Friday 19 October 2018

Zip up your dangly bits and ski into spring

La Rosiere & Val Thorens

The zipline in Val Thorens:probably the highest in the world, but definitely the scariest
The zipline in Val Thorens:probably the highest in the world, but definitely the scariest
Desert at the Club Med restaurant in Val Thorens. Go on, you deserve it

Shane Fitzsimons

I came to skiing relatively late in life, and very tentatively too. In fact I'd such a well-honed sense of self-preservation that the first few times I ventured onto the slopes, I kept on signing up for novice classes. This meant I had fun and was very safe - but it also meant that I never really advanced and learnt to ski the parts of the mountain I wanted to ski.

No more. I guess it might have been the mid-life crisis kicking in, but I'd had enough of green and blue beginner runs - and while I wasn't going to do an Eddie the Eagle, I was determined to do a red - and maybe even a black run.

That was the frame of mind setting out last spring for the French Alps. The first destination was La Rosiere, a small French village that shares a big area of slopes with La Thuile (called Espace San Bernardo)just over the border in Italy.

Spring is a wonderful time to ski. For a start you can feel your fingers and toes, you aren't blinded by blizzards, there's far more space on the slopes - and there are great deals on lift passes and accommodation.

Desert at the Club Med restaurant in Val Thorens. Go on, you deserve it
Desert at the Club Med restaurant in Val Thorens. Go on, you deserve it

La Rosiere is a small resort, but it's all the cuter for that and has a charm that the larger resorts have forgotten. Everything is chalet-style, with two small village centres separated by a floodlit forest walk.

It's clearly a place for families and is perfect for youngsters learning to ski. Apart from the excellent Ecole Ski Francaise (ESF) tuition that is to be found everywhere in the French Alps, there are four free nursery lifts at La Rosiere which means parents don't have to buy lift passes for learners.

But I wasn't even tempted to class myself a beginner. I'd been watching Ski Sunday for months, and if that doesn't count as training, what does?

The first hour skiing was going to be crucial. As was lying through my teeth about my abilities to the rest of the group I was skiing with. I was thinking positive, giving myself a 50pc chance of getting through the day (I blanked out the 50pc chance of messing up) and it seemed to be working. My goggles didn't fog, my gloves didn't fall off, when I wanted to go left I went left - and when I wanted to stop I could do that too.

Something had clicked. There's a thin line between thrilling and terrifying and I was skiing it. Yes, I was lagging behind, but not so much. I was sort of keeping up. More or less.

We went up lifts, down valleys, up more lifts, and more lifts until we reached the Col de la Traversette - the point where we would crest the peak and start going down the other side - and I found myself wondering if this particular Col de la Traversette was the one that Hannibal used to lead his elephants over the Alps and down on Rome.

I was pretty sure it wasn't - you'd need to be a lunatic to bring a herd of elephants up here - but I found the mental exercise of picturing a one-eyed Carthaginian swaying on top of a five-ton African elephant helpful. It distracted me from the mild waves of terror washing through my gut.

I skied to the crease of the hill, took a quick look down and pondered what course the elephants should take to get down. After I plotted the line, all it needed was a slight shift in weight and I was off. Elephants away. Shift weight, bend knees, pivot and send the snow cascading out of the turn. Nelly!

At this point you might expect a self-deprecating tale of my pratfall. If that's what you're expecting, sorry, it didn't happen. I did good. I was comfortable, confident and eager. I was, you might say, in the zone.

At the top of the next hill there was an almost vertical drop - maybe 20 metres. The guide from the ESF was encouraging. "Go for it! Lean forward!" I did. I flew down. I was skiing. Not just getting down a mountain any way possible, but picking a route, drawing a line in the snow, carving it out. How did I ever find this difficult? It's the easiest thing in the world.

That was an easy red slope, the ESF guide said, with a typical Gallic shrug. I cared not. It was my first red. I was bursting with pride. Up ahead was a sign: 'Benvenuto in Italia'. Woo-hoo! Skiing over the border into Italy! James Bond my union-jacked arse! Maggie Thatcher, your boys took one hell of a beating!

Dinner that night at the Antigel (big shared portions of raclette, rich and calorific - just right for this altitude) passed by like a dream. All I could think of was the next day.

But we awoke to a change in weather. Wind from the North! Which meant lots of snow - but that in turn meant no skiing today on this exposed slope! Quelle disaster! What could we do?

Simple actually: go higher into the Alps. And so we took a two-hour transfer up to Val Thorens in the Trois Vallees ski space - altitude 2,300m and with peaks of 3,220m. At that altitude you are guaranteed snow well into April. And the winding drive up the hairpin Alps will make your heart race: the scenery just piles up and up.

We checked in to the absolutely fantastic all-inclusive Club Med in Val Thorens, and after the bags were stowed away we got kitted out for the snow in their basement ski room - and then shuffled out onto the slopes. Just like that.

After the small-town charm of La Rosiere, Val Thorens is full-on ski central. But that was OK, there's room for everyone. So back on to the lifts, higher and higher we went, up to the zipline above the town, where we strapped our skis to our backs for the 1.3km-long flight. Apparently we hit 100kmph on the zipline, but all I was thinking of was the slopes. Skiing is addictive like that.

Later that day I did my first black run. Box ticking, sure - but it's a tick worth making. Go skiing. Bring me.

Getting there

You can fly from Dublin to Lyon with Aer Lingus, Air France or BA.

Accommodation in La Rosiere was at Les Cimes Blanches (www.cgh-residences.com/), they’ve a great pool. We ate at Restaurant Antigel.

In Val Thorens we stayed at Club Med (www.clubmed.fr/r/Val-Thorens-Sensations/y) and ate at the very excellent Le Base Camp in the Hotel Pashmina — but if you win the lottery, the hotel also has the Michelin-starred Restaurant Les Explorateurs, so you can splash out. We also enjoyed lunch at La Rotisserie in Hotel Fahrenheit 7.

Find out more about the resorts featured at www.valthorens.com, www.larosiere.net or www.skiingintospring.com/

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