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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hammond

Alternative Winter Holidays

Few winter holidays can beat the exhilaration of skiing through fresh powdered snow in the clean mountain air, surrounded by spectacular mountain views, followed by feasting on a fondue with friends in a cosy, fireside chalet at the end of a muscle-aching day.


French mountain village in snow
Champagny-le-Haut is the gateway to the Vanoise National Park. Photo: Olivier-Allamand/La Plagne PR

But historically, the infrastructure that’s been put in place to cater for the downhill winter sports industry has put a great strain on mountain ecosystems, including the levelling of wildlife-friendly pine forests in order to make way for long, gently sloping pistes, while local water supplies have been drained to provide billions of gallons of water for artificial snowmaking machines at purpose-built resorts.


In recent years, many ski areas have sought to lessen their environmental impact, using renewable energy to operate chairlifts and power accommodation, and improving their public transport network to reduce the need for cars. But you can do your bit too, by travelling to resorts by train to reduce your holiday’s carbon emissions and by choosing alternative low-impact winter activities where your footprint on the mountains will be only snow deep.

Next time you’re on the snow, why not try one of these wintersports instead? They are exhilarating yet peaceful and offer an escape into the wild.


two people snow trekking up a mountain
Snowshoeing at Cervinia, Italy. Photo: Richard Hammond

Snowshoeing

The gentlest way to enjoy the powder and pine trees is to go snowshoeing. Wonderfully straightforward, it means attaching specialised outer footwear (‘snowshoes’) to your shoes or boots that distribute your weight over a larger area to prevent your feet from sinking into the snow. Snowshoes are in the shape of tennis rackets, hence why the French call them raquettes.

Think of it as simply a winter walk made easier. Kitting up with just the usual ski clothing, gloves and poles is all you need to head into the wintry landscape, where you’re far more likely to see mountain wildlife and appreciate the beauty of the mountain environment than you would hurtling down a manicured slope on skis. The Swiss Alps and the Italian Dolomites are popular locations for snowshoeing (or snow trekking), though one of the best places is the Pyrenees. Spanning 270 miles (435km) across the south-west of France, northern Spain and Andorra, the region lacks the scale and crowds of the Alps but it’s no less rewarding.


two women cross country skiing
Cross-country skiing at dusk in Ulricehamn, West Sweden. Photo: Roger Borgelid/Westsweden.com

Cross-country skiing

Using skis that are thinner, lighter and longer than downhill skis, with a free-heel binding system that you use with lightweight boots, crosscountry skiing typically takes place on prepared tracks on the valley floor, often alongside mountain rivers and through pine forests. The skis have scales on the underside to help stop you slipping backwards so that you can push and glide quickly and smoothly across the snow. The technique involves sliding one foot directly forwards followed by the other foot, using poles alternately. It’s a great way to travel quickly across long distances on the flat. As with all forms of skiing, while fitness is important, balance and co-ordination are crucial if you’re to enjoy this strenuous form of exercise.


Many popular ski resorts have groomed pistes for cross-country skiers, so it is widely available across the Alps (particularly in Switzerland and the Dolomites), but there are also excellent tracks in other areas, such as Poland and Slovakia. In Norway, Finland and Sweden (including Västergötland, pictured above) cross-country skiing is a national sport.


woman ski touring with trees in background
Ski touring is a rewarding way to enjoy the great outdoors. Photo: Tim Martin

Ski Touring

At first glance, ski touring can seem odd. It involves attaching synthetic ‘skins’ to the underside of your skis to give you traction to walk up a snowy slope. Then, once you’ve gained some height, you detach and pack away the skins and start your descent, enjoying the exhilaration of skiing down deserted untracked snow. To any seasoned downhill skier, it can be baffling as to why you wouldn’t simply take a lift up, then venture off piste if you so wished. Yet aficionados of ski touring (known as ski de randonnée in France) say the climb up can often be more enjoyable and rewarding than the ski down. It’s worth noting going off piste can be dangerous and should only be done once you have attained an appropriate level of skill, fitness and familiarity with navigating in the mountains, including the ability to read weather systems and the variable snow conditions. It’s highly recommended to go with a qualified mountain guide.


There are many organisations that offer courses in ski touring where you’ll learn how to skin and kick-turn efficiently, how to avoid avalanche terrain, and use essential safety equipment. Once you’re proficient in ski touring, it opens up a whole new dimension to skiing where you can stay overnight in mountain huts and continue touring day after day in the glorious wild hinterland. In Scotland, there are lots of ski touring routes that traverse many of the Munros (mountains over 3,000ft/914m high), such as the 6¼-mile (10km) traverse of the Pass of Drumochter, the main mountain route between the northern and southern central Scottish Highlands, and the 10-mile (16km) traverse of Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms, where you can take the longer tour of the five 4,000ft (1,219m) peaks that takes in Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui, Angel’s Peak, Cairn Toul and Braeriach.


In Europe, one of the most popular ski touring routes is the Haute Route – a seven-day 75-mile (120km) tour traversing sections of two of the highest Alpine ranges between Zermatt and Chamonix. But there are many other equally rewarding ski tours in Europe, including the Silvretta Traverse in the Austrian Alps, south of the ski resort of St Anton, which is a great tour for those just starting out as the summits are lower than in the West Alps; the Bernese Oberland Traverse in central Switzerland, with superb views of the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger; the Dolomites Circuit, which passes through remote valleys, dominated by the iconic towering limestone cliffs and pinnacles; and the Gran Paradiso Traverse, which includes a strenuous trek up to the summit of the Paradiso itself (13,323ft/4,061m), followed by a thrilling descent of over 6,500ft (2,000m).


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This is an edited extract from The Green Traveller, published by Pavilion (£18.99), which also appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of the Green Traveller magazine.



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