Travel: Fresh snow and a view: When good conditions beckon at the last minute, put scenery on to your list of priorities, say Chris Gill

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The Independent Travel
Suddenly the snow came, and I wanted to ski. Where should I go for a short break? One of the most attractive aspects of skiing for me has always been the mountain scenery. As time goes by, it seems to play a more and more important part in my own reaction to ski resorts. This was partly what took me to Crans-Montana in southern

Switzerland.

My memory was that the panoramic views across to the 4,000- metre (13,100ft) peaks around Zermatt were mightily impressive. This time, despite imperfect visibility, the views sent shivers down my spine.

The views we are talking about are distant ones - the Matterhorn is 40km (25 miles) away - but the more immediate scenery is another of Crans-Montana's main attractions. The ski area itself has peaks and crags within it and surrounding it, and the lower half consists of pistes meandering through woods - not the usual dreary zig-zag woodland paths cut across steep hillsides, but real, interesting pistes that happen to be among trees.

So far as the resorts themselves are concerned, the trees are not merely one of their attractions but their single saving grace, their redemption. Without the trees, the full rectilinear brutality of the towny villages would constantly be confronting the eye. With them, the worst is shielded from view except at close quarters, when the comforts lying within can be relied on to obliterate any aesthetic

considerations.

Indeed, away from the resort centres, Crans-Montana has something of a winter wonderland air about it. This is partly a question of topography: the broad mountainside ledge on which it sits at around 1,500m (5,000ft) accommodates golf courses as well as woods, and during the winter these translate into delightful nursery areas for downhillers and excellent terrain for novice langlaufers, with lakes for added scenic variety.

But it is partly also a question of clientele and their activities. The atmosphere is more restrained, less brash than that of other major resorts of the Valais such as Verbier and Zermatt. In Crans, there are furs in the tea-shops. In Montana (stress on the final 'a', by the way), there is skating and curling. Between the two, there are elderly langlaufers and couples with tots on toboggans pottering about.

Up in the ski area, too, the pressure is off. Despite the racing status and ambitions of the resort - the 1987 World Championships were held here, and the tourist office would dearly like to host regular World Cup races - the ski area is a friendly, intermediate one with a high proportion of timid skiers.

The great majority of runs are graded red, and some of those might be blue elsewhere. Only one is graded black - a 600m (2,000ft) vertical of moguls beside the Toula drag and chair, over in the Aminona sector at the eastern extremity of the ski area. Here, too, is one of the most promising areas to enjoy off-piste excursions.

The highlight of the area is the red piste from the Plaine Morte glacier at 3,000m (9,800ft) down a broad, steep-sided valley that is free of lifts until you encounter the Toula ones. This is in practice the only run down from Plaine Morte, but its appeal is enough to generate queues for the access cable-car. Even beginners and non- skiers should be encouraged to make the trip up, for the top-of- the-world views.

If much of the area's intermediate skiing is overgraded in terms of gradient, the shift is excusable. Sadly - and here we come to Crans-Montana's real weakness - the slopes here do not have to be steep in order to be difficult. All too often, they owe their difficultly to iciness, because they face south.

No other major ski resort has such a damaging exposure to the sun. Alpe d'Huez and St Anton have worthwhile sectors facing away from the sun. Cervinia faces South-west - and it and its skiing are 500m (1,600ft) higher. Flims- Laax faces South-east. Crans- Montana simply faces south.

The result is not, of course, that snow conditions are always poor, but that those who book ahead are taking a high risk that they will be - in principle, a higher risk as the season progresses. It's interesting that the resort - the biggest in Switzerland in terms of visitor beds - has many more apartment beds than hotel beds, and that most of them are empty most of the time. It is primarily a resort for skiing at short notice.

Last week, in the first few days of March, the slopes (as in many resorts across the Alps) were freshened up by a modest fall of snow. It didn't conceal for long the fact that the famous Piste Nationale course was rock hard virtually from top at 2,500m (8,200ft) to bottom.

I hadn't been in Crans-Montana since 1980. People say you should never go back, but I positively relish the thought - not so much because I'm itching to see what has changed but, on the contrary, because it's fascinating to check out the things that never change, and see how they match up to the memories.

I recently paid a quick visit to Cortina, in the Italian Dolomites, again after an absence of more than a decade. The scenery, which I had always rated as spectacular, seemed out of this world - and has left me planning longer visits to savour it at greater length.

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