Off-Season Eco Skiing
Planet-friendly skiers stay in carbon-neutral chalets and get to the top under their own steamFeatured April 09 Words by Alf Alderson
It's tough being a skier these days.
Harangued by environmentalists for flying to the resorts, given an ear-bashing by eco warriors for using ski lifts and warned by all and sundry that your actions will increase global warming to the extent that the snow you love won't even exist in a few decades.
Should we just lay down our skis and take up tree hugging?
Well I'd leave the trees alone for now since it is possible to hit the slopes in such a way that the only sign you've been in the mountains is your ski tracks in the snow.
You can do this by ski touring, which at this time of year is just coming into its own.
As downhill skiers start putting away their salopettes and thinking about the beach, ski tourers are still up on the hill enjoying the kind of alpine experience you just can't get from lift-accessed slopes.
But there is a price to be paid for this combination of magnificent views and keeping your carbon footprint down. You won't be using ski lifts to get you to the top of the mountain - you'll be doing it under your own steam.
Ski touring involves climbing up the mountain on skis and then coming back down with a whoop and a grin - just like in the old days before ski lifts were invented. A great location to give it a try is the Tarentaise region of France, with its high-altitude resorts such as Tignes and Val d'Isere, which are easily reached from Lyon and Geneva.
You need to go to high resorts like these in April and May as the snow is retreating rapidly at lower levels in the mountains. But once you get up into the alpine zone, you can find yourself skiing beneath a gleaming sun in snow-draped mountain landscapes that have changed little in 10,000 years, give or take a receding glacier or two.
Ski touring is not for beginners, though. You need to be a strong intermediate skier at the very least as you'll be taking on everything from deep powder (hopefully) to ice, crust and slush - there are no perfectly groomed pistes up here.
You also need a good level of fitness - climbs can last two hours or more and descents will put some serious demands on your legs too, especially after slogging all that way uphill. And you also need to learn to use some new bits of ski gear.
Most important of all - and this really cannot be emphasised enough - it's vital that you employ the services of a mountain guide. He or she will have years of experience of the local mountains and can guide you safely through terrain that is seriously hazardous to the inexperienced.
So, what's involved in this adventurous foray into the mountains? Well, let's imagine you've sensibly chosen an easy route to start off with, such as one of the various ski tours that can be undertaken in the Vanoise National Park above Val d'Isere. The first thing you'll notice is that your skis and bindings will be slightly different to those you'd use for regular skiing. The skis are usually wider, to float through deep powder, and are often lighter to reduce the effort of slogging uphill. The back of each binding is designed to lift up off the ski, so you can raise your heel as you ascend the slopes. When it's time to ski back down, it clips back onto the ski and essentially operates like a normal downhill ski binding.
And then there's the final secret of going uphill on skis: skinning up. No, this isn't an excuse to get high as a kite so you don't feel the pain - skins are strips of nylon or mohair that stick to the base of your skis and have a pile or "nap" to them that allows the ski to glide forward but stops it from slipping backwards (they're called skins because the originals were made from seal skin). A pair of adjustable ski poles is also useful, used shorter for climbing and longer for skiing.
And so, kitted out with your special ski-touring gear, you'll soon leave behind the clamour of the resort, setting off with your guide to be surrounded by few sounds other than the breeze soughing across the wide, white slopes and your own laboured breathing as you move ever higher into thinner oxygen. The secret is to get into a steady rhythm and take it slowly - watch your guide, who will generally plod along at an easy, regular pace and reach the top unruffled and relaxed.
As a far-from-experienced ski tourer, I know that I'll invariably reach the end of the long, hard trek up the mountain hot, sweaty and exhausted - but happy. And who wouldn't be? You've ascended maybe a thousand metres under your own steam, so that makes you worthy; you're chewing on a sandwich, looking out across a sun-lit, snow-plastered landscape of high mountains, tumbling glaciers and distant forests. And there's not another skier to be seen.
But the best is yet to come. Once your well-earned rest is over, all that terrain you spent so long ascending is yours to fly down - wide, untracked slopes and bowls the likes of which lift-accessed skiing rarely provides. This is the alpine environment at its finest - just you, your friends and your guide with the world's biggest playground laid out before you.
The greatest thing about this? There's not a carbon footprint in sight.
SLEEP EASY AND GUILT-FREE
These chalets are recommended by environmental journalist and travel writer Richard Hammond, founder of www.green.traveller.co.uk. For more green resorts, check out the Ski Club of Great Britain's online guide at www.skiclub.co.uk/skiclub/resorts/greenresorts
★ Chalet Montperron La Rosière, France www.green-rides.com A 200km drive from Lyon and well located for the resorts of the Tarentaise Valley, Chalet Montperron has a thorough recycling programme, uses energy efficient electricals, is signed up to suppliers of renewable energy and operates vehicles with LPG conversions.
★ Chalet Châtelet Portes du Soleil, France www.chalet-chatelet.com Traditional log chalet close to Avoriaz, Morzine and Les Gets that uses wood-burning stoves, solar panels and a bread oven; food is local and organic and the chalet is about 70km from Geneva.
★ Chalet Butterfly Saas Fee, Switzerland www.chaletbutterfly.ch
A contemporary chalet with an ecological approach to both design and living, Chalet Butterfly is set in the attractive, car-free village of Saas Fee, which is within easy reach of both Zürich and Geneva.