I’ve never been mad for crowds. There used to be exceptions, I mean I still imagine I could wade into the moshpit at a Slayer gig and crowdsurf over the barrier.
But, realistically, I’m over that on many levels. After all, what if my money fell out of my pocket? And how would I stop my expensive phone getting damaged?. And then I couldn’t bear how long it would take to get out of the venue.
Then there are the roads, I can’t really do traffic jams. An inconvenient proportion of my day is spent trying to work out how to avoid them and how to skirt busy roads both in the car and on my bike.
But I dislike crowds in ski resorts more than perhaps anywhere else. One of the big problems with skiing is that you go to these jaw-droppingly beautiful places and you have to share them with the sort of people who go skiing.
Apologies for the generalisation - some of my favourite people ski - but you probably know what I'm driving at. Anyway, the upshot is I’d sooner ski down a bullet-hard run in zero visibility than jostle with an army of other skiers on a blue-bird day on corduroy perfection.
So how do you get far away without a helicopter-sized budget? Ski-touring is certainly one of the answers. It’s an easy way of accessing back-country terrain that the lifts don’t reach. It doesn’t have to be extreme in any way but it does take you out of patrolled areas and most people will sensibly opt for a guide.
Simply speaking, you use slightly different bindings that allow you to unclip the heel of your ski boots and skate easily on your skis. You also clip sticky-backed ‘skins’ to the bottoms of your skis that allow you to slide the skis forward but not backwards. This means you can make your way up quite steep slopes and then take the skins off at the top, clip your heels down and ski down completely conventionally. Only on your own. Most of the time you can’t even see anyone else. Marvellous.
The Beaufortain area of France is an ideal place to start. It’s a staggeringly beautiful ski-touring playground. Draped across the western flanks of the Mont Blanc massif, it’s best known for the cheese that have made its burly cows world-famous.
We spent our first night in Areches, a tiny village at around 1,000m and home to a small ski resort which serves as a hub for a massive network of ski touring.
The resort is particularly well-known in ski-touring circles for hosting one of the sport’s three major European races, the Pierra Menta. Skiers in pairs complete a course taking in an array of local peaks and notch up around 10,000 metres ascent and descent during two mightily-strenuous days.
For those looking for the best results, when one member of the team gets tired, the other will tow them. The Pierra Menta is a spectacular looking tooth of rock which marks one of the route’s waypoints protruding out of a ridge running along the resort’s skyline
Probably the most popular and accessible ski-touring route in Areches is the one that takes you from the top of the lifts to the 2,700m summit of the Grand Mont, the biggest peak nearby. As a mark of the technical difficulty of this route, during the Pierra Menta race there are whole families including grandparents and kids who’ve made the skin up to the peak to have a barbeque.
It’s around 300m higher than the lift and in spring there’s a well-defined route up to the top that winds its way gently up the easiest slopes eventually summiting at the end of a wide ridge.
Taken easily it’s just an hour and a half’s gentle skin. The stunning Mont Blanc panorama from the top is reward enough with the ski down almost a bonus. There are any number of lines of differing difficulty down the mountain and many simply ski gently down the way they came.
We had breakfast at a slopeside restaurant overlooking the Pierra Menta and then ticked off the Grand Mont before dropping back to the restaurant in time for lunch.
In the afternoon we were guided by Gregory Gachet, a former winner of the Pierra Menta and a ski instructor in Areches. I was pleased when, after a few hours skiing together, he suggested we enter the race as a pair. When he explained that I wouldn’t need skins because he’d be towing me I realised, with no small pique of disappointment, that he was joking. Of course.
Areches is a beautifully quiet, very French resort with a family atmosphere. The town itself is small and hardly packed with nightlife but, that said, it would be easy to end up a casualty of the Chez Dede bar. With a whole host of local micro-brewery and Belgian treats on draught and in bottles, our ski-touring niggles and indeed any plans for the evening were soon forgotten.
It would be remiss to visit Beaufort and not check out the Cooperative Laitiere du Beaufortain where the famous cheese is produced and stored. A tour round here is highly recommended but be warned, even for hardened cheese addicts like myself, a sniff of the cellars where the huge rounds of Beaufort are kept is likely to remain with you for some time.
Les Saisies was our next stop. It’s another small, family resort on the northernmost boundary of Beaufortain and part of the larger Espace Diamant ski area which takes in six resorts on the Val D’Arly . It’s also a ski-touring hub and has gentle touring terrain centred on a partly-wooded ridge heading west-east between the nearby town of Albertville and Mont Blanc.
As with the Grand Mont tour, our guide was the fabulous Guy Bertin. Guy’s seen a few more Christmases than me but I’ve met older teenagers. He picked us up from the luxurious Ferme du Chozal hotel some way down the hill in the tiny village of Hauteluce in his Fiat Panda. As he thrashed the little car up the pass towards the resort with three of us in it, he sang along to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way with complete unselfconscious abandon. Perfect.
Our route took us past the highest lifts in the resort out along a sparsely-forested ridge and in a long oval-shaped loop up to the 2,067m Mont de Vores peak overlooking the smart resort of Megeve. Another morning’s worth of ski-touring, the gradients are gentle both up and down and there’s plenty of time to take in the views and enjoy the crowd-free beauty of the mountains.
As we skinned out towards Mont Blanc I asked Guy how many times he’d been up it. He’s lost count but he said he’d guided up clubs, schools, rugby teams, a judo team and even an 18-piece orchestra with all their instruments and evening dress in tow.
Ski-touring is a different pace to traditional Alpine skiing, you can find adrenalin if you want it but for most people it’s just a way of getting out into the mountains under your own steam and enjoying where you are.
As with most of these things, a certain degree of fitness is more important than a high level of skiing expertise. While it's unwise to draw comparison with a force of nature, my pal Paul Smail cruised up to both peaks without breaking sweat despite having barely a week's skiing but comfortably 100kg to his name.
Touring is building in popularity as it becomes more accessible and better marketed. This is a trend fuelled not least by a demand to get even further off the beaten track but also a push towards more active holidays. For a growing number, letting the lifts and gravity do all the work is no longer enough.
Of course, some people will never sacrifice the convenience and ease of the cable car, the piste markers and the slopeside restaurants.
And for me, that's just fine.
For more information on the area:
Hôtel Poncellamont in Arêches
La Ferme du Chozal in Hauteluce
Source : http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/trips-and-breaks/ski-resort-review--ski-1305922