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FOUR SEASONS: THE ART OF CHICKENING OUT

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 13 March 2010

FOR the last ten winters now, like an oversized migratory bird, I’ve been visiting the same place in the Austrian Alps with more or less the same group of snow-seeking friends. Numbers vary from year to year – usually there are eight or ten of us, but this time the chalet was packed to the rafters: 11 at the start of the week rising to 13 when Joel the telemarker and Leila the snowboarder arrived from Sweden for a couple of days.

You’d think that 13 people sharing a too-small chalet along with all their stinky ski and snowboard gear would be chaos, but somehow the collective desire to squeeze as much snow time as possible means that the whole enterprise runs with the efficiency of a military operation.

Breakfast is prepared, eaten and cleared away in the space of half an hour or so; gear is thrown into cars as if lives depended on it, and when there’s been a fresh dump of snow, the whole process goes into overdrive. Last year we had so much snow we also started taking it for granted; this year we had to wait until the very last day of the trip for a big fall so the night before ambitious plans were laid: up just before seven, on the road at eight, arrive at Resort X at eight-thirty in time to catch the first gondola up.

I’m calling it Resort X here because if I were to disclose its name in print I’d never be invited to Austria again. Let’s just say it’s a smallish place by Austrian standards, it’s located somewhere between Salzburg and Graz, in a valley full of much bigger, more popular resorts, and it’s mostly used by locals as a ski-racing centre. On either side of a carefully groomed slalom course, however, is some of the most delectable freeriding terrain in the Alps – wide open bowls, tight trees, you name it, Resort X has got it. And the best thing of all: hardly anybody else seems to know it’s there. The lycra-clad locals get on with their race-training and occasionally cast slightly bewildered glances in the direction of the posse of eccentric British snowboarders ignoring the manicured corduroy of the pistes in favour of the steep, deep powder around the resort boundary.

Because so few people seem to venture off piste at Resort X, and because it’s relatively high (and therefore usually below freezing) the powder stays light and fluffy for days after a dump. This year, though, we’d tracked out most of the hill’s fun zones after a couple of days and were left gagging for fresh snow in the second half of the week. It became an obsession. Forecasts were checked, the barometer in the chalet was tapped on an hourly basis. And when the storm finally came, we were more than ready for it. We weren’t just the first people on the gondola at Resort X, we were the first people in the car park after the lifties and the ski patrol. On the drive to the resort, someone wondered out loud what other activity could force 13 hard-working people to get up at seven o’clock in the morning in the middle of their holiday. The only answers we came up with were surfing and sex. And not everyone could agree on sex.

One of the best freeriding areas at Resort X is a little hidden valley we’ve dubbed The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Not because the runs we usually do here are particularly extreme – they aren’t – but because they’re overlooked by a gnarly, steep-sided mountain known to the locals as P… and to us simply as The Scary Hill. Its sides are scarred by avalanche tracks and covered in intimidating cliffs and gullies and it takes a couple of hours to hike up to the top. I know, because I climbed up and snowboarded down it for the first time last year. This time, even though I knew how good the pay-off would be, I just couldn’t talk myself into going. Must be getting old. Maybe next year.

I’m now in Italy, writing this in a room in the beautiful Valbruna Inn just outside Tarvisio in the Julian Alps. I know it’s midnight because the village clock just struck twelve. Twice. I have no idea why. Earlier today I think I may have found paradise: the small but perfectly formed resort of Sella Nevea, which has just been linked by cable car to the Slovenian resort of Bovec, creating a freerider’s dreamscape. So tune in next week for tales of death-defying alpinisme, First World War derring-do and Napoleonic intrigue. Oh, and if the picture editor says it’s OK, there might even be a small photo of a guy called Wille launching a beautiful 180 off a cliff. Arrivederci.

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