Skiing, France: Escape from Avoriaz ...

An early encounter with a French snowboarder prompted Stephen Wood to explore further afield. He didn't regret it

The suggestion by the mayor of the small resort of La Bresse, in the Vosges, that gendarmes should be posted on ski slopes, made the front pages of many French newspapers last week. In a quiet period for news - and high season for skiing - mayors of resorts all over France were consulted on their views (almost unanimously negative) of the initiative, which had been prompted by four accidents in three days at La Bresse, all involving injuries and all caused by snowboarders.

The suggestion by the mayor of the small resort of La Bresse, in the Vosges, that gendarmes should be posted on ski slopes, made the front pages of many French newspapers last week. In a quiet period for news - and high season for skiing - mayors of resorts all over France were consulted on their views (almost unanimously negative) of the initiative, which had been prompted by four accidents in three days at La Bresse, all involving injuries and all caused by snowboarders.

To keep the story going, Le Parisien sent a reporter to Avoriaz, in the Portes du Soleil ski area, where he conducted a straw poll among skiers on whether the conduct of snowboarders warranted police surveillance. He quoted at length Clara Deboux, a skieuse parisienne "terrorised" by snowboarders (or surfeurs, as they are termed). Safety on the pistes had, she said, been reduced by the "new race known as surfeurs. They come from nowhere, and cut across in front of you. They are a permanent source of concern.

"No doubt interviewing a skieuse parisienne was more appealing than talking to a middle-aged Londoner staying for the week in Avoriaz. But I could have given the reporter a better story, perhaps with the headline "Piste menace claims another victim".

My experience of skiing in Avoriaz was short and bitter. I set off down the narrow track - crowded with beginners - which leads to the main lift base. Towards the bottom, it has the added hazard of a pylon right in the middle. It was here, about 90 seconds after I had clicked into my bindings, that a snowboarder flew into me.

The pile of snow behind the pylon looked like a good launch-pad to him; so, hurtling down to its right, he suddenly carved a sharp left-hand turn, took off, and executed what would have been a 360-degree mid-air spin if I hadn't been minding my own business on the left-hand side of the pylon. He made it to about 270 degrees before landing on me.

Of course there's never a gendarme around when you need one and I could only explain explicitly what he was, in English and then - once I had collected myself and my ski poles - in French.

At Avoriaz, it's difficult to recover quickly from such a shock, because 30 per cent of the resort's clientele are snowboarders (thanks to its reputation for having pioneered facilities for them). When the characteristic swooshing and crunching of a snowboarder in your wake causes apprehension and anxiety, Avoriaz is no place to be, and in my dark mood, the drawbacks of the place multiplied. It was hellishly crowded, for a start (not the resort's fault but mine, for going there between Christmas and the new year); the piste map was the worst I have ever come across; and the purpose- built mid-Sixties resort, with its jagged, timber-faced apartment towers, looked as if it had been designed by a matchstick-model maker.

The list of complaints might have grown longer, but I did not ski in Avoriaz again. Because one of its virtues is that it is so easy to leave - from Avoriaz it is possible to ski to nine of the other resorts in the Portes du Soleil area, a great loop of skiing, crossing several valleys plus the border between Switzerland and France, and offering 650km of pistes and 212 lifts.

The commuter traffic within the Portes du Soleil is predominantly made up of skiers heading into Avoriaz, which is the highest and most snow- sure resort with the most challenging skiing. But, going in the opposite direction, I had a choice of destinations. I plumped for the small, family resort of Les Gets.

An easy, 25-minute trip by road, the journey on skis from Avoriaz to Les Gets is one of the most complicated links in the Portes du Soleil, involving five lifts and one surface transfer across Morzine.

The skiing at Les Gets, split into three areas, is much softer than that of Avoriaz. But it was just what I wanted: quiet, with short lift queues, plenty of room on the pistes, and mercifully few snowboarders. On the western side of the village is a largish, open ski area running down from the Mont Chery ridge, on which there is a superb Alpine panorama, the peaks (including Mont Blanc to the south east) all identified on a circular orientation table. Beyond it a red run sweeps down into the next valley, with a jolly, heavily mogulled black piste running alongside.

To the west is the main ski area, mainly red runs (including a few woodland adventures) but with some nursery slopes set high above the village. Finally, there are the wooded slopes beyond the Pleney ridge, from which blues and reds run down to Morzine, on the route back to Avoriaz.

I have reason to be grateful for that snowboarding hooligan at Avoriaz: if our paths had not crossed, I would probably not have skied at Les Gets. But I shall be grateful, too, if he and his buddies are back at school when I next venture to Avoriaz. Because then I'll be able to enjoy its skiing, and have a crack at the legendary black run, the "Wall" of Chavanette. I do prefer to create my own disasters rather than have them visited upon me by flying snowboarders.

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