There is one type of skiing condition that eclipses all others. Spring snow. Or firn schnee in Austria. It is sought out by skiers with the same enthusiasm as a pig seeks outs truffles. In fact, taking the truffle parallel a little further, the great French food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin eulogised the truffle as ‘the diamond of the kitchen’. In that case, spring snow is the sapphire of the slopes.
Had he been a skier (he missed out on that, dying as he did in 1826) instead of merely a renowned epicure and gastronome (one of his books, The Physiology of Taste, has never been out of print), M Brillat-Savarin would, I’m sure, have written a weighty tome on the glories of spring snow.
So we’ve been heading out from Meribel not with a Brillat-Savarin volume but rather with a piste map of Les Trois Vallees (www.les3vallees.com) and more importantly with guide extraordinaire Ashley Kay, on the hunt for spring snow. It is found at only certain times of the day, usually from mid-morning until lunchtime. After a cold night, on off-piste slopes facing the right direction and getting the correct amount of sun, the top few centimetres of snow soften above a firm base. And this produces the most wonderful surface on which to ski smooth, flowing, sweeping, sensual turns.
Ashley has been finding it for us. He led our group off piste above Les Menuires, in the vicinity of Le Lac des Echauds, where pure spring snow was waiting to delight us. And after heading over to Val Thorens and skiing the big off-piste run La Combe Sans Nom we had the further joy of a picnic just below La Pointe du Boucher, the highest point of the Three Valleys ski area.
On other trips I have also found great spring snow on La Combe de Geffriand, a stunning and often deserted huge back bowl. Said Ashley, from Courchevel-based First Tracks Ski Coaching: ‘In March and April I like to focus on the quality of the skiing, not the quantity. If we are blessed with a clear night and a good freeze, followed by a beautiful sunny day, then you can be sure that first timers to spring snow will be blown away and instantly hooked.’
It all goes to show that spring can be the perfect time to ski for a number of reasons. The weather and temperatures in April and even, in some higher resorts, in early May are often stable, warm and pleasant. Accommodation is cheaper and there are usually fabulous late season deals. The chance of spring snow should be reason enough to head to the slopes. And the ski days are longer so you get more value out of your lift pass.
We stayed at Chalet Bartavelles in Meribel, one of the properties run by Alp Leisure and operated in a distinctly different way to the usual chalet set-up. With Alp Leisure, who have luxurious properties in Courchevel as well as Meribel, guests are charged for the exclusive rental of the chalet and its staff, and pay for food at cost price on top of that plus drink at retail prices. This means they are not charged for elements they don’t want, unlike the more normal chalet holiday set package.
‘People don’t have to pay for a five-course meal and full cooked breakfasts and cheese boards that go untouched at the end of the night,’ said Lucie Learoyd, owner of Alp Leisure. ‘They can also drink the wine they would like, rather than wine that is selected for them, and can even bring their own if they prefer.’
An average week in an Alp Leisure chalet, sleeping ten, starts at 13,800 euros, plus food charged at cost. The firm employs professional chefs, so fancy catering is on hand if required.
And I think M Brillat-Savarin, master of the bon mot, would have been a wonderfully amusing guest for chalet dinner. ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,’ was his famous aphorism. And once when offered grapes after dinner he said: ‘Much obliged but I am not accustomed to taking my wine in pills’