the resort a great place for the day-trip skier. A special ski train shuttles between Denver and Winter Park at weekends from Christmas onwards. In early December 2000 I caught the daily California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco and stops at both Denver and Fraser, which is a few miles from the resort. The ride was superb, thanks largely to the conductor's running commentary; the skiing was great, too (though a single day couldn't do justice to its 1,118 hectares). I also discovered another minority to which Winter Park caters exceptionally well: snowboarders. The facilities were good then; now, thanks to an epic "superpipe", they are even better.

Does that answer the "best day's skiing" question? Yes. But you might reasonably ask a couple of supplementaries. Would I spend a week in these places? Nevis Range and Thier des Rexhons, no; Winter Park, probably. And which resorts, on any given day, offer the greatest likelihood of a "best day's skiing"? To my mind Cortina in Italy and Telluride in Colorado. Cortina because it has the most beautiful setting for skiing in the world; and Telluride - a 19th-century mining town with a delightfully varied ski area - because, as a local resident says in the current issue of US Skiing magazine, "If you can't have a good time in Telluride you're doing something wrong."

Nevis Range: 01397 705 825; www.nevisrange.co.uk. Thier des Rexhons: 00 32 87 77 30 28 (more information at www.opt.be under "Wallonia", and "skiing"). Winter Park: 00 1 303 892 0961; www.skiwinterpark.com. The ski train operates at weekends from Christmas, plus Fridays from February and Thursdays from March

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