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Ski touring in the Swiss Alps: walk uphill into the wild hinterland

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Five green winter wonderland holidays

Jeremy Smith

15th December, 2009

Former Ecologist editor Jeremy Smith and Richard Hammond reveal new ways to experience the ski season in an extract from their book Clean Breaks

What can beat the exhilarating freedom of the slopes, the first sip of a cold beer at 3000m and a fondue with friends at the end of a muscle-aching day? Yet the purpose-built resorts, chair-lifts, snow cannons and high-altitude infrastructure necessary to service downhill skiing hardly do the mountain ecosystem a favour.

It's ironic, given that most skiers and snowboarders care passionately about the mountains, that by visiting most resorts they hasten the destruction of the wilderness they love. So here are five new ways to enjoy the winter wonderland - in the Alps and other mountains of western Europe - where you can enjoy the powder and fresh mountain air, but where your footprint will be only snow deep.

See Chamois in Chamonix, French Alps

Trek softly through off-piste, knee-deep snow on a pair of snow-shoes and you're more likely to encounter wildlife than if you're hurtling down a manicured slope on skis. You can also reach otherwise inaccessible places in thick forest and climb up to some of the most remote alpine summits.

On a week's snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trip in the Chamonix Valley, with luck you'll see chamois or even the shy ibex. Afterwards head into town for Chamonix's legendary après-ski, which may be a bit of a shock to the system.

Need to know: For programmes and prices see: www.trekkinginthealps.com; T+33 (0) 450 546 209. For a combined snow-shoeing and cross-country trek around the Mont Blanc massif visit www.tracks-and-trails.com; T+44 (0) 208 144 6442.

Snow-shoe shuffling in the French Pyrenees

Join one of Mountainbug's tours, based in an eighteenth-century guesthouse in the central Pyrenean village of Barèges, and there's no need to bother with the usual ski equipment. Just strap on a pair of snow-shoes and away you go into the crunching virgin snow.

Trekking four to six hours a day with a qualified International Mountain Leader, you'll spend a week exploring the spectacular peaks of the Cirque de Gavarnie, Pont d'Espagne and the Marcadau Valley. When it's over, soak for an afternoon in Barèges's baths at the highest thermal spa in Europe.

Need to know: For accommodation details, itineraries, prices and booking see www.mountainbug.com; T+33 (0) 562 921 639.

Winter work-outs in the Ammer Valley, Bavarian Alps

Cross-country skiing is not for the faint of heart - there's no other work-out quite like it, as you push and glide (and huff and puff) across kilometres of flat tracks in the fresh winter air. One of the best places to put your body to the test is Oberammergau's Ammer Valley, in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, where there are 100km of cross-country skiing trails.

The King Ludwig Run, from Oberammergau to Linderhof, is a healthy 26km round trip, while the circular Ettaler Runde is a mere 4km, so you'll be back in time to have the sauna all to yourself. The most convenient place to stay near the ski area is the Oberammergau Youth Hostel, which has a mix of dormitories and family rooms, serves packed lunches (on request) and hires out sledges, snowshoes and cross-country skiing equipment.

Need to know: Take the train (www.bahn.de) from Munich to Murnau (1hr), then change for the train to Oberammergau (40min). Oberammergau Youth Hostel: http://www.jugendherberge.de/jh/bayern/oberammergau/; T+49 (0) 882 292 2740; E17.70 per person B&B or E25.10 full board. For more information on the Oberammergau ski area see www.oberammergau.de (German only); T+49 (0) 882 292 2740.

Hut to hut across the Spanish Pyrenees

Sunset at 2000m is worth every ounce of effort, especially when you have the satisfaction of having walked all the way up there on snowshoes. On a trip with Pyrenean Mountain Tours you'll start on the French side of the Pyrenees (from the Valardies Valley), cross over the border to the Refuge de la Restanca at Encantats Nature Park and then stay in mountain huts for six nights, walking through pine forests and passing the many frozen lakes of Cirque de Colomers before circling back to Valardies.

Need to know: For itineraries, costs and suggested equipment see www. pyrenees.co.uk; T+44 (0) 1635 297 209.

Ski-touring in the Swiss Alps

Ski-touring gives you the best of both worlds: synthetic 'skins' attached to the underside of your skis give you traction to walk uphill into the wild hinterland, then once you've gained some height you strip them off and enjoy the thrill of skiing deserted descents. Going off-piste, though, is not without its dangers, which is why the Ski Club of Great Britain organises guided ski-touring instruction holidays so you can better understand off-piste mountain conditions.

You stay in mountain huts and learn the different techniques needed to ski on off-piste and glaciated terrain. Once you've mastered these, you can join one of their guided ski-touring safari holidays to regions including the French and Swiss Alps and the Dolomites. Then you can go it alone.

Need to know: Trips are run in allocated groups depending on your level of experience, from novice to expert. For prices and trip dates of all ski-touring trips see www.skifreshtracks.com; T+44 (0) 208 410 202.

Take the train to the slopes

Over a million skiers and snowboarders fly to the Alps each winter, yet many of the ski resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy are easily accessible by train. Cost-wise there's little difference to flying (once you've factored in transfers to and from airports) and travelling by train has many advantages: the check-in times are far shorter, there's free baggage allowance for your gear and the journey has a much smaller carbon footprint.

In addition, the overnight service that leaves Paris on Friday evening and arrives early Saturday morning (returning the following Saturday evening) means you can fit in two extra days' skiing on the relatively quieter Saturday changeover days - without having to pay for the extra night's accommodation. Below are the options available.

Eurostar's Ski Train is a direct service from London St Pancras to Moûtiers, Aime la Plagne and Bourg St Maurice. The daytime service leaves on Saturdays at 10am and arrives at Moûtiers at 5.30pm, Aime la Plagne at 6.02pm and Bourg St Maurice at 6.20pm.

The overnight service (which does not have couchettes) leaves on Fridays at 8.31pm and reaches the Alps early Saturday morning (6.27am at Bourg St Maurice). For prices, reservations and details of onward transfers by bus to the resorts (40-90min) see www.eurostar.com; T+44 (0) 8705 186 186.

RailEurope's Snow Train is an overnight sleeper service (with six-berth couchettes and a 'bar disco' carriage) to the Alps on Fridays, returning Saturday evening the following week. It includes taking the Eurostar from London St Pancras at 5.35pm to Paris Gare du Nord, then changing platforms for the overnight service, which leaves at 10.28pm and arrives early Saturday morning in Chambéry, Albertville, Moûtiers, Aime la Plagne, Landry and finally at 8.44am to Bourg St Maurice. It returns on Saturday evening arriving at London St Pancras on Sunday at 11.16am. For prices and reservations see www.raileurope.co.uk; T+44 (0) 844 848 4088.

A final option is to take the Eurostar to Paris (or Brussels) then switch to ordinary scheduled national trains to the Alps, though in Paris this usually involves a change of station across the city. For prices, reservations and connections see www.raileurope.co.uk or www.europeanrail.com. See also p.375 of Clean Breaks for more train resources.

Clean Breaks by Jeremy Smith and Richard Hammond (£18.99, Rough Guides) is no longer available but Great Escapes is available at www.roughguides.com 

 

 

 

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