Travel: Wallowing in the depths: Conditions are not perfect, but at least the Alps have snow, reports Chris Gill

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The Independent Travel
As the world knows only too well, thanks to last Saturday's tragedy above Tignes, there is no shortage of snow in the Alps. Conditions may not be perfect (are they ever?), but we go into 1994's high season with snow cover that few will complain about.

If, like me, you are on your way to the Alps this morning, you can be confident of plenty of skiing, and at least some of it on pretty good snow, particularly if you're going high. During the past week, resorts across the Alps have been reporting almost all of their lifts and pistes open. A normal enough state of affairs for the time of year, you may think; but it comes as a great relief to resort managers and tour operators, still haunted by recent snow droughts.

Impressive amounts of snow have accumulated in places. The conscientious tourist office staff in Flaine, who send me a daily fax bulletin, have grown weary of gauging the snow depth at the summit of Grandes Platieres in centimetres, and now deal only in metres. They have three metres at present, and about a metre at village level.

Of course, quality matters as well as quantity - and students of the snow reports on our sports pages will have noticed that they now reflect this, giving judgements on slope conditions rather than measurements of depth.

But I confess to a lingering fascination with snow-depth figures, fuelled by anomalies such as a claimed depth on the upper slopes of Cervinia of 420cm, while that over the border in Zermatt is a mere 235cm. These figures may be valid, but they don't look it.

Lots of resorts are claiming maximum depths of more than two metres at present, and some high resorts more than three metres; Cervinia apart, I have spotted only one other resort claiming more than four metres. The snow at Madesimo, again in Italy, is as deep as our family car is long: 470cm.

I don't think this winter so far has been exceptionally snowy. But at least the Alps have been receiving some falls, and at fairly frequent intervals.

Snow fell across almost all of the northern Alps about 10 days ago, improving conditions at many resorts, low and high; and further falls have occurred during the past week in many areas - including snow yesterday in high French resorts such as Val d'Isere. The southern French Alps, from Serre Chevalier and Montgenevre down to Isola, mostly missed the late January snow, though the big resorts nearer Grenoble (Alpe d'Huez and Les Deux Alpes) seem to have benefited.

To judge by mid-week reports, Austria's smooth and grassy pistes for once had the small amount of snow they need to offer good skiing at resort level. But that state of affairs was short-lived, and here as elsewhere in the Alps, altitude is the key to finding the best conditions.

Before this week's snow, many resort-level runs in France, in particular, were said to be icy or hard, some relying on artificial snow to cover their rocky foundations. In Italy, too, lower runs in the north-east and the north-west are far from perfect.

Most Swiss resorts report reasonable conditions on resort-level runs, but Champery, Grindelwald and Gstaad have only thin, patchy cover.

In the US Rockies, they usually expect more snow to fall in February and March than in January. When I was in south-west Colorado in mid-January, the resorts were looking forward to the falls that would bring an end to 'early-season conditions'. They needed more snow in Crested Butte and Telluride to bring their steeper, rougher terrain into full operation. The lack of response to my inquiries probably means that Crested Butte's 'extreme' skiing is still closed for lack of snow. But Telluride got a 2ft dump at the end of January, and 'thigh-deep powder' on Gold Hill. Aspen got 12in, too; but the tough skiing at the top of the Snowmass area is still closed.

The rest of the United States had more snow in January. In northern Colorado and Utah there were heavy falls in the middle of the month, and conditions are said to be excellent. All of Park City's high bowl skiing is open.

The weather forecast suggests there may be more snow in the Alps this weekend, with the possibility of a low pressure area in the Mediterranean bringing snow from the south-east for a change, perhaps to the benefit of the Dolomites and eastern Austria.

HERE is the latest from my postbag on the question of whether the upstart chalet operator, Crystal, can match the old-timers of the business.

The readers' experiences I related in December were varied, but the negative observations outweighed the positive. I have now had several more letters, of a very different flavour.

Paul Collins was disappointed to find that his 'chalet' holiday took place in a pair of apartments, but was impressed by the staff, enjoyed the food and judged the holiday good value.

Michael Day thought his holiday last season in Wengen as good as those of the 10 other chalet companies he and his partner have used, if not better - and confirms Crystal's low prices.

R J Bolwell reports on the experiences of a group that normally goes with Bladon Lines. His view of the Crystal holiday in Courchevel, which the group took last year, was that it lacked the polish of a Bladon Lines holiday but offered extremely good value for money.

Interestingly, all three reports on holidays this season were positive. Derek Markham had some reservations about his trip to Les Deux Alpes - the accommodation was cramped and primitive - but the cooking was good, the bathwater hot, the chalet girl co-operative and the resort staff helpful.

Matthew Stockford, a skier of 23 years' experience, had no reservations at all about about his chalet holiday in Tignes, and aims to travel again with Crystal later this season. Ann Pienkowski, just back from two weeks being looked after by a top-notch chalet girl in Vail, would also not hesitate to book again.

So the message from these reports seems to be that you get at least what you pay for - and perhaps more.

(Photograph omitted)

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