Winter is coming. No, not an episode of Game of Thrones, just the perfect time to get excited about the white stuff. Of course, you could ski or snowboard… but why limit yourself? Rough Guides editor Rachel Mills heads to Paradiski in the French Alps to check out the top five winter activities off the slopes.
Ice climbing is a hugely physically demanding activity, and hanging hundreds of feet in the air requires nerves (and legs) of steel. The 22-metre-high artificial ice tower in the Paradiski resort is a great place to learn; they’ve got initiation sessions for beginners a couple of times a week. Specialist equipment (including boots, crampons, harness, ice axes and a helmet) is provided and there are several routes to scale, including the one used by competitors in the annual Ice Climbing World Cup. The tower is reconstructed and re-iced – complete with 45-degree overhangs – each year as temperatures in the valley plummet at the start of winter.
Image courtesy of Paradiski
Hiking and snowshoeing
Admiring the scenery when you’re whooshing down the mountainside can be tricky, so there are plenty of marked trails where you can take it a little slower on a winter walk. Some routes are circular, but for others you can catch a bus or ski-lift home (free maps are available at the tourist office). Even better for a walk on the wild side is donning snowshoes and going cross-country in deep snow through the alpine forests and clearings of the Vanoise National Park. Along with beautiful panoramas, there’s a good chance of spotting wildlife such as mountain ibex, golden eagles and bearded vultures. You can hire snowshoes or join a guided tour.
Last winter 12,401 people hurtled down the Olympic bobsleigh track at La Plagne, including one very apprehensive Rough Guides editor. One of only seven European tracks, it was built for the Winter Games in 1992 and is still in demand for competitions (World Championship trials will take place here at the end of January 2015). Thrill-seeking tourists also come here in their droves to jump aboard a four-man bob raft, a self-driving, self-braking bob that descends the bone-shaking 1500m track in about one and a half minutes – that’s around 80km/hr. Even bigger daredevils can choose bob racing, which is even closer to a real competition experience (with speeds of up to 130km/hr).
Image courtesy of Paradiski
It’s difficult to deny the romance of gliding across the snow behind a pack of extraordinarily cute huskies. The part-dog, part-wolf breed has been used for centuries to pull sleds across inaccessible snowy landscapes, but that doesn’t mean that ‘mushing’ is easy. Sit back, wrap up warm and leave it to the professionals, or hang onto the handlebar (and your hat) and try steering yourself. Before you get going, the dogs are overexcited, yapping and jumping; the brakes are under your feet, and relaxing enough to get started is tough. Controlling the speed and trying not to tip over proves exhausting, especially as you know that if you fall out, you have to hang on tight or risk losing the huskies. Soon enough, though, the dogs begin to settle and after taking a few corners you slowly loosen up and start to enjoy the peace that comes with forging your own route across the wilderness.
Although you’re advised to keep your hands and feet in the toboggan at all times, it’s hard to resist the urge to slow your rapid descent of Plagne Centre’s “Colorado Park” run. Panic and you’ll end up whooshing off course, with the added problem of kicking up a fog of ice. You’re then temporarily blinded, plummeting downhill, skidding on the hard, icy surface. There’s a night run you can take on the longer, 2.9km “Eldorado Park” in Plagne-Bellecôte, where you get a headlamp to go with the obligatory helmet. You’ll arrive at the bottom of the course battered and bruised, with an inexplicable desire to do it all over again.
Explore more of the French Alps with the Rough Guides Snapshot for the Alps and Franche-Comté. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.