The credit crunch and weak pound mean cash is tight. But the skiing is tiptop. What are diehard enthusiasts to do? By Ian Johnston and Sarah Simpson

From Courchevel and Chamonix in France to the slopes of Lombardy and the Tyrol, they have seen nothing like it for a generation.

At almost any other time, the best skiing conditions in a quarter of a century would be a cause for celebration for more than 1.3 million British snowsports enthusiasts.

Instead the crisp, white slopes have left many on the horns of a cruel dilemma as they struggle with the credit crunch and the weak pound: to be prudent and stay at home, or hang the cost, enjoy the snow while it lasts and face the consequences later.

The number of Britons going on skiing holidays has risen every year since the turn of the century, when the tourist authorities started keeping records, peaking at 1.35 million last season. But despite perfect snow conditions together with an exceptional cold weather snap, experts are contemplating the possibility of a fall in numbers.

Skiing has a dramatic effect on those who become hooked. Many insist it is not simply a pastime but an abiding passion that they must indulge as a matter of "necessity".

Al Morgan, information manager for the Ski Club of Great Britain, said this year represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those with a yearning to be in the mountains. Early snowfall laid down a firm base at resorts all over Europe, then just before New Year came an extraordinary second wave. "The snow conditions are just fantastic," he said. "It's the best snowfall for 25 years. It got really cold in Christmas week, then, just before New Year's Day, it started snowing across Europe."

Already, Obergurgl in the Austrian Tyrol has more snow that at any time last season, while the upper slopes of Alagna in the Lombardy region of Italy have twice as much as last year.

The big resorts in France, which attracts more than 40 per cent of British skiers, have also been inundated. Courchevel, Chamonix and Méribel are all reporting good conditions, and even less well-known slopes such as Isola 2000 have "surprisingly good conditions", Mr Morgan said. But despite this, many resorts are reportedly just over a third full for January.

The skiing is just as good in the United States. Despite not seeing the same heavy early snowfalls as Europe, the cold snap affecting most of the northern hemisphere has created good conditions in many resorts.

But some have had too much snow – resulting in avalanches – while in Anchorage, Alaska, unusually low temperatures of -10 to -20C have been below the minimum for racing, threatening the cancellation of events in the US Cross Country Championships, due to go on until 8 January.

The exceptional snow and skiing conditions prompted a last-minute boost in bookings but experts remain unconvinced it will save the season.

"The early pre-season bookings went really quite well. But then as we got towards the winter season, things slowed down," Mr Morgan said. "The industry thought the early season was going well, but actually it really, really dropped off.

"However, when all this snow hit, people were ringing up to book at the last minute."

Asked if there could be the first recorded fall in British ski tourists, he spelled out the crux of the dilemma. "Absolutely, there could – but it depends," he said. "Many skiers are really dedicated fans of their sport and see it as a necessity, but there is still a large proportion that might cut back because of the financial situation. It's a hard one."

Skiing holiday companies also find themselves cursing their luck. Craig Burton, commercial director of Ski Solutions, said: "It is quite extraordinary. Everywhere, the ski conditions are good. This has really helped us out, but financial issues are having an effect on skiers.

"In the last five months, from September/October onwards when the credit crunch really started to hit, we have noticed a reduction in the number of big groups we have booked. This is because most large groups are often young professionals, and there has been evidence of this group maybe not getting the annual bonuses they are used to.

"Many of them are holding off until they are sure their jobs are safe, and so instead many groups are booking as fours and sixes instead."

Nina McMaster, senior product manager at the activity holiday company Neilson, said: "As regards the best place to ski this year, you are spoilt for choice really – France, Andorra, Italy. Skiing conditions are the best they've been in years.

"But we've had both the effect of people feeling the pinch and the improvement in snow, so we are not seeing the rise in demand that would be expected with such great conditions."

While the credit crunch has had an effect across the world, Britons are doubly disadvantaged compared to other Europeans because the pound has fallen against the euro.

Ms McMaster said special offers are available for those willing to be flexible and perhaps go to a lesser resort. "There are so many great deals available, your average skier is seeing the good conditions and can book a last-minute deal," she added.

Mr Morgan, of the Ski Club of Great Britain, illustrates the point. He has just returned from a week in Tignes, France. He shopped around and found a deal for flights, travel to the slopes, and half-board accommodation for just £149.

"That's absolutely brilliant – you couldn't do that yourself," he says. "I don't know how other people are dealing with it; everybody's story is slightly different. We are all trying to look after every pound we have and make it go as far as possible, but I love snowsports so I didn't want to miss out."

Falling snow, rising prices: 'In France a round of drinks was £20 and it was £3.50 a coffee'

Suzie Vaill is a hard-core skiing enthusiast. Every winter, the 39-year-old management consultant heads to the slopes of Europe as often as she can. So at the first signs of snow, she was off, flying to Val d'Isère for a four-day break. But on her return, she was astonished to see how much it had cost her, with credit-card statements revealing the total bill was probably more than £1,200.

Ms Vaill, who lives near Southampton, did her best not to think about it too hard and, on hearing how good the conditions were at the start of this month, rushed off to Chamonix for a week. Despite ensuring that costs were kept under control this time, she admits it may have to be her last skiing of the season.

"I'm a management consultant and I am waiting to find out if I have got a contract this year because the company is not doing so well," she said, sitting in brilliant sunshine enjoying the après-ski.

"That's one reason why I am concerned about signing up for anything else. I usually come quite a lot during the season, but I am questioning whether to come out again because of the cost."

Ms Vaill, an off-piste skier, was full of enthusiasm when she travelled to Val d'Isère at the start of December.

But she says: "I don't think I quite realised what the pound was doing when I went out. The snow was amazing, but it was really dear. It was €25 for a steak at a mediocre restaurant, which converts to £25. A round of drinks was £20, and it was £3.50 for a coffee.

"I was wondering whether or not to come for New Year, but I got an amazing deal on an all-inclusive package."

Her current trip to Chamonix includes packed lunches and comes complete with a mountain guide, all for £600. "Finding that sort of deal meant I wanted to come out, and the snow is absolutely amazing," Ms Vaill says.

"When conditions are not so good it gets icy and your skis rattle as they go over the snow. It's really hard and not very comfortable. It's not a nice feeling. But when there are good conditions, it's much more comfortable because it is soft underneath your feet. You sort of float above it and glide down through the snow."

Ian Johnston

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