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Val d’Isère: Après-ski

From where I’m standing — or, more accurately, pogoing — 8,530ft up in the French Alps, the Espace Killy ski area stretches to the horizon in all directions — a vast white bowl whose 300km tangle of piste and off-piste is speckled with tiny, shimmying black dots.

Val d’Isère: Après-ski
Image: By Ian Gratton from Sutton-n-Craven, North Yorkshire, England (Val_D_Isere_2007_088 Uploaded by russavia) (CC-BY-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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With this virtually limitless snowy playground all around us, it seems somehow perverse that several hundred of us have decided we’re better off crammed, shoulder-to-shoulder in a beer garden, throwing shapes on the self-styled ‘dance floor on the top of the world’.

We’re at La Folie Douce (‘Sweet Insanity’) — an apt name for the bar that hosts this daily, high-altitude, al fresco, teatime Ibiza club night in the sub-zero sun. Music comes courtesy of a Euro-dance DJ perched on a Swiss chalet-style balcony, and a bobble-hatted tabletop sax player. In lieu of strobe lights and glow sticks, a rainbow of designer skiwear fluoresces in the setting sun.

Crazier still, this hectic hedonism is next door to La Fruitière, a fine-dining restaurant where my companion, Gabrielle, and I had earlier sampled delicious regional specialities, including local farmhouse cheeses and Savoie wine. If the decor — flakey whitewashed beams, antique milk churns and faux cheese wheels — evoke a traditional mountain dairy, the pay-to-use toilets, sadly, bring to mind King’s Cross station.

When it comes to leave, Gabrielle and I — both novice skiers — realise to our horror the neighbouring La Daille gondola has shut. We’ve no choice but to ski back to Val d’Isère on legs wobbly from booze. Consulting our piste map, though, we realise we’ll need all the Dutch courage we can muster if we’re to cope with the unavoidable red run knitting together the most forgiving series of ‘gentle’ greens and blues.

It’s soon clear, though, that the greens here are far steeper and windier than the abundant swooping versions we’d tackled without too much trouble that morning on the mountain’s vast Ski Tranquille area. As other revellers whoosh expertly past, my fledgling parallel turns — which had earlier seemed worthy of Ski Sunday — are giving me the manoeuvrability of an oil tanker, forcing me to repeatedly drop to my backside and claw at the ice with my poles to avoid plunging over precipitous rocky hairpins. Gabrielle’s slow snowplough, although more dignified, looks equally exhausting. Catching our breath, at the foot of the first piste, we both agree: if the greens are this hard, what’s the red going to be like?”

Oddly, it’s an easy, picturesque zigzag through a copse of snow-laden firs. But from then on, it’s a race against the dying light, exhaustion and a fast-developing blizzard. The lower slopes are in shade too, so icy — meaning yet more bum bruises. We’re alone on the mountain when we finally glimpse the lights of Val d’Isère. Opposite us looms the Face de Bellevarde, scene of the 1992 Winter Olympics men’s downhill. The gold medallist that day can’t have felt more elated than Gabrielle and I as we waddle towards the open door of the shuttle bus taking us back to the chalet, warm water, warm food and a night of schnapps and tall tales of our Alpine heroics at Dick’s Tea Bar nightclub.