It’s just before Christmas, near the end of my first ski day of the new winter season in December. Sipping a glass of fizz, while soothing slightly aching thighs in our chalet’s outdoor hot tub is high on my agenda.
But then, in comes a call from the Ecole de Ski Français saying that our night ski tour, planned for two days hence, must be done this evening. The short-term weather forecast has radically changed here in Morzine, from still, blue skies to blizzards.
Night ski touring is a new venture in this French resort in the huge Portes du Soleil ski area, the brainchild of the local tourist office and ski mountaineering specialist Alain Premat from the Morzine ESF.
The idea is to encourage more skiers and snowboarders into the fast-growing sport of walking uphill on skis, for the compatible benefits of increased fitness and untracked, peaceful descents.
The plan for our introductory tour is an ascent up Pleney, 1,505m, a climb of around 350 vertical metres from the resort.
I reassure my weary quads that this should be manageable at a steady pace in 90 minutes or so. But they sternly remind me that this is the equivalent of 115 flights on a StairMaster gym machine – a very different proposition to the hot tub.
And when it comes to ski touring, it turns out Alain Premat is a superhero, so I hope he’ll be gentle with this mere mortal. 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 110km – in 23 hours and 10 minutes. This record may never be broken, not least because it’s rare for there to be snow down at lake level while it’s still to safe to hike up Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak.
The same trio are former record holders of the Chamonix to Zermatt ski touring challenge (aka the Haute Route). Ordinary folk would take up to seven days to complete this, staying in refuges along the way. Alain did the whole itinerary in less than 19 hours.
My introductory tour in Morzine seems pathetic by comparison, so I keep my thighs’ concerns to myself when I meet Alain. But am nonetheless reassured that I’m in good hands.
Since we are using special lightweight touring equipment for our adventure, Alain wants to check I’m capable of skiing downhill using it, so we take one of the final gondola lifts up Pleney as dusk gathers.
I’m a big unit, and the touring boots are less supportive than my stronger downhill boots, but I soon get used to it. The skis feel much like the usual downhill ones, just lighter and easier to manoeuvre.
Back at the bottom, and the next ascent is under our own steam. Walking uphill means sticking touring skins on the bottom of the skis, which allow them to slide forwards and up, but not backwards or, crucially, down. The skins are called peau de phoque in French, which translates as seal skins – explorers used them before synthetic versions were invented to replicate the same function.
Alain dishes out tips on massaging the sticky surface of the synthetic skins on to the ski bases, stressing the importance of keeping them dry so they adhere well. He also tells us to remove a layer of clothing to our backpacks, before we don our headtorches and set off into the moonlight.
Happily, Alain soon veers off the piste onto a charming, untracked, forested road crossed by the occasional drainage stream – which we step over carefully not wishing to dunk the skins.
Alain sets a steady pace, and sometimes I stay in his ski tracks. For other periods I enjoy the feeling of gliding my skis through an even layer of fresh snow, effectively breaking trail. I’m soon grateful for that advice to shed a layer as we stride on through the night, silent save for the beating hearts and heavy, regular breaths of myself and my three companions. These include Samuel Ingles, a photographer who is touring using a split snowboard – it splits in half for touring uphill, and clips back together for riding downhill.
Although no wildlife enhances our tour, Alain points out tracks of rabbits, chamois (small mountain deer) and foxes along the way, before we emerge, after 90 minutes, as I predicted, into the open air.
Beneath an impressive canopy of stars at a hamlet called Nabor, near the top of Pleney, I feel not exhaustion, but exhilaration. I take a mildly triumphant breath of chilled night air, before removing my skins and adjusting the equipment to downhill mode for a deserted and equally exhilarating ski back down to Morzine on the Pleney B piste.
Anna and Will, our cheerful hosts back at the luxurious Chalet Bizet, welcome us back with delicious canapés and glasses of chilled vintage Bollinger champagne. Chalet dinner and hot tub experiences are still to come, but after this long first day back on skis, it’s the kneading skills of Nicole, a therapist on call from Mobile Mountain Massage, that I am most deeply grateful for.
Need to know
Introductory night tours with ESF Morzine cost €50 per person (minimum four people in the group) take place from 5 or 5.30pm on Thursdays. Tailormade evenings and longer itineraries also available. Ski touring equipment to rent from Francois Baud Freeride shop at base of Pleney gondola, night tour only €28, full day €41.
Seven nights sole occupancy in three-bedroom Chalet Bizet with AliKats Mountain Holidays costs from £1,152 per person half board based on six sharing, including afternoon tea and paired wine with dinner, plus private chauffeur service around Morzine. In-chalet treatments with Mobile Mountain Massage cost from €50 for 30 minutes.