France's white wonderland

The great outdoors A trek on skis between the peaks of the Mt Blanc range leaves Tarquin Cooper in awe.

Sitting next to me is as close to a mountain god as it's possible to find. Kenton Cool - yes, that's his real name - is a British mountain guide who has summitted Mt Everest a remarkable seven times and led countless first ascents up the world's most forbidding mountains. But today he's ascending a mountain by chairlift above the French resort of Chamonix. "I'm not enjoying this at all,"he says. "This is freezing."

Having pined for the snow ever since it arrived in great dumps across Europe at the end of last year, I'd almost forgotten its silent partner - the cold. And this is real cold - pull your zips up, hood down, wince in discomfort cold. It's minus 15 degrees Celsius, very different to that cool fresh air that is heaven after 40°C in the desert. It feels good to know the hero of Mt Everest is suffering too.

We disembark at the top, quickly turn a corner to get out of the wind and join the rest of the group. For Mr Cool, this is just another day at the office. As a mountain guide, untracked trails are his domain. Over the next few days, I'm hoping to be given a guided tour of his workplace. Next to a sign warning skiers of the perils of venturing off-piste, we slip under the ropes that border the ski resort and enter this world of his. I feel a thrill of exhilaration, and, if I'm honest, a little anxiety too.

Chamonix has been attracting adventurers, skiers, thrill-seekers and daredevils for over a century. It was first put on the map by Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard, who made the first ascent of Mt Blanc in 1786 from what was then a small village. Now a sprawling town of 10,000, it is nestled in one of the most dramatic, steep-sided valleys in Europe. For 16 km, jagged peaks and mountains tower 3,000m above the valley of which the most famous is the 4,810m Mt Blanc massif. But the mountain is actually the least spectacular: only its snowy dome summit is visible. The real treats are the rocky pinnacles, spires and aiguilles - the snow-capped needles, each one rich in mountaineering lore.

And from these granite peaks pour once-great glaciers, shrinking now, but still wondrous. The Mer de Glace is just that, a frozen sea of ice, grinding down the mountain. For scientists, the area is a laboratory on the front line of global climate change. For tourists, the view holds more wonders than the British Museum. But for skiers and mountaineers, it is the ultimate wilderness playground. "I feel very privileged to be here," says Cool. Five years ago, Cool, 36, was just another climbing bum. But in 2006 he teamed up with fellow mountain guide and ski bum Guy Willett and set up Dream Guides to take clients skiing and climbing.

"It's about getting away from the crowds, finding the best snow to ski and exploring new places," explains Willett, a former doctor. Informally, the pair teamed up with friends to run Adventure Base, the accommodation side of the business, now managed by Willett's wife. The idea is to offer bespoke options, whether self-catered or full-board, for two weeks or a Monday to Thursday. It's a unique proposition in a town where most beds are only available Saturday to Saturday.

At the Flégère ski station the guides prepare to take us up the mountain. Each of us is handed the tools of the backcountry skier - shovel, avalanche probe and transceiver beacon in case of a burial. We also wear rucksacks equipped with an "avalung", a breathing apparatus with a snorkel-type mouthpiece that apparently keeps you alive under the snow. The ensemble is hardly conducive to peace of mind, especially knowing that two skiers were killed in an avalanche last month. But Cool assures us the opposite is the case; each one is a useful tool against the skier's greatest foe. But the greatest weapon of all is going with guides. Besides a wealth of experience, Willett and Cool have vital local knowledge of where the snow is safe.

We traverse across a wide mountain slope and within a few minutes are by ourselves. Without the artificial landmarks of a ski-resort - the piste markers, the pylons - and with the low hum of the chairlifts out of earshot, my senses begin to take in the landmarks of the natural environment. Thanks to a temperature inversion, the valley below us is blanketed in cloud and it is a sight to behold. This is no longer skiing but ski-mountaineering.

We come to a notch in a ridgeline and continue to contour round the mountain until, at a flat spot, Willett instructs us to put on our skins. Originally made from seal skins, these are strips of brushed carpet applied to the ski which allow it to glide forward, but not back. We march upwards, climbing a total of 450m in single file like Alpine soldiers. At a steep bank of snow, Willett asks us to wait while he goes it alone. Suddenly the snow collapses underneath him. I shout "avalanche!" and watch in horror as he is carried several feet downwards. It is a small one, a manageable one, but a reminder that not all risks can be eliminated.

We follow onwards and upwards, snaking up the mountain to a perch beneath the Col du Belvédère. Being able to look down on the clouds with the low winter sun across the valley gives the feeling of being in another dimension. I am literally breathless but this is now due to the exertion of skiing uphill. It is hard work. "The turns you earn are the ones you remember," goads Willett. But in truth, what I remember is the magical scenery, the feeling of journeying somewhere unique, the satisfaction from hard-earned effort. Every time I look up, I am filled with awe. For many, ski touring has become synonymous with epic week-long journeys such as the fabled Haute Route. But it doesn't have to be so. Day tours are just as possible and they have one big advantage. At the end of the day you're back in your chalet. In my case, after an amazing descent through untracked snow, this is Chalet Maverick, Adventure Base's luxury pad. After a sauna, I sink into the outdoor hot tub and reflect that for all the discomfort of the day's cold, ski touring is very enjoyable indeed. travel@thenational.ae

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