From Nordic-style ‘mindful’ skiing to snowshoeing in the Italian Dolomites, these trendy madcap winter sports will change alpine holidays forever
- We asked four writers to hit the slopes and experience this year’s popular winter sports trends
- Lizzie Enfield headed to the Italian Dolomites to find out how ‘mindful’ you can be on a pair of skis
- While Tom Rhodes visited St Moritz in Switzerland in a bid to discover what it is really like to ski at night
What is it really like to ski at night? Or sled with a pack of dogs through the snow?
Are snowshoes easy to walk in, and how ‘mindful’ can you be on skis?
We asked four writers to find the answers – and experience the popular trends for mountain fun…
‘Snowshoeing is the fastest-growing winter sport and the only skill you need is the ability to walk,’ writes Lizzie Enfield
My snowshoes have a great design feature: pop-up heels, like the spring of a clothes peg, which you flip to make going up mountains an ergonomical doddle. They’re designed for purpose rather than style: huge aluminium frames, with plastic ‘decks’ into which you strap regular walking boots. They also have spiked soles for cleaving snow and ice.
Today, snowshoeing is the fastest-growing winter sport and the only skill you need is the ability to walk. Its main selling point is getting off the beaten track, walking through virgin snow, around pristine slopes, along forested trails and down the banks of rivers.
It does take a lot of energy and the growth of snowshoeing is partly down to fitness fanatics, kick-stepping their way through the snow at speed, burning up to 800 calories an hour. My pace is more leisurely but I still work up a sweat as I climb through the Scillar nature park in the Italian Dolomites, to the base of the Rosengarten massif – so-called because the dolomite mineral in the crags makes them glow pink in the sunset.
Pictured above is one of the suites at Cyprianerhof, which boasts a heated outdoor pool, sauna hut in the snow and a spa
Walking across forested slopes, along paths used to transport livestock and hay in summer, I arrive at my hotel, the Cyprianerhof, a sleek, wooden, candlelit affair with a heated outdoor pool, sauna hut in the snow and a spa. The hotel runs a programme of guided snowshoe walks.
I was lucky enough to be snowshoeing in the region at the time of the annual Winter Berglertafel banquet – an open-air buffet lunch served from a mountain hut. Perched on a hay bale with fantastic views of the mountain, I tucked into plates of cheese, charcuterie and goulash, all washed down with local wines.
Lunch left me almost too full to reach down and disengage my metal heel, ready for the descent through the valley, past a frozen waterfall and a cluster of chamois, startled by the crunch of snowshoe spikes on the icy path. Snowshoeing opens up a world away from the ski slopes that’s well worth the effort.
- A seven-day package for beginners costs from £795pp on a half-board basis, and includes daily snowshoe hikes with a guide and equipment rental (cyprianerhof.com/en). EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Innsbruck from £45 one-way.
Lighting up the night sky: A skier slaloms down part of the 2½-mile run from the top of Corvatsch to St Moritz in Switzerland
It feels very strange to be up a mountain at 8pm, clipping my boots into bindings, adjusting my helmet and pointing my skis downhill. While most holidaymakers are enjoying an aperitif, I am at the top of the Corvatsch preparing to take on Switzerland’s longest floodlit piste – a 2½-mile run to St Moritz.
The slope ahead looks fairly well-lit but seems to recede swiftly into moonlit dark as the horizon vanishes. ‘Let’s go,’ says my guide as he issues a blood-curdling yelp – somewhere between a yodel and the dying throes of a strangled cat – and skis away at speed. We’re off.
The first thing I learn about night skiing is that the cold makes the snow peculiarly crisp and your skis creak as if they are opening an ancient door reserved only for the high mountains.
Around me I hear the occasional British voice cutting through the gloaming. ‘This is amazing!’ shrieks one. ‘Nearly lost it on that last bend!’ comes another, which quickly reminds me to focus.
By now, we’re down the steepest part of the course and make a stop at the Hossa Bar, the mid-slope venue where clusters of intrepid skiers are enjoying gluhwein or schnapps for those in need of greater Dutch courage for the final push to the bottom.
Tourists standing on the platform of Corvatsch cableway mountain station and enjoying the stunning view of the Swiss Alps
Snow Night, as it is known, takes place here every Friday. For a fee £21, or £13 for children under 12, you can ride the cable car to the top of the Corvatsch as many times as you want until 2am – although the later runs can be rather more perilous, especially as the drinks begin to flow more freely.
For those who live and work in St Moritz, it’s a chance to let their hair down one night a week throughout the season and enjoy stunning views over their glamorous and illustrious village.
Night skiing is only just taking off with a foreign audience, probably because it is less advertised than the many other activities the world’s oldest resort has to offer, including the Snow Polo World Cup, and of course the Cresta Run, the famous skeleton toboggan course founded by a group of British enthusiasts in the late 19th Century. With 322 days of sunshine a year and some of the best boutiques and restaurants available in the Alps, maybe people here are simply too exhausted.
‘They shouldn’t be,’ says my guide Othmar, who acts as Switzerland’s only outdoor butler – a special winter concierge who can organise anything from night skiing to weddings in the snow – for the five-star Carlton Hotel in St Moritz.
‘It’s a fantastic experience, and it’s a different way to enjoy the mountain,’ he adds.
As we unclip our skis for the last time and gaze back up at the piste while groups of other smiling faces head for the cable car, I couldn’t agree more.
