The skier who was afraid of the dark

The French resort of La Clusaz allows skiers to take to the slopes by the light of the full moon – with exciting, confusing and addictive results
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The Independent Travel

Dark, said the little boy, is exciting. These wise words are from the seminal work on the subject: the story of Plop, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, by Jill Tomlinson. For those of you with a void in your nursery education, it's a book in which an assortment of learned teachers – scouts, cats, old ladies – convince a young owl of the joys of nocturnal activity. And the words ring true: as I stare out of the window and into the gloaming, I am, indeed, excited. Pulling on a second set of thermals, however, I ponder that there are two very important characteristics of the dark that Plop is not entirely honest about. Dark, in the mountains at least, is cold. And dark is dangerous.

I wonder how many of my companions are secretly nursing similar doubts. We convene in the hotel lobby, red-faced under layers of clothing but grinning gamely. We are all aware that dark, in our present context, is also special. Daylight is the normal mode for taking to the mountains, for all sorts of good reasons – clear vision being arguably the most important. Skiing at night under lights has its own limited charms, particularly for tricksters; ski resorts with neon-lit pistes and terrain parks are in the minority, but not unusual.

Skiing under a full moon, however, is a rarer opportunity. Typically, it's the preserve of experts. Local experts, at that, who know the surrounding slopes, are comfortable hiking, and can arrange transport to the designated summit in a car. Skiers capable of looking after themselves, in other words. However, for two or three times a season here in La Clusaz the usually tranquil French resort cranks up the chairlifts after sunset and opens the moonlit slopes below to all-comers.

Romantic, yes – but surely an invitation to mayhem? My previous experience of tobogganing at night had included high-speed collisions involving inebriated adults and kids high on sugar. Dark is fun, I mutter as a mantra while we are ushered into the minivan by our guide, Olivier. A local veteran of the moonlit experience, he wants us to savour the slopes at their best, and has a plan to beat the crowds. We will take the mountain road to the top of the chairlift and be first in line when the slopes open at 9pm.

On the terrace at the top of the pistes, the tunes are pumping as the moon rises above the trees. DJ Philou is a celebrity on local radio, and has a penchant for Euro-bangers. Dark might be cold, but when you're dressed for the Arctic and surrounded by frenetic French ravers, you barely notice it. I politely decline alcohol and opt instead for a fizzy drink, which does nothing to calm the rising swell of hyped-up anxiety within.

A few of us walk over to the crest of the slope, to inspect the terrain below. A ribbon of luminescent silver twists down into the valley, contours barely visible. Dark is indeed beautiful, but it is also, well, dark.

And then, all of a sudden, the lifts are open, the crowds are descending, and it becomes apparent that following a guide in the dark is going to be much easier said than done. Aware that we're about to lose our early advantage, Olivier hustles us to strap into bindings, locate skis, grab poles. Then he's off. His red guide's jacket, blindingly obvious in daylight, turns a murky grey in the moonlight below.

There's no time to think. All around, indeterminate shapes are whooshing past, yelling, giggling, calling out to one another. Many sport luminous necklaces, turning this into a festival on snow; bizarre costumes flash into focus, then fade into the distance. La Clusaz is a popular weekend resort with Geneva's citizens; most of them appear to be here tonight.

Olivier is blazing ahead at full throttle – though I'm so disorientated that it's hard to tell. Perhaps I'm not going faster than I ever have before; perhaps it is just the fact that my edges are gliding effortlessly through the freshly groomed snow, and that I can't make out the trees or other grounding landmarks.

Forget dangerous: dark is euphoric! I would be lying if I claimed the fear has completely subsided, but now it's jostling up against joy.

Occasionally, somebody takes a tumble somewhere on the blurred perimeter of my peripheral vision; every so often, my own knees jolt as the slope drops away unexpectedly. Yet my body seems glad to be unfettered from fussy visual control; the more that I relax and focus only on following Olivier, the better my legs seem to get at feeling their way down.

It's addictive but also adrenalin-sapping. After another few descents down the moonlit rollercoaster, each time icier than before, and a couple of runs through the terrain park, we collapse in the cosy confines of the restaurant Le Chalet des Praz. By the time we've finished eating, the slopes are quieter. With the lifts open until 1am, it seems that later is better if you're looking for a tranquil descent, rather than a mad dash through time and space.

Olivier knows a short cut back to the hotel, off the main piste. As I follow, gliding over the shimmering snow and through the shadows, I have the giddy sensation of flying. Not very well, granted; but like a young, ungainly owl who hasn't quite got the finer nuances figured out, and who is still just a little bit scared of the dark.

Travel essentials: La Clusaz

Getting there

Tam Leach flew to Geneva from London City airport on Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com). Fares from £96 return. Bus transfers from the airport cost €52 (£49) return. See aravis.com for timetables.

Staying there

The Hotel Beauregard (00 334 50 32 68 00; hotel-beauregard.fr) is located at the foot of the slopes, opposite the lifts. Doubles from €274 (£257) per night.

Skiing there

A six-day pass for La Clusaz starts at €158, with passes for the entire Aravis area for €168. Villages in the region are linked by lifts, bus or both. The first full-moon ski of this season is on 30 January 2010; lifts are open from 9pm to 1am.

More information

The tourist board for Le Massif des Aravis ( aravis.com) has information on the region's four villages – La Clusaz, St Jean de Sixt, Le Grand Bornand and Manigod – as well as details of accommodation, activities, events and special offers.

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