Alpine adventures without the ski lift
Love the scenery and the social life - but not the skiing? Jane Labous went in search of alternatives in the Alps, and found that it's not only black runs that get your heart racing...
"So... you've come to the Alps but you're not skiing?..."
The puzzled reaction of the other guests at the chalet is pretty universal. If you've ever sat around with a bunch of skiers and boarders after they've been on the mountain, you'll know that allthey talk about is skiing - the size of those moguls on that black run; the icy bit near the bottom, that spectacular crash...
All very well if you're skiing too. But if, like me, you're injured (I broke the ligament in my left knee in a ski accident at Christmas), or you're simply a non-skier, it can be pretty tiresome. But rather than miss out on a week in a catered chalet with my boyfriend Ben this season (not to mention the chalet girl’s daily homemade cake), I’ve challenged myself to find ways to enjoy the French Alps without going near a ski lift. I’m determined that by the end of the week, the entire dinner table will be listening to mytales of hair-raising adventures. After all, there must be more to the mountains than just ski runs?
I’m surprised at how well our arrangement, in which he snowboards independently while I do other activities, immediately suits us. But then he is a fairly extreme boarder whose perfect day consists of finding the most terrifying off-piste precipices. Hearing about his exploits is, frankly, a much more preferable option than attempting to keep up. I’d even venture to suggest that it’s the path to perfect conjugal bliss.
Not that my days prove any less exciting. My first adventure is husky dog riding, or 'mushing', an activity I'd always assumed to be so exotic that you could only do it in the Arctic Circle. It turns out that you can mush in the French Alps too, as long as you can track down husky dog trainer Christophe Guillaud.
Christophe and his troop of burly dogs offer non-skiers like me the chance to pilot a sledge and have an arguably more thrilling time than on the slopes. After all, what's a black run compared to racing through thick snow and alpine forest pulled by six strong huskies?
My ride, just before dusk on a snowy evening, is much more strenuous than I could have imagined. Before we set off the dogs are barking and chaffing at the reins, eager to go. The minute I say 'ha' we're off and I'm holding on for dear life wondering whether it's me piloting the dogs or the other way around...
But after a while I relax and let my knuckles loosen their grip, mesmerised by the snow-sprinkled trees and the blur of the dogs' legs as they run. It starts to snow, which makes for terrible photos but a magical atmosphere, and I gasp with exhilaration as we swish along, my cheeks breaking into roses with the cold. It’s the closest I think I’ll ever get to stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia as the snowflakes settle silently around us and we race on, faster and faster.
The next day I head to Vallorcine, just out of Chamonix near the Swiss border. I've booked a cross-country skiing lesson with the rather aptly-named Julia Treglaski. Super-fit with an enviable mountain glow, her enthusiasm is infectious.
“There's so much you can do in the mountains,” she grins over coffee in a picturesque alpine café. “The best thing for non-skiers is to do things independently rather than waiting around for the skiers to come back for dinner. The last thing you want is to be surrounded by everyone talking about skiing when you can't do it.”
Julia fits me up with a pair of cross-country skis and shows me how to wax them so that they grip properly. Then we head out to the cross-country area, a flat stretch of perfect virgin snow bathed in the kind of brilliant morning sunshine you only get in the mountains.
If you've ever dismissed cross-country skiing as boring, think again. It's like running on skis (great for my knees as, unlike downhill skiing, there's no twisting involved), so the resulting cardio exercise is pretty phenomenal. Before long I'm breaking a sweat, swinging my arms and legs rhythmically and whizzing along in the parallel tracks neatly marked in the snow.
“A week of this and you can drop a dress size!” Julia yells, pounding past me. I can believe it. My whole body is aching – even swinging the poles back and forth works those bingo wings. As I speed along in the sunshine it’s just as exhilarating as tackling a downhill slope, though a fraction of the price.
Thinking it would be a relaxing end to my week, I’d saved snowshoeing until last. But ten minutes in, and I'm wondering why I ever thought it would be easy. I'm hiking up a hill in La Plagne, another of the Alps' most popular resorts. My guide Jean and I are making our way towards a stretch of untouched snow in an off-piste area in Plagne Soleil.
Ok, so 'les raquettes' might be slightly uncool, but I discover several things pretty quickly. Firstly, that they are not, as I assumed, tennis rackets. When you put a pair on, you realise how a camel walks across the sand, or a reindeer across the snow – they’re like a pair of giant snow hoofs… Snow shoes are designed to spread your weight so that you can quite literally walk across the top of the snow.
Secondly, snow shoeing is as strenuous as hill-walking and not for the faint-hearted.
Thirdly, ski instructors' backpacks are always so full because... yes, they carry snow-shoes. How else do you think they reach all those off-piste bits in an avalanche?
I realise that years of snootily dismissing snowshoes as a poor-man’s mountain activity has meant I’ve missed out on an awful lot – and probably held me back on the slopes too. After just half an hour, I'm striding across the top of metre-thick snow drifts, heart-rate pleasantly high, smirking knowingly as we pass a snowshoeless man scrambling haplessly through the snow, sinking deeper with every step.
"Should have got some snow-shoes,” I mutter under my breath.
I suppose it serves me right when, after tea and Toblerone at the top of the hill, I stumble my way down, a little less sure on my feet. Fourth lesson: snow shoeing on the downhill is much more technical, especially with damaged knees, and will require practice... Glowing with exertion and mountain air I join Ben and the others to swap stories over a bottle of vin de Savoie and a much deserved tartiflette, a local potato and cheese speciality. The week’s over, and of course everyone wants my verdict on my alternative Alps experience.
"So, be honest, have you hated not being able to ski?” one of them asks, as five pairs of pitying eyes turn in my direction.
Ha! Time to unleash my tale of James Bond-style sled antics, hurtling through an alpine forest at top speed pulled by six Siberian huskies,before nonchalantly asking them if anyone else made it to the much vaunted Plagne Soleil this week (not to mention Narnia).
"I guess you could say,” I add casually, “it’s been one of my most exhilarating snow holidays ever.”
And for the first time that week, there is silence round the table.
This article is out now in the March 2010 edition of Zest Magazine.