Is there such a thing as too much snow? The week I arrived in Champoluc, in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta, the whole village seemed to be buried. Trees resembled sticks of candyfloss, huge mounds hid cars that would take days to dig out, and the air itself was laced with a diaphanous glittery frost.
Each morning a fresh set of hastily printed warning posters was plastered over the walls of the Chalet Hotel Champoluc, which can be booked through Inghams, one of few operators that offer trips to this resort: “High avalanche risk today,” read one. “Avoid the area around the church.”
When even going to church becomes dangerous, you know things are serious.
We may be on the cusp of the extinction of winter, but this was one of those freak weeks when there is such a heavy dump the resorts all but grind to a halt.
At first I was delighted: I had long yearned to ride the famed steep off-piste of the Monterosa ski area, which is all the better in deep powder. I was with a bunch of old friends and our children, whom we’d envisaged would soon master the basics in the resort’s friendly, easygoing ski schools, and make the most of the 180km of varied runs across its three valleys. But it seemed the snow would scupper our plans: ski school was shut, the avalanche risk was too high for heading off-piste, and the connections to the area’s other resorts, Gressoney and Alagna, to the east, were closed.
At least the main Crest gondola, right next to our hotel, kept rolling, leading to fun blue and red runs fringed by trees, so it was easy for half the adults to hammer a few runs while the others minded the children, then swap. We felt lucky, though, as over the border in Switzerland, just on the other side of the Matterhorn, that iconic peak beneath which Champoluc sits, it was worse, with almost no skiing open in neighbouring Zermatt.
That wasn’t the only reason I felt glad to be on the southern, Italian, side. Zermatt, despite its 120 years of gruff mountaineering history, has become obscenely high-end, an Alpine colossus drawing the world’s wealthy to shop for diamonds and Tag Heuer watches, feast on Michelin stars and bed down in glassy architect-designed super-chalets. In contrast, tiny Champoluc, in its wooded valley, is down-to-earth, low-key and caters mainly for Italians. They come for one brilliant pizzeria, a salumi shop, and a bar that does great panini. It’s easy to meet locals who’ve never even been to Zermatt.
Yet these differing worlds could be set to collide, as there are plans to connect the two resorts by lift. Given that Cervinia, at the head of the next valley to the west, is already connected to Zermatt, the link would create Italy’s biggest ski area, and one of the largest in the world.
Perhaps ironically, expansion is seen as a way of protecting the resorts as winters get warmer and less snowy. Champoluc’s business people are already spooked by increasing winter rain. “The snowline is rising each winter,” Giorgio Munari, president of local association Monterosa Ski, told me. “The lower slopes may be unskiable in the future.”
Given that Monterosa’s highest piste is 3,275 metres, and Zermatt’s 3,883 metres, you can see the logic of being able to access more snow. But despite the plan being approved by local referenda, it is stuck at the discussion and planning stage, partly because of concern over the environmental impact. If it does get the green light, though, things here could change dramatically.
Local regulations prevent any new houses or chalets being built in Champoluc, yet the opening of its first five-star hotel, Camp Zero, last season, followed by eco-hotel Au Charmant Petit Lac last summer, indicate confidence in potential growth, as does recent investment in the existing lifts.
For now, though, Champoluc feels quiet and untouched, with just enough of what you need close by – the atmospheric bar of the century-old Hotel Castor, the Dolce e Salato gelateria (because even in a blizzard, kids want ice-cream) and the sleek public baths of the Monterosa Terme, which are more posh spa than leisure centre, with indoor and outdoor pools, hot tubs and white robes for guests.
That Champoluc is pretty much just one street seemed wonderfully handy when the snow-drifted pavements were covered in icy pools and heaps of slush.
On the one night the hotel didn’t provide dinner, we headed out after dark, snow pelting down in huge flakes, but got no further than the restaurant across the road, Lo Bistrot, a place for kid-pleasing pizza, pasta and polenta among noisy Italian families. The night ended with a few lurid yellow bombardinos – the custardy regional après ski cocktail of brandy, cream and advocaat egg liqueur – and dancing in the bar, with the kids dancing on the tables too.
We were having fun. Yet at the back of our minds lurked a hunger for the once-in-a-lifetime conditions we knew waited at the top. Surely it was only a matter of time before more lifts opened? Over breakfast we sized each other up, working out whether doing the childcare shift in the morning or afternoon was more likely to land us in the right place at the right time to access the deep powder that had lain untouched for days.
I was in luck. A barrier between Champoluc and Frachey, a few kilometres north, was removed, the Bettaforca chairlift got going, the link to Gressoney reopened and I was riding rolling steeps in waist-deep powder with some of my oldest friends, our faces plastered with snow and silly grins, as a thrilling backcountry playground opened up.
All the while, the beautiful, gargantuan Matterhorn towered above. Yet I never wished to ride closer and beyond it; I was happy for the mountains on that horizon to still possess an element of mystery.
• The trip was provided by Inghams , which has a week at Chalet Hotel Champoluc from £589pp half-board including wine and afternoon tea, flights from London to Turin and transfers. To travel by rail, take Eurostar to Paris then a TGV to Turin (about six hours) to pick up the Inghams transfer or a bus (one hour). See visitmonterosa.com and aosta-valley.co.uk for more information
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips