“I’ve been spring skiing since childhood,” says Adam Appleton, who’s the Digital Marketing Executive at ski specialist Inghams. “My family always used to go to the mountains at Easter, and in nearly 20 years of late-season trips I’ve never once encountered snowless slopes. In fact, I can’t wait to go again – there’s no better way on the planet to wave good goodbye to winter.”
Spring skiing. Just saying those two words makes me grin like a Cheshire cat: because in my view, nothing is quite as delicious as skiing the back end of the season, with the promise of summer hanging in the air.
1. Empty slopes
The daffodils have long since bloomed. The trees are budding. Hardly anyone is thinking about the snow: and even fewer people are actually booking a ski holiday.
So, once you get to your resort, you’re going to find the odd morning when the pistes are like this…
Even at Easter the slopes are quiet – especially by the the standards of New Year and February half term. Yes, the school holidays are on. And yes, canny British families are increasingly booking Easter instead of New Year or half term to avoid high-season prices. But few other European nations consider it for a ski trip, and if you go in the second week of the school holidays you’ll find the resorts are all but deserted.
2. Brilliant sunshine
Okay, so it’s not always sunny in the mountains at springtime…
But when the sun does come out. Oh my…
It’s the intensity of the light that’s so wonderful. There you are, at the end of winter, starved of sunshine: and suddenly you’re plunged into a UV inferno. Okay, so it’s not particularly good for your skin (don’t forget to slap on plenty of factor 30 sunscreen), but my goodness me it does wonders for your spirit.
3. Child-friendly temperatures
Brilliant sunshine also means warmer temperatures: so there’s no need to hustle the kids back indoors once ski school is over. Which means more time for things like bungee trampolining…
4. Velvety pistes (if you know where to look)
Of course, you may luck into a cold spell with lots of fresh snow – and find yourself skiing soft, wintry pistes on a daily basis.
But if you don’t – don’t panic. Because there’s a kind of skiing surface that’s unique to spring (well, spring and sharp thaws) which is almost as good.
You’ll find it on pistes where the snow melted the previous day and then refroze overnight. First thing in the morning, they’ll be rock hard, and you’ll need sharp edges and even sharper technique to enjoy them. But wait for the sun to warm them for half an hour, and they become a very different proposition.
You’ll find 3-4cm of snow on the surface of the pistes has started to soften, while the underlayer is still firm. So you get plenty of support, but also a smoothness and a sense of grip that makes you feel like you’re running on rails. It’s a gorgeous, velvety, no-fear sensation – and your confidence is going to sky-rocket as a result.
Bear in mind, however, that on each piste this moment doesn’t last long. After two or three descents, you’ll find the snow turning properly slushy. So you’ve got to move on: following the sun around the ski area, hitting the east-facing slopes first, then the south-facing ones, and finally those looking west.
5. Corn snow
Off-piste, you’ll often a daily melt-freeze-melt process underway that matches what’s happening on-piste; and if you hit the slopes at just the right moment, skiing the backcountry becomes as effortless as bombing down a groomer. There’ll be firm underlayer, which will carry your weight, but the first few centimetres of snow will have softened, so the top is velvety and smooth. Skiing under these conditions is so easy it feels like you’re cheating.
But you need to be very careful. It’s a fleeting moment. Once the snow gets too warm, you’ll either find the whole slope turns to a thick slushy mess or – worse – you’ll start breaking through a crust into loose snow below. What’s more, by lunchtime, the sunnier slopes will be so warm they’ll start shrugging off their cover. Spontaneous wet-snow avalanches are a danger.
In other words, a guide is absolutely essential: firstly to get you to the right slopes at exactly the right time, just as the snow is beginning to turn, and then to get you back to the resort again safely.
6. The odd dump of powder
If you’re a more advanced skier, you’ll be praying for powder – and if it comes, your day is going to feel downright miraculous. After all, with fewer people out in the resort, there’ll be less competition for first tracks. In fact, at the end of the season, there’ll be so few people about, you won’t even have to hire a guide and leave the pistes: you’ll be able to ski the powder there for a couple of hours before it gets tracked out.
They’re the last thing on earth you’ll fancy on a cold winter’s day in the mountains. But in spring, picnics are par for the course: and few restaurant meals will ever beat the feeling of pulling a sandwich out of a rucksack with an eyeful of mountains in front of you. If you can’t make your own sandwiches (or order them from your chalet or hotel), then find the nearest bakery and buy them from there.
8. Feeling smug on a sun terrace
Even in high-altitude resorts, the spring warmth gets the better of most slopes by 1pm, and in the afternoon the sunniest runs will be slush-pits. But that’s okay, because the sun deck of your favourite mountain restaurant is beckoning. You don’t have to blow a fortune on lunch – after all, you might have just had a picnic – but it’s worth buying a coffee/Coke/hot chocolate or two so you can use the seating.
Then it’s time to kick back, and let the waves of satisfaction wash over you. There you are, in one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, snatching a week of snow when everyone back home is going for welly walks, and – if you’ve got your timing right – you’ll have skied ego-boosting snow all morning, too.
You may end up feeling just a tiny bit smug…
9. Looking forward to summer
There’s one other feeling that makes spring skiing special. It’s the fact that summer is just around the corner. Yes, yes, I know this is a ski website: everyone here loves winter. But few of us would deny the feeling in our bones that comes as the sun strengthens and the days grow longer. We can’t help but smile.
Spring skiing seems to focus that feeling into a single holiday. It’s like your standing on a precipice, ready to dive into the new season. But before you do, you get to make smooth and beautiful turns on a mountain.
And finally, one key caveat
There’s one key caveat about spring skiing. To enjoy it, you need to target a high-altitude ski area: one with plenty of skiing above 2500m. Otherwise you could find yourself wallowing in slush from start to finish. In France, Val Thorens and Tignes are great choices, in Austria Obergurgl works well, and in Italy Cervinia is the target. For more suggestions, check out this guide to the best resorts for spring skiing.