Take me higher

Huw J. Williams enrols on a course that shows him how to play safe in the backcountry

This season’s late and light snowfall in the Alps had crowds of skiers and boarders scrambling over any white stuff they could find, no matter how poor and tracked out. Even without this added pressure, the reality of many resorts is busy slopes, lift queues and, too often, ice or slush. If you are lucky enough to be in the mountains when the snow falls hard, by lunch the next day every available square yard is likely to be wearing the scars of someone else’s fun.

Which is why more and more skiers and boarders are being tempted away from the over-populated pistes and up into the wilderness of the high mountains. The urge to tackle descents such as Chamonix’s Vallée Blanche has been fuelled by magazines and DVDs in which snowboarding only happens through champagne powder in wide-open, empty terrain.

Each season increasing numbers of restless souls believe they are competent enough to venture into the pristine uplands; unfortunately, some never return. The allure of the backcountry is great, but so too are the dangers. Last season was particularly bad as avalanches killed 16 skiers and boarders in North America and around 50 in Europe. Avalanches grab the headlines but are not the only threat; hidden rocks, unseen cliffs and crevasses are all potentially lethal hazards.

In Chamonix, British professional snowboarder and high mountain guide Neil McNab will take you away from the crowd and teach you the pleasures and pitfalls of this Promised Land. Each season he guides people through the mountains on week-long introduction courses. This year I put myself in his charge.

In the mornings we are issued with our kit and taught skills such as glacier awareness for hiking and riding, avalanche safety, and rescue techniques.

This is a holiday, although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. That is, until you pull yourself up over a ridge and look down into a world without lift pylons or cables slicing through the scene, without pistes or people, no resort below – nothing but the mountains and miles of untouched powder.

The journey to this Alpine paradise begins with a 15-minute stroll from Le Tour, which is straightforward apart from the howling wind that snatches at our boards. From the top of La Flegere’s L’Index lift, we walk for an hour in snowshoes and then make a short, nerve-wracking, near vertical crampon climb. Then to reach the knife-edge ridge of Col de Passon, it is two hours – straight up for nearly 300m. In snowshoes. Then another crampon climb. Three breaths to each footfall, forcing the crampons into the snowy wall.

The reward is an untracked high Alpine valley generously stuffed with powder. All for us. We ride down into the valley, free to go wherever we want, no crevasses or high avalanche risk here today. The board floats over the snow meadows, bouncing over bumps and undulations, bucking and kicking up spray. Adjusting to the weight of the pack on your back, the unfamiliar awkwardness is tempered by the thought that every item in it, crampons, snow shoes, avalanche poles, spare thermal layer, shovel, water, food, was needed to get here.

You have to be a competent rider to attempt this course. It’s not just the high mountains that test your technique. This is the backcountry, and there are no green runs down to the base areas. After the powder bowls and glaciers, the trees close in and the snow quality declines. We have to ride around boulders, along the banks of streams, down narrow icy paths, making tight turns and trying not to destroy our boards on rocks. Hard work to start the day, hard work to finish it. But all the routes end close to a warm, rural French bar where we wait with beer until the minibus or train arrives to take us back to the chalet and tea and cakes and a shower.

It isn’t always a hard start to the day. One morning we take the cable car up 3,842m to the top of the Aiguille de Midi and drop off the back on to the white wilderness of the Vallée Blanche glacier. If the hikes had taken us to an enchanting land, this is the devil’s playground. Here knowledge can save your life. We rope up for the first part of the treacherous descent; if one of us falls into a chasm of ice, the others can pull them out. This isn’t a place for uninhibited freeriding, and we listen attentively to Neil’s instructions and warnings. Occasionally he scouts ahead, checking the area for signs of crevasses or unstable snow primed to avalanche, then explains the risks it holds and the right action to take. We all agree that we wouldn’t even think about being up here without an experienced guide.

Understanding the dangers lurking within this idyllic scenery won’t guarantee your safety, but it might just save your life.

McNab Snowboarding (0141-416 3828 , www.mcnabsnowboarding.com) offers a backcountry introduction course for £905, including six days’ guided riding with half-board accommodation, afternoon tea, all specialist high mountain equipment, Chamonix lift pass and transport around the valley. Excludes flights and transfers. Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Geneva from 11 UK airports fro £56 rtn inc tax.

The Guardian, Saturday 3 February 2007 [read it here]

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