Dancing with the mountain

A white carpet for early risers in Verbier

Above Lac des Vaux, Verbier, looking towards AttelasIt’s the skiing equivalent of stepping out of a limousine onto a pristine red carpet. The door of the gondola clunks open, and stretching out in front of you is a perfectly groomed white carpet of snow, a mile long, unblemished by tracks, for you and your companions to glide down.

You have the luxurious feeling of having the mountain to yourselves – all because you have ridden up on the lift half an hour before it officially opens. And until all the other skiers and snowboarders come up, your select group has its own private ski resort. It’s a bit like being a Russian oligarch – only without needing the money.

A number of resorts in the Alps and beyond offer an experience such as this, but they usually charge a fee. This season, the Swiss resort of Verbier is offering the adventure free to skiers and snowboarders who hold a lift pass; the same deal is on offer in Avoriaz in France, Livigno in Italy, and Formigal in the Spanish Pyrenees. According to Nissan, which sponsors the deal, this is the first time such an experience has been on offer in Europe free of charge.

A couple of days ago I joined the “Freshtracks” group and found myself doodling giant sweeping Ss across the piste. And I realised that ever since I learned how to carve turns, I had been longing for conditions such as this: acres of perfectly groomed snow all to myself. I had the feeling I was dancing with the mountain – and reached the bottom of the run with a huge grin on my face.

Not all the lifts open early. In the case of Verbier, it is the Funispace gondola that you get to loop two or three times before others arrive. But by coming up early, you also can be the first to ride the connecting lifts as soon as they open – and be the first to skim across the freshly groomed pistes that they serve.

In addition to enjoying early skiing at any of the resorts twice in any given week, you can also have a free two-hour afternoon group lesson. In the case of Verbier, the “Coaching Sessions” are with the Swiss Ski School and the Swiss Snowboard School.

The easiest thing is to book from home, before leaving on holiday – but there are also computer terminals you can use at the top and bottom of the Médran gondola.

It’s all free. I read the terms and conditions to see if there were any catches, but I couldn’t find any. You are asked if you would like to receive information by phone or email about Nissan or the resorts, and you can tick boxes requesting not to.

Nissan, apparently, wants skiers and snowboarders to associate the feeling of grip and control you get riding an untracked, freshly groomed piste with the way its vehicles handle. It’s all explained on the website. I am hardly the target market, though: I am no great car fan, and given a choice will always opt for public transport. I do, however, have fond memories of learning to drive long ago in a Nissan Micra – but that could be also because of the soothing aroma of my instructor’s pipe. I doubt if that would be allowed these days.

Whatever your attitude to cars and car makers, Freshtracks offers a wonderful high, and the ski and snowboard lessons are with professional, qualified instructors. Plus it’s all free – and you won’t read that about many treats on offer in ski resorts.

Looking towards Verbier from the Savoleyres pistes

  • Freshtracks and coaching sessions are available for the 2011/2012 season in Verbier, Avoriaz and Livigno from Monday to Friday, and in Formigal from Thursday to Sunday. Register and book at www.nissan-extremegrip.com.
  • Further general travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)