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October 22, 2004 1:06 pm

Where even experts fear to tread

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The Valluga II cable car above St. Anton is one of those boxy, old-fashioned affairs that sways from one mountain peak to another across a gulf of nothingness. At the entrance is a sign showing a pair of skis, crossed out. Next to it, to avoid any confusion, the words: NO SKIS.

"What's that?" I ask Willi, a fellow skier with whom I am about to enter the six-person cabin.

"It's OK," he says. "It means no skis unless you have a guide." For skiers who have mastered the basics, the benefits of skiing with a guide are not always clear-cut.

Holidays are all about freedom to do what you want, when you want, and to escape the workplace hierarchy. So it seems perverse to yoke yourself to someone who's going to tell you where to go and what to do when you get there, especially when you have to pay them handsomely for the privilege.

But a good guide can raise the quality of a day's skiing from enjoyable to sublime. That's why, when I make my next annual pilgrimage to Lech, in the Arlberg region of western Austria, I'll be joining Class 3A (or maybe 2B) for at least half my stay to be guided around a resort I already know intimately.

On our first visit to Lech, my friend Nick isn't convinced. He's been skiing 30 years. "I haven't taken lessons since I was 15," he says. "Let's just ski together."

"No offence," I say. "But the biggest argument is trust. I'll follow a good ski-guide anywhere. But if it's just us, and you suggest we go off-piste to explore some promising-looking powder, how do I know it's skiable? What's underneath? How about avalanches?"

"Wimp," Nick says.

At the summit of Valluga II, the wind blasts a frozen steel platform atop a rock pinnacle. Our guide goes off to record our imminent departure in the mountain rescue log-book. All around us, spectacular snow-capped mountains march into the distance. But Class 2B, comprising 10 skiers from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, isn't admiring the view. We're looking down, trying to make out our route.

Before we start skiing, we must carry our skis down a 100m ice-ridge, cross over a wooden bridge, then side-step down a snow gully studded with rocks and protruding steel spikes. Blood has drained from the face of the best skier among us, a guy from Innsbruck. "I'm not doing it," he says. "I don't like heights." A shudder passes through the group.

"The trouble with groups," Nick says, "is that they're always too slow. You never know what the other skiers will be like."

It's true this can be a problem. In Lech, there are literally dozens of ski-groups ranked from 6 (absolute beginners) to 1 (born wearing skis). Groups rated 3A, for example, tend to attract experienced skiers in their 40s and 50s (but also some fit 70-year-old Germans who spend four to five weeks in the Alps every year) who enjoy off-piste without wanting to climb too far to reach it.

Groups rated 2B, the minimum standard for skiing Valluga II, tend to be younger, to involve more climbing, and to avoid pistes altogether. The instructors are reluctant to demote slow skiers, which can lead to delays. But if you want to go faster, promotion to another group is straightforward.

"I suppose," Nick says, "with a guide you do get good snow." The ice steps at the summit of Valluga II are treacherous. We struggle to balance our skis on our shoulders, grasp the steel hawser which passes for a hand-rail, and avoid looking down the vertiginous drops on either side. Karin, a German student, nudges me. "Fun, isn't it?" I try to smile.

On our skis at last, we side-step down the gully and are confronted by an immense snow-bowl. There have been no fresh falls for days, but the snow is perfect: great fields of powder lie undisturbed.

Far below, parallel tracks from previous parties descend from sun to shade. There are no lifts, pistes or roads in sight. Nor are there any other skiers. Our guide has found us our very own mountain, and it's breathtaking.

"But it must be lousy," Nick says, "when you get a duff instructor." It is, indeed, the pits. Two years after my first descent from the Valluga II, I stand with another group at the summit. Our instructor is a veteran of many seasons, his weather-beaten face set in a mask expressive of equal proportions of exasperation and disgust. One of the group is a German woman who skied this run with the same guide last year and knows she doesn't want to be there.

"I told him," she says. "I never want to ski the Valluga again."

"Why did you come this time?" someone asks.

"He refused to say where we were going. I can't ski back now, on my own."

In the course of the next hour, descending deep, heavy snow, the woman falls ten or 15 times. The guide is economical with his encouragement.

"Nicht jammern!" he says, "Ski fahren!" ("Don't whine! Ski!")

The woman says little until we are back in Lech, drinking hot chocolate. "Next year," she says, "I think I will ask for another guide."

The rest of us nod. We're feeling guilty that we enjoyed the run, despite her torment. A shadow hangs over the day. Mostly, though, the guides are worth every cent.

On the third day of our holiday in Lech, and after much deliberation, Nick joins a 2B group. When I see him that evening he is red-faced with exhilaration.

"It was fantastic," he says. "We explored these hidden valleys, they were beautiful, the snow was perfect. Pristine. Plus, you feel so intrepid, like you're boldly going where no skier has gone before. No way I'd have risked that without a guide. Even if I'd been able to find it."

"So joining a group was worth it?"

"I owe you one," he says. "I think it was the best day's skiing I've ever had."

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