- Seven nights’ B&B at the Carlton Hotel St Moritz (carlton-stmoritz.ch) costs from £2,764pp with The Oxford Ski Company (oxfordski.com), based on two sharing, and includes return flights and a daily 100 Swiss francs food and drink credit per adult at the hotel.
Tranquil: The pretty village of San Cassiano in northern Italy’s Alta Badia region
It’s my first time on skis and I’m shuffling through the snow with the elegance of a robot. I’m learning to ski Nordic style – a type of cross-country skiing carried out on the flat or else very gentle slopes.
According to my enthusiastic instructor, it’s a bit like swimming on land – not only is it a low-impact, whole-body workout, but if you do it right, you should be driving your body forward with legs behind you.
I’ve come on holiday for the ‘mindfulness skiing’ package at the Rosa Alpina hotel in the pretty village of San Cassiano in northern Italy’s Alta Badia region. Designed as an antidote to a hectic ski experience, the break promises peace and tranquillity, with no queues, noise or crowds. Our instructor explains that we’ll be going at a slower pace that allows us to really take in the magical surroundings and focus on breathing in the super-fresh air.
The hotel has ultra-cosy interiors – think sheepskin chairs and woodburning stoves in the bedrooms – a wellness spa and a three-star Michelin restaurant. Throw in an early yoga class in front of the dramatic mountain backdrop and a dreamy breakfast buffet and I’m already feeling oh-so mindful.
We begin our lesson on the flat cross-country training trail, where two tracks are carved into the snow by a machine. Our skis are thinner and lighter than those used for downhill skiing and our lightweight boots attach to them at the toe.
Although our group has a mixture of skiing experience, none of us has tried cross-country before, so we all start from scratch.
Our teacher begins by breaking down the technique. We start with a ski on just one foot, without poles, and practise gliding on one leg, using our other foot to propel ourselves forward. We’re reminded to engage our glutes and core for balance, and to press down with our ski foot to create a stable base.
Cosy: The Rosa Alpina hotel (above) has a wellness spa and a three-star Michelin restaurant
We’re put through our paces with various other pushing and gliding drills, eventually adding the second ski and both poles until we join the dots into one smooth, dynamic move. With bent knees, we push forward with one leg, shifting the weight to the gliding ski, using the poles lightly for added propulsion. The heel of the back foot lifts with each step and the alternate arm swings forward.
The first 30 minutes conjures up memories of my first driving lesson – there is so much to remember. As we lap the track for the umpteenth time, I fall into to a rhythm and feel as if I’m beginning to master it.
I look up and take in the beautiful surroundings – it is only then that I realise I’ve been concentrating so hard that I’ve been staring at the tips of my skis the whole time.
In our next lesson, we venture out on to the forest trail that meanders through fir trees for 17 miles, although we won’t cover so much ground today. It’s so peaceful and very Narnia-like.
At the end of the trail we encounter a downhill slope which sends me into mild panic and I’m taught to snow-plough. I’ve achieved my objective to complete the course in one piece.
On my last morning, I take a mindful moment on my balcony. I can just make out tiny stick figures of skiers on the slopes.
The idea of downhill skiing fills me with terror, but cross-country is absolutely ideal for scaredy-cats like me.
- Three nights at Rosa Alpina for ‘Mindful Skiing’ is available from £1,950 B&B, based on two adults sharing a room, and includes two morning private lessons, ski and pole hire, entry to the training circuit, and two morning yoga sessions (rosalpina.it).
Leaders of the pack: A dog sledding adventure in La Plagne
I feel as if I’ve walked into my very own episode of The Simpsons. Homer, Lisa, Marge, her sisters Selma and Patty, and three other members of this noisy clan are fighting as loudly and animatedly as their namesakes.
But this group of battling siblings and parents is an extended family of Greenland and Alaskan dogs, husky-type creatures, named after their owner’s favourite TV characters. Right now, these eight beasts are barrelling down an icy ravine dragging my son and me through deep snow, high in the French Alps. The driver is taking us on a cross-country trip in a dog sled. I’m wrapped up snugly inside a sled about 8ft long, clinging to my 12-year-old as we race after my wife and daughter, who are ensconsed in another sled at the Dou Du Praz circuit in La Plagne.
We’re zipped inside the main body of the sled. It is like a giant black sock, with a foam cushion on the floor covered in a fur blanket, making it toasty inside. This leaves just our heads poking out.
The dogs look like mini versions of the dire wolves from Game Of Thrones, with thick hair, piercing eyes and long, muscular legs. They are primed to thrive in the freezing wilds and cannot be domesticated.
Spectacular: La Plagne (above) is a popular French ski resort
Dogs aged between 18 months and 15 years are used to pull the sleds and the pack is organised with the strongest, brightest animals out in front.
The lead dog, frequently a female as they exhibit higher levels of intelligence and drive, trains the others, acting as mentor to the younger pups.
The sled’s two metal runners are guided by the driver, who stands behind on a metal platform, controlling the dogs through a set of lines hooked to harnesses on the animals.
The driver brakes by pressing on a plate, which drives a hook into the snow. He explains that he must always anchor the dogs whenever he stops or they will charge off into the mountains.
As Homer and Selma happily roll over and allow their tummies to be tickled once our ride is over, it’s hard to imagine these beautiful creatures are still feral.
My daughter asks if her favourite, Homer, gets a doughnut after his workout but they’re rewarded with a chunky slab of meat instead. D’oh!
- Dog sledding trips start at £85 for two people for a 30-minute ride. Visit horstraceaventure.fr.
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