There are few sounds more intimidating to an average skier than the jarring, scratchy, grating approach of a snowboarder from behind in ominously icy conditions.
I’d often given boarders – who always seemed to be teens or at least half my age – a wide berth, as they zig-zagged down the slope, sometimes effortlessly, other times looking like Mr Tickle. The risk of a wipeout or even just a slap with that hard fibreglass slider left me shivering on the sidelines, while confident cool snow-hounds slid past. White Fiberglass
So, it was with some trepidation that I embarked on a ski trip with my snowboarding son Will to a hosted chalet in Plagne 1800, one of the lower villages in the popular family resort of La Plagne in the French Alps, to see if ski-ing and snowboarding are compatible.
La Plagne, one of the world’s largest ski resorts comprising 11 villages in the shadow of Mont Blanc, offers 135 runs between 1250m and 3250m for a total of 225km, with slopes for every ability, from wide blue groomers to nail-biting blacks and everything in between.
Buy a pass which covers adjacent Les Arcs, accessed by the Vanoise Express cable car, and you complete the vast ‘Paradiski’ ski area, incorporating a total of 425km of slopes and 260 pistes. More than enough for a week’s skiing. And big enough to keep a safe distance from all those boarders, methinks.
Snowboarders, our chalet hosts Sam and Naomi tell me, will never be as fast as good skiers, yet that deep whoosh of a boarder carving in fresh snow behind me always makes me anxious.
But Will is hooked. It’s true that snowboarding kit seems a lot less of a faff than skis – the snowboarder announces he’s goofy (right foot forward) or regular, there’s only the board to carry (no poles) and the snuggly boots are much more comfortable than hard, heavy, tight-fitting ski boots. And snowboarding is cooler, he points out, citing the amazing feats of the Olympic snowboarders in Beijing earlier this year.
We are spring ski-ing under a cloudless sky in temperatures where you’ll be removing layers faster than you put them on, so we head to the sunnier slopes in the morning, towards Champagny, where the runs have a more forgiving coating of snow, after ice has melted and before slush emerges.
By early lunchtime the northern slopes leading into Plagne Centre are better, and when you are spring ski-ing, you have to follow the weather because the conditions can go from icy to a small perfect window of good snow to difficult slush within a few hours.
We’ve been able to dodge school holidays by going in March. February half term is the worst, with 20-minute-plus lift queues and slopes dominated by snakes of children forming wobbly caterpillar-like paths following the red-uniformed ESF instructors, while adrenalin junkies tear down the red and black runs.
In fact, it’s worth noting most of February is busy in La Plagne, because the French stagger their school holidays depending on region.
Our guide today, Julian, an instructor with Oxygene (oxygene.ski), tells me that France is the only European country where the instructors have to be qualified in both ski-ing and snowboarding. When guides go out, they generally separate the boarders from the skiers, as some runs are more suitable for one or the other.
They also wouldn’t mix snowboarders and skiers in a lesson because the techniques are so different, he says.
However, Will and I do want to descend the slopes together and it proves easy. Will, a recent convert to snowboarding from ski-ing, heads off to the plethora of wide blue slopes favoured by newcomers to practice his weight distribution on turns, with me in hot pursuit.
I am happy to ski behind my boarder son – it feels safer following the wide track of a snowboarder, who makes a conveniently smooth path for skiers and there’s plenty of space on the wide slopes.
The flatter pockets can be a bit of a grind for boarders, who have to take a foot off their board to scoot to their destination, while skiers can just use their poles. I’m told that snowboarding injuries can also be more serious, as the boots don’t naturally come out of their bindings if you catch an edge or have a collision.
Newcomer boarders aren’t keen on narrower slopes as they are harder to negotiate turns – but in both La Plagne and Les Arcs there are ample wide, open ranges to choose from.
If you are going to Les Arcs, get to the cable car as early as you can and be sure to give yourself plenty of time to return – there’s an placard advising people to be on the cable car by 3pm, because you need to catch a few chair lifts to find your way back to Plagne Centre.
While you can ski from Plagne Centre to Plagne 1800, in spring it can be uncomfortably slushy, but there are regular shuttle buses which take you to the outlying villages.
Staying in a chalet, we find a mix of ages and abilities, and natural ski-ing companions. It’s a sociable environment, so don’t expect a huge amount of privacy. Breakfast and dinner are taken en masse – but informally – with the chalet hosts, whose job in part is to bring the whole group together.
Afternoon tea, comprising delicious freshly made cakes – from coffee and walnut cake to banana loaf topped with Nutella – as well as baguettes with tasty French butter and conserves, is served in the communal lounge. If you don’t want to share your day or your evening, it might not be for you.
But we find fun with a quiz night at the nearby Bobsleigh pub, which further gels the group, followed by what is supposed to be a nightcap in the nearby bar La Mine, but turns into an intergenerational club night, as adults of all ages take to the makeshift dance floor.
If you don’t want to spend a fortune on the slopes, there are plenty of boulangeries where you can buy a filled baguette.
But if you’re planning a lunchtime blowout, consider ski-ing to a new concept in mountain dining, Chalet du Plan Bois (lechaletduplanbois.com/en/), a traditional French restaurant near Montchavin-Les Coches where your ski boots are removed at the door and you are given slippers to wear.
The homely wooden chalet is divided into four dining rooms, where patron Isabelle Gentil serves up a traditional French cuisine made with local products. It’s about as far away from the crowded cafe self service atmosphere you get in so many mountain restaurants.
Young boarders may prefer the ‘DJ decks’ of La Bergerie on the slopes of La Plagne or La Folie Douce in Les Arcs, but after a hard day’s ski-ing, I’m happy to après ski in our cosy chalet, sharing stories with our new housemates about the ski-ing and the boarding – and how I no longer feel quite so scared when I hear that familiar whooshing noise behind me.
How to plan your trip
Ski Beat (skibeat.co.uk; 01273 855 100) is the UK’s largest package ski chalet company to the French Alps. A six-night half-board stay costs from £717 per person this winter, and a week in the Chalet Laurier, La Plagne, from £913 per person, including transfers and flights from Manchester or Gatwick.
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