The alternative Alps: It's not all downhill

Fresh ways to play in the white stuff. From kite skiing and cross-border touring to Telemarking, we bring you some of the best alternative Alpine adventures.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 10 Nov 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 16 Jul 2021, 14:53 BST
Kite boarding, Lake Silvaplana

Kite boarding, Lake Silvaplana

Photograph by Simon Sprecher

Kite skiing
Sam Lewis attempts to take to the skies above Switzerland's lake Silvaplana

Frustration transcends, if not obliterates, fear as I stand on skis on a vast frozen lake 20 metres from my kite, praying for a gust to miraculously propel it into the sky. Half an hour later, I'm still here but I swear I feel a slight draught on my face. But nature, like a temptress, is playing tricks with my mind. With beginner's optimism, I nonetheless attempt a launch.

Patience. Confidence. And luck. These are the three things I need to succeed, I tell myself as my colourful kite flutters, flips and then tumbles to the ground in a tangled mess, deflated, like my ego. Patience, confidence, luck and… wind.

Stranded in the middle of pretty Lake Silvaplana, amid pristine pine-clad, mountains a few miles from St Moritz, I spy a few kites swaying precariously in the distance, but most have dropped like stones from the sky. Apprehension evaporates. Boredom sets in.

If five- to 70-year-olds can master kite, or board skiing in just a few hours, why can't I? The sport was invented by explorers two decades back, as a wind-assisted way to reach the South Pole faster — presumably they had better barometrics than me.

Practised on flat surfaces, the sport is more akin to cross-country than downhill, and far easier than kitesurfing, which uses inflatable rather than foil kites with holes (the type I'm attempting to master). When I'd announced I was taking a weekend's break to learn how to kite ski — on ice — friends had feared for my safety, while seasoned kite surfers had shaken their heads in disbelief, "Statistically it's no more dangerous than downhill skiing," I argued, "as long as you follow the basic rules." One of which is to keep a keen eye on the intemperate wind, which can maroon you far from your starting point.

Out of nowhere, my Swiss instructor, Simon, appears, his kite mockingly dancing above. Reaching down to pick up my control bar he effortlessly launches my sail. I shouldn't be too hard on myself, the wind conditions are poor and gusty, he explains, before scooting off to help another hapless novice. Yesterday, he'd taught us the basic theory of flying kites — and, more importantly, the emergency procedure to drop them. These oversize toys range from three to 20 metres in length, and depending on wind speed, the terrain and your weight, a minimum of 10 knots is required to fly. Bombarded with the theory of power zones and 90-degree angles, I convince myself it'll be easier to pick it up as I go along. Except I'm not going anywhere.

Just as I'm about to give up, the wind whips up from nowhere, my kite rises and I'm off gliding and scooting across the lake, my kite doing figures of eight above me. Like a bird, it swoops and soars and I speed along on the edge of my skis in a somewhat runaway fashion.

"Don't follow the wind," shouts Simon, "make your own direction." I don't quite appreciate how and, 30 minutes later, as I'm stranded on the other side of the lake, he appears again, my knight with colourful kite, slightly irritated, to tow me back to base. I watch as he deftly manoeuvres the bar, like a boxer, controlling the kite's direction.

"Ah, that's how you do it," I exclaim. "Why didn't you say so?" I smile, skating along behind him, my confidence inflated, his patience deflated, and the wind, once again, barely to be seen.

Amelia Duggan tackles the slopes of Val D'Isère, one very poetically critiqued lunge at a time

"The snow is perfect this morning; like a cappuccino!" Enrico shouts as he slices his way down the slope, lunging so deeply into his turns that he brushes the powder with one hand. My first attempt at telemark skiing clearly doesn't look as artful. "You need to glide into the corners," Enrico scolds as I judder to a halt in front of him. "You want to be like Mozart, not like Bach — smooth!"

My second attempt at a run is better: this time I manage to slide my skis apart in parallel (to a somewhat disconcerting chorus of "Open up! OPEN UP!"), lift the heel of my downhill leg and dip my knee a little as I go into a turn. I glide through the corner, straighten up then demi-lunge into another. I'm probably going at around 10mph but I feel like I could outmanoeuvre an avalanche.

By the fourth run, however, I'm exhausted, my muscles are burning and I can tell from Enrico's colourful comparisons that it's all going wrong. "You're like Jackson Pollock right now!" he bellows, "You want to be Monet!" A few slopes later, we've moved from art metaphors to altogether more earthy comparisons. After being likened to a skittish goat as opposed to a soaring eagle, I suggest a break and glass of génépi at Val d'Isère's La Folie Douce.

It's here, during a light snow shower, as burlesque dancers twirl on stage, that I learn a bit more about telemarking. Invented in Telemark, Norway, in the late 1800s by farmer and skier-extraordinaire Sondre Norheim, Telemark combines Alpine and Nordic ski techniques, with toe-only bindings allowing lunges into fast, hard turns on any terrain, be it backcountry or in a resort. It comes with specialist equipment: only the duck-bill toe of the high, tight, multi-buckle boot is slotted onto the ski. The popularity of telemark skiing waned in the mid-20th century, until a revival saw it become the technique du jour among skiers in the 1970s and '80s; a famous Canadian bumper sticker during these decades read, 'Free the heel. Free the spirit.'

