The Twilight Zone: The best way to find powder snow in Morzine? Try uphill skiing in the dark…
It’s a still night on the mountain, with the full moon glinting on the snow. By the light of the torch on my head I can only see a narrow path as I trudge through the forests of Morzine in the French Alps.
Despite the freezing cold I’m rapidly stripping off layers, overheating with the sheer exertion of the 1,505m ascent up Pleney, a climb on skis of around 350 vertical metres. But the sweat and effort of this nocturnal expedition is more than made up for by the sense of being immersed in nature with no-one around. There are none of the interruptions of the daytime pistes: no learner skiers wobbling across my path, no kids zooming past, no raucous laughter and pumping music from the bars and no chance of a Gwyneth Paltrow style collision. The only noise is the sound of an owl hooting in the distance.
I am taking part in the fast-growing sport of ski de randonnée, or back country ski touring, which allows you to reach untracked slopes and go to places where there are no ski lifts to enjoy virgin powder snow. The Nirvana of off-piste skiers.
My instructor is ski mountaineering specialist Alain Premat from the Morzine Ecole de Ski Français who is helping to promote the sport in this huge Portes du Soleil ski area together with the Morzine Tourist Office.
Departing every Thursday afternoon from Morzine’s town centre, Alain guides newcomers up the mountain with specialist lightweight ski touring equipment. The sport involves walking uphill on skis in the dark, with the tantalising promise of a completely serene and peaceful descent.
Our expedition starts at dusk where Alain briefly explains the differences between traditional Alpine skis and the touring skis we are using.
Skinning uphill (as opposed to skinning up) means attaching fabric skins to the base of the skis to allow your skis to slide forwards but crucially not backwards down the slope with your heel lifting away from the ski as you climb.
In the 1930s, the original climbing skins were made from real seal hides although they are now made from a mixture of mohair and nylon, allowing you to grip the snow and ski along.
Alain stresses the importance of keeping the skins dry and warm so they adhere well to the skis. He also advises me to remove my heavy ski jacket to avoid overheating – one hour of uphill skiing can burn 680 calories, compared with only 408 during downhill skiing.
Occasionally your head torch will light up the eyes of startled animal before it vanishes into the darkness. Fortunately any wild boar will hear us well before we encounter them.
Fully kitted up, we take one of the final gondola lifts up Pleney to test my downhill skiing skills on my new lightweight skis and touring ski boots, then we switch on our head torches and begin our ascent up the mountain.
Although we start climbing at a steady pace on the piste, Alain soon veers off onto a narrow forest trail where snow-clad tree branches brush against our clothing and night begins to fall.
Along the route Alain points out the animal tracks belonging to rabbits, chamois (mountain deer) and foxes. He explains that occasionally your head torch will light up the eyes of startled animal before it vanishes into the darkness. Fortunately any wild boar will hear us well before we encounter them.
It takes a while for me to find my stride and get used to the sliding motion of the skis but soon I am making steady progress with my three experienced touring companions following behind me in single file. Sensing my puffing, Alain advises that the best technique is to not lift my skis but slide them backwards and forwards along the snow for maximum efficiency.
When it comes to ski touring, Alain is something of a national champion. In 2010, aged 28, he was part of a team of three including his brother, Jean-François, that instigated the Lac Léman to Mont Blanc summit challenge. They climbed 11,000 vertical metres over a distance of 110km in 23 hours and 10 minutes, a record that has never been broken.
The same trio are former record holders of the Chamonix to Zermatt ski touring challenge (the Haute Route). Regular ski tourers would take up to seven days to complete this, staying in mountain hut refuges along the way. Alain did the whole itinerary in less than 19 hours.
But I am in a different league to Alain and after an hour and a half of uphill climbing, I am relieved to reach our goal: a wooden cross marking a hamlet called Nabor, near the top of Pleney.
As we stop for a breather and a welcome mug of steaming coffee, I admire the brilliance of the Milky Way in the cloudless sky – a very different view to London’s smoggy skyline.
Fully re-energised, we adjust our ski bindings to downhill mode and head down through the soft knee-deep powder towards the twinkling lights of Morzine.
Back at the luxurious timbered Chalet Bizet, our hosts Anna and Will welcome us with vintage Bollinger and canapés in front of the roaring log fire.
The large eight-person hot tub under the canopy of stars is ideal preparation for our delicious six course taster menu with paired fine wines. After my exhilarating 90-minute mountain climb, I reckon I can overdo the calories.
A week’s stay at Chalet Bizet costs from £1,195pp. For more info visit alikats.eu/chalets/chalet-bizet or call 0203 514 6012. ESF Morzine offers introductory evening ski tours costing £42 pp. For more info visit esf-morzine.com/adultes/hors-piste. Transfers were arranged with Skiidy Gonzales (+33 (0) 450 37 36 85, skiidygonzales.com) For info about Morzine and to plan your trip visit: en.morzine-avoriaz.com