White art in the Alps

Richard Holledge slides through the Portes du Soleil
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The Independent Travel
It was one of those mornings. Instead of the sun brightening the dents du midi, spurring me out of bed and on to my skis - fog. A deep, blanketing, dampening fog which made all thoughts of skiing out of the question. Except of course, you can't not ski when you have only six days a year to pursue the white art.

So grumbling about the cold, the damp, the lack of visibility, our reluctant band of adventurers perched on the snow-covered chair lift as it swung out of the little Swiss resort of Champoussin and consoled ourselves with the thought that in these conditions, several pit stops and a long lunch were entirely justified and would at least cheer the day.

Then something extraordinary happened. The chair reached about 2,000 metres, burst through the cloud and we found ourselves in bright, sparkling sunshine. Not a cloud to be seen, except below us. The mountains clear against the blue sky, the clouds furled like a great white floor around their upper reaches.

We could see for miles. Which was just as well, because Champoussin is one of the many villages and towns which make up the Portes du Soleil - an area of skiing which boasts 420 miles of pistes, 228 lifts and straddles Switzerland and France. I've skied the area a few times, mostly in rain and white-outs, and found it difficult to journey between range and valley, resort to resort. However well signed - and sometimes you have to be very sharp-eyed to pick up on the little signs on the Swiss side of the domaine - it makes a huge difference to be able to see not just the bottom of the run but into the next valley as well.

Heartened by the dramatic change in climate we resolved to ski to the furthest peak on the horizon, the Pointe de Nyon in Morzine.

The joy of the Portes du Soleil is in the feeling of getting places. You probably don't ski much more in a day than you would in a more compact ski area. But as you go from place to place, valley to valley, you feel as if you do.

From the top of Champoussin we scrambled through the new snow and back through the low-lying cloud to Les Crosets, a couple of hotels and bars and a link to the pretty Swiss village of Champery, and took a ride on the fast new four-seater chair into the Avoriaz territory. At which point we settled for the first hot chocolate of the day with a Wilhemina chaser - a rather fierce pear liquor - to quicken the heart.

Skirting Avoriaz, rackety, modern, with apartment blocks like stalagmites, we cruised gently in the sun down a succession of blue runs - the kind of runs through woods and past mountain restaurants that you feel you could do all day - until the gondola which takes you into Morzine.

A determined stride through the town, (well, the driver of the navette which is meant to take you to the gondola refused to stop), and we were in a completely new area of the circuit. Morzine has a different atmosphere to its brash neighbour, Avoriaz. It is more sophisticated, has a better range of bars and cafes and a ski area linked to nearby Les Gets which is big enough in itself to sustain the intermediate skier for a week.

The weather fluctuated from the brilliant to the brouillard, the snow from muddy to marvellous. As we skied in and out of the changing conditions, goggles were put on and taken off, ski suits loosened and zipped up. Feeling as proud as an advance party climbing Everest, we pitched skis at the bleak Plaine de Nyon and discussed the final assault on the Pointe over steak hache and a litre or two of local red.

We skied with considerable panache after lunch - the forbidding black from the top held no perils. And we were so exhilarated by the easy skiing towards Les Gots we didn't realise that we had covered an entire circle and were back at Nyon where we had rested one hour before. We blamed our unofficial guide. She blamed the red wine.

Now things got tense. The last lift back to Champoussin leaves Les Crosets at 4.30pm sharp. We were at least eight lifts, one walk across town and six runs away. Received wisdom was that we had to leave Morzine at 2.30. It was now 2.45.

Valuable seconds were lost when one of the party elected to head back to Morzine; it got tense when the chair link to Avoriaz stopped for five minutes; it got irritating when we turned left after Avoriaz instead of right and had to clamber back up the hill.

It seemed sensible to spurn the challenge of the Chavanette, between Avoriaz and Les Crosets. It is one the most demanding runs of the area, a fact not helped by the fact that many people choose to go down on the chair and pour scorn on your endeavours when you finally reach the bottom, quivering and shaking. A narrow entry point, a big black sign which warns you of perils ahead and a series of huge moguls at the very top make it a run to attempt when you are feeling relaxed and confident and not rushing for the 4.30.

We opted for the direct route, slithered untidily down the slopes above Les Crosets and hit the connecting chair at 4.29. As I slid off the chair at the top, the lift clicked to a halt. Silence. The sun disappeared behind the range, the snow acquired that springtime, early evening crunchiness and we shushed back to Le Poussin, a small friendly bar on the slopes in Champoussin. Only one challenge remained. Who was to buy the first round of bieres serieux?