Travel: Skiing: We've enough snow to last the winter: The omens are good: Chris Gill reports from Val d'Isere

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The Independent Travel
'THE SEASON is already won,' said Jean Zimmer, the co-proprietor of Top Ski, Val d'Isere's best-known specialist ski school. People are often at their most direct when speaking in a foreign language, and Mr Zimmer was no exception. In those few words, he provided an accurate view of the exceptional snow conditions the high French reports are enjoying, and the importance of those conditions to the skiing industry.

Mr Zimmer was speaking during the run-up to the Premiere Neige races - effectively the opening of Europe's ski-racing season - in early December. But even then his sanguine view of the season ahead seemed justified and, a fortnight on, still does. Val d'Isere has already had more snow than in the whole of last season; the major race of the Premiere Neige weekend, the men's downhill, had to be cancelled because of the bad (that is, snowy) weather. More snow will become desirable as the season wears on, but what is there already will do nicely for some time, thank you.

That first week of December revived old memories, old skills, even old equipment. For the first time since the early Eighties, I suffered from nausea while skiing. It is an unpleasant condition resulting from disorientation in bad visibility above the tree-line. Like seasickness, with which it shares a number of similarities, it is not easily cured once it has developed.

The only treatment is to retreat to the terra firma of a restaurant and force down a glass or two. With this medicinal excuse, I enjoyed more than once the unfamiliar satisfaction of an over-long break in a mountain restaurant while a blizzard blew outside.

This is not a pleasure I associate with Val d'Isere; in the days when the resort had blizzards aplenty it lacked bearable mountain restaurants. It now scores nowhere near so badly, at least in the Bellvarde/La Daille sector, with the self-service Trifolets strategically placed on the home run to La Daille, a few hundred metres above the finish of the downhill and super-giant slalom course.

In the Solaise sector, even the busy main restaurant at the top of the lifts is more woody and pleasant than I remember. La Datcha, in the middle of that sector, hadn't yet opened for the season; with two to three metres of snow piled up on the roof, it may collapse before it does. But don't get the wrong idea. I'm as keen as anyone on making the most of fresh snow, particularly untracked fresh snow.

There was plenty of it, including whole pistes that had been roped off for training but left unpisted. Mountainside spectators might not agree, but three days of playing around in these conditions - with and without the attentions of Mr Zimmer - produced an appreciable improvement in my group's modest abilities.

Old equipment? Well, it's several seasons since my goggles were tested as thoroughly as they were on this occasion, and not surprisingly, they were found wanting. The chief defect seemed to be that the aging elastic did not bind the goggles sufficiently tightly to my face, so I would emerge from a head-plant with snow plastered inside as well as outside the lenses.

If this weather continues, we are going to have to revive old priorities when choosing resorts, too. When did you last worry about the extent of woodland skiing when booking your snow-sure holiday in Tignes, Saas Fee, Cervinia or Obergurgl? In many high resorts, skiing can be severely limited by bad weather.

In Val d'Isere, there is quite alot of woodland terrain to enjoy - at least there is when the resort is only 20 per cent full - and some of it at least is served by the windproof underground funicular to Bellevarde - though you then have to negotiate the treeless top half of the mountain to get to it.

The blue runs beside the race course down to La Daille were enjoyable - particularly the Criterium, which is on the 'wrong' side of the course and during the race is reached only by a difficult-to-spot tunnel underneath it. Even the notoriously difficult 'green' run to La Daille, which is provocatively named as well as graded 'Verte', despite its steep narrow pitches, was enjoyable. This is not always the case, even for experts.

I have always associated the runs down from Solaise to Val with worn snow and crowds. When I was there, the red 'A' run was a positive delight, with plenty of untracked diversions through the trees available. Sadly, the excellent runs down from Solaise to Le Laisinant - my staple diet when snow is falling but the chairlifts are still running - were closed as pistes, although perfectly skiable with a guide (like most of the area's off-piste valley runs).

The resort may have been empty, but the bars certainly weren't. The British proprietors of Dick's tea bar and Playbach must look forward to the Premiere Neige weekend with keener anticipation than anyone, considering the cash injection it brings. For them, too, 'the season is won'. Dick is going to need to keep his rooftop searchlight going: the snow heaped outside has already rendered the building invisible.

We left Val d'Isere on the Sunday morning, the day of the slalom race. The forecast on Saturday night had been good, triggering fantasies about extending our stay for a further day or two.

To the scarcely suppressed relief of some of us, Sunday dawned cloudy; but there were breaks in the cloud, and as we drove down towards Bourg-St-Maurice, the blue began to dominate. French, Italian and Spanish cars streamed up towards the resort and that day's slalom race. Were we downhearted? You bet.

(Photograph omitted)

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