Something of the night

9th September 2011, by Chris Gill

London eyes

London eyes

I rarely pay attention to the night skies over London, being based in rural Somerset or sloping off to find some mountains in my spare time.

But gazing out of my hotel window after our recent book launch was awesome – eight floors up, and what a great view of the city skyline; thousands of twinkling lights below a darkened, stormy sky.

OK, so no stars revealed that evening, but it was lovely all the same. And the London eye beside the river looks its best at night. Everything takes on a more tranquil scene. So, it got me thinking about the magic and romance of the mountains in the evening: dark skies above bright snowy slopes.

We spend all day on the pistes, then retreat to chalets, hotels or night clubs and bars; but some of my lasting memories of the mountains have been at night – those empty slopes just bespeckled with the brief lights of piste bashers sneaking up to groom the trails, dark star-studded skies pierced by the craggy skylines of snow-covered summit ridges, or dashing around on skidoo or snowcat tours with only the headlights to illuminate the way.

Last February I found myself staying half-way up the mountain above St-Gervais in France. It’s not unusual to be based up on the slopes as such: many high purpose-built resorts sit above 1800m. But this was a bit different, a quiet retreat far above town in the small slope-side hamlet of Bettex, with just a couple of hotels and restaurants.

Arriving after dark, it was soon to bed. But from my hotel room window I was struck by the most wonderful of skies, pitch-black and filled with a million stars. No light pollution from town, just the natural light from the snow. And the Milky Way was clearly visible. That night I lay there with the curtains open, just gazing up at them.

Below were the crisply manicured slopes of St-Gervais’ ski area. The lifts hung silently above or beside them, awaiting the next day’s activity. Would I want to be down in town right then? No, in fact. It was perfect being up there, surrounded by snow and dark fir trees, occasionally moonlit. Dreams of creatures of the night scurrying through the trees. Light snow flurries and a frosty chill on the air; it’s what winter is all about.

So where else has inspired? Well, here are my best experiences (plus St-Gervais, of course).

Magic of the Dolomites

1. Dazzling Dolomites: Nothing beats the clear evenings drawing in on this mountain range. The granite crags gradually slipping through various shades of pink and red as the sun sets. It’s all deeply inspiring day and night, but watching the evening glow is a must. After dark, the rocky towers and ridges are dramatic under the night sky.

2. Dining above La Plagne: Taking a snow cat ride up to a high mountain restaurant, dining on a seven course feast and standing on a snowy terrace gazing at the valley and mountains is superb. In La Plagne they’ll often arrange trips to Les Verdons, above Champagny’s slopes. Cross the slopes back to the resort at 2am and you’ll really feel you’ve had an adventure on the hill. Magic.

3. Swimming by moonlight in Flaine: the outdoor pool at the Montsoleil apartments affords wonderful views of the Flaine bowl. Gently swimming laps of the warm water and gazing out across the cold snow slopes to where the piste bashers formed an orderly troop up the mountain, was superb. Ultimate relaxation under the stars.

4. Night skiing in Colorado: Well, it all began with floodlit tubing at Keystone, followed by long turns down the front trails. If you can muster up the energy after a day-time ski, slip the boots on again and get back out on the piste. It’s fab. Most people are far too busy eating and partying to ski some more; you’ll get a uncrowded piste or two and the chance to stand atop the mountain under the stars. Nearer to home, Alpe d’Huez also provided some excellent fun, on steeper slopes.

5. Moonlit snowcat around Serre Chevalier: Take this tour up to Serre Ratier and gaze at the views. We went one better: instead of the views of Briançon (good too, of course), we were rewarded with silent powder snow falling lightly in late March. Again, just eight people and a mountain summit to ourselves, followed by an evening tartiflette in a mountain hut and a thrilling ride back down the black runs – with only the headlamps to mark the scary drop-offs at the edge of the pistes.

6. Sledding Slovenia: Picture a pitch-black and snowy woodland national park trail, a wooden sled and a head torch to light the way. You’re taken up by 4×4 to the top of the road run, then let loose to tear (or sedately run) down the winding hillside. It’s amazing. After two or three goes you’re then whisked away to the warmth of a farmhouse supper (cakes, cheeses and home-made breads, plus mint tea).

Make of the mountain evenings what you will – but if you love the mountains, quiet or active, don’t forget to sample them at night too. Any stories to share? Send them in to us: we’d love to hear about them.

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