It can be hard to find good telemark instructors in Alpine ski resorts, let alone the kit to hire, but Oxygene in Val d'Isère offers a full range of equipment along with flamboyantly expressive instructors. It remains a niche sport with a reputation for attracting trendy speedsters thirsty for a new challenge, although it seems that an ambitious novice like myself can make some headway with the right teacher.

It's undoubtedly a tough technique to get right: done well, it looks incredible. Done badly, it's a dog's dinner. But that's part of its appeal: if it were easy, everyone would be Mozart on the slopes.


Cross-border touring
From the very Italian resort of Courmayeur, the French slopes are a day's adventure away, says Robert Stewart

Tucked away in a corner of the Aosta Valley, rustic-chic Courmayeur oozes Italian charm. I reach it quickly, via a short tunnel ride from Mont Blanc and find the town couldn't differ more from its French neighbour, Chamonix. While the latter is all about how high you've climbed or how steep you've skied, I find Courmayeur is far more understated in its wish for visitors to advertise just how extreme they might be.

Off the slopes, the focus in town is the Via Roma, a pedestrianised street full of high-end skiwear stores (Patagonia, Moncler), luxury boutiques (Hermés, Gucci) and delicatessens. Joining the passeggiata (early-evening stroll), I'm distracted by the charming Le Cadran Solaire's sophisticated style of après ski.

The mountain is the picture-perfect backdrop to all this, split down two sides, with the south side benefiting from sunny slopes even in early winter and the north having the best views of the Mont Blanc range. Up on the new Skyway Monte Bianco, with its revolving glass cabins, I'm gifted yet another area of Mont Blanc for sightseeing and off-piste skiing. From here, I can access the famed Vallée Blanche glacial ski run, taking advanced skiers all the way down to Chamonix, on the French side. It's a fantastic, full day trip, with crevasses to negotiate and everything from deep powder to spring slush, all in the same run. But if you can't make it across the border, go off-piste in Courmayeur; at the top of the mountain (Cresta Youla, Cresta D'Arp), two major routes descend with over 3,280ft of vertical. And to refuel afterwards? Ristorante Chiecco, a mountain hut near the main hub of Plan Chécrouit, has silky buffalo mozzarella, the best bruschetta ever, and melt-in-the-mouth pork. A very Italian end to a day's borderline skiing. 

High dining
Sölden, in Austria, is home to Europe's highest fine dining restaurant — the best incentive to make it across the seriously challenging surrounding peaks, says Anna Melville-James

'Guarantee' is a strong word, especially when it comes to snow. If you're going to bandy it around you'll need a couple of glaciers and the full force of winter behind you. Luckily, Sölden in the Ötztal Valley, Tyrol, has both — you can ski from October to May, and it's a mere hour from Innsbruck, so is an easy, quick fix for those needing a few days to refresh their piste technique.

I'd left it late in the season to get some skiing in, and could see spring in the distance as I swung up from the emerald valley to the snowy pistes of the Giggijoch ski area. Here, tough blue runs blend into 'it's a red, really' bits before you know it, adding quiet swearing to the first runs of a rusty skier like me. But then Sölden skiing has a Teutonic, take-on-the-mountain toughness, with three 10,000ft-plus peaks and a ski trail from the top of the Innere Schwarze Schneid that descends 6,560ft in just 9.5 miles.

These were routes for more powerful ski legs than mine, the kind that can ski all day and still clump to electro at a slope-side apres ski DJ set. Stuck on what felt like a black run above the last lift of the day, I had visions of hypothermia rather than hard house. Austrians zipped past in flurries. I admitted defeat and shuffled down sideways.

I bet Bond never had that problem. His Spectre hangs over Sölden; its Ice Q restaurant, a modernist glass spur off the Gaislachkogl peak, stood in for a clinic in the film. I, however, wasn't going to get there without going on a red run, so the next morning, I got myself an instructor.

Even Daniel Craig worked on his technique with hip local ski school Yellow Power. You can go intensive with a private lesson or book a day's group instruction. You can forget lazy, hot chocolate-sipping jollies here — breaks are for wimps. A steep learning curve comes from going where the mountain will oblige, led by a bearded man-of-the-mountain instructor who doesn't understand the concept of fear. The alchemy involved him telling me I could do things, and me not daring to disagree as I whizzed down behind him. Plus a few key adjustments to my weight distribution and pole placement. In the end, I had no choice but to see the slopes — and my capabilities — in a new light. The result? The fabled red run to Ice Q was a cinch.

At 10,000ft, Ice Q is Europe's highest fine dining restaurant. In celebration of my new skills, I washed beef medallions and delicate, sugar-sphere desserts down with Austrian bubbly, Bründlmayer. For those who assume that altitude ruins wine, Pinot 3000, a silky red created by Austrian, German and Italian winemakers, is actually aged up here. Sölden's annual Wein am Berg ('Wine on the Mountain') festival takes it further with a long weekend of high-altitude wine-tasting up here in April. 

Down in the valley, the church bells were calling us home like cows from the slopes as shadow crept over the peaks. My base, luxe hotel Das Central, awaited. Here, high life means a gondola in the spa pool, truffles at breakfast and a flagship restaurant with an 'eternal toque' rating from Gault Millau. It's a world away from a communal raclette and a chalet full of drying socks. Because, really, when you've been up with the gods it makes no sense to come back down to earth.

Published in the The Alps Winter 2016 guide, distributed with the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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