At 5.30pm I left the office for Oxford Circus tube station, and headed down to the northbound Bakerloo Line platform. I never made it. The platform was full; so were the corridors leading to it. A train had stopped in the tunnel, apparently because of a smoke alert. What to do? I was setting out for Heathrow, on the most tightly scheduled ski trip of the year. Now it looked as if it might be over even before it began.
The snap decision was a wise one. I dashed to the Central Line and jumped on a train heading west to Lancaster Gate, a short walk from the Paddington end of the Heathrow Express. As the doors were closing, I heard the announcement telling passengers to evacuate Oxford Circus station immediately. At least I was on my way - to Chamonix in France, for the shortest of short breaks.
The long-haul coaches which once carried skiers across Europe were long ago replaced by short-haul aircraft. Later, long skis made way for short carvers. Now it is the weekly cycle of package holidays to the Alps - in on Saturday, out on Saturday - which is (to paraphrase Frank Zappa on the subject of jazz) beginning to smell a bit, although still not actually dying.
The pioneers of weekend skiing trips, Ski Weekend, White Roc and Flexiski are still going strong after more than a dozen years. It is the big ski operators, built on a foundation of the one-week package, which are losing ground. Their incursion into the weekend-break market didn't escalate into an invasion, largely because a big low-margin operation doesn't adapt well to a choosier clientèle. Rather, it is the weekend operators who are now broadening out, to become "short break" specialists. What they and Kaluma (a company launched this season with the founder of Flexiski among its partners) are offering is tailor-made trips. They will take you to the Alps whenever you want, for as long as you want.
I didn't want long: I wanted short. In a conversation with Nicky Stephenson, commercial director of Flexiski, I raised the possibility of going for a civilised day's skiing, spending just 24 hours away from home. Stephenson was amenable. She told me that if I firmed up my demands Flexiski would try to meet them.
Running a bespoke holiday operation is asking for trouble: you're bound to attract people looking for something unusual. Such as Jewish skiers who want a chalet with a kosher kitchen to celebrate Passover; or a group of rugby fanatics who will book a chalet only on the promise that Six Nations matches will be shown on TV; or a client who demands a helicopter for the transfer to the airport - and then, on discovering its limitations, asks for a second helicopter to carry the luggage. Flexiski has accommodated all such guests (the rugby matches were videotaped in St Anton to be shown, at the end of a long drive, in St Moritz), and met the needs of corporate groups whose programmes require such niceties as a choice of nightclubs to cater for young and old.
My demands were far less ... well, demanding. Ideally I wanted to fly out from Heathrow (handy for the office) at about 8pm on a Monday and return to Gatwick (handier for home) at the same time on the following day. The objective was a minimum of travelling and a maximum of skiing. Impressively, Nicky Stephenson's itinerary combined an outbound Heathrow-Geneva flight on BA leaving at 7.40pm with an easyJet return scheduled to arrive at Gatwick exactly 24 hours later. My resort destination would be Chamonix, because of the short transfer time from Geneva, its high and relatively snow-sure slopes, and the fact that Flexiski has a chalet there contracted for the whole season.
How much time would I have in Chamonix? Sixteen hours, after the 70-minute transfer from Geneva - Nicky Stephenson's opposite number Andrew Maude collected me from the airport a little before 11pm (local time) and drove me to Flexiski's Chalet Bornian. The first eight hours were spent sleeping; then it was time to go skiing.
This season saw good, early snowfalls in the Alps. Then most of it melted. By the second week of December there were only a couple of pistes open in Courchevel, and in Chamonix. All the skiing that was available to me were the north-facing Bochard and Marmottons pistes on Les Grands Montets, above Argentière.
Skis hired and lift pass bought, I set off up the mountain. The pistes were in surprisingly good condition, and unsurprisingly quiet. For high-speed skiers who rise to the challenge of hard-packed snow it was a great morning. With temperatures around minus 5C the snow stayed very firm; but the sky was a clear, cool blue, and sun lit up the other side of the Arve Valley. The whole thing beat going to the office.
Of course, a single red and blue piste with a combined vertical drop of about 1150m couldn't keep me entertained for very long. At midday I returned to the chalet - one of the best I have seen. Beautifully finished, it has a rather comical, sunken bath at floor level in one bathroom, a basement Turkish bath, and a structure made of beams recovered from an old building which was dismantled 35km away at Le Grand-Bornan for a road-widening scheme. Set above Chamonix on the north side of the valley, the chalet has wonderful views of the Aiguille du Midi peak and the Dru group of mountains, their brown, jagged faces too steep to hold the snow.
In an ideal world - or simply later in the season - there would have been enough skiing to keep me going until the 4pm departure to Geneva airport. Instead I took a walk along the sunny side of the valley. Had I paid for the trip, I might have felt disappointed; but had I paid, I would have scheduled it for later in the season. According to Nicky Stephenson, 35 per cent of Flexiski customers spend between one and four nights in a resort. How many stay for just one night? "I would guess only about one per cent," she said.
It would be nice to be able to report that the whole thing went exactly as planned. It almost did; but the easyJet flight left an hour late, and arrived 45 minutes overdue. More like a 25-hour trip, then.
Flexiski (0870 9090 754; www.flexiski.com) estimates that a 24-hour trip to Chamonix would cost from £370 per person (based on two people travelling together) including scheduled flights, private transfers, chalet accommodation and cateringReuse content