Thrills and spills, but mostly chills

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2011, 12:00am


Holidays don't have to mean rest and relaxation on the beach. Many people prefer an action-packed winter holiday. To these hardy souls, the call of the ice and snow cannot be ignored. They'll take snowshoes over flip-flops any day. And while schussing on a pair of alpine skis is one way to have an exhilarating winter holiday, there are plenty of others.

Cross-country skiing - Norway

Cross-country skiing is the original and most effective means of getting across Norway's spectacular winter landscapes. It's easier and less daunting to learn than the downhill variety because you'll be doing it on flat terrain at first. As your skills quickly develop, you'll soon take on hills - both up and down, since you can also climb up them on cross-country skis. All this can be picked up in a day or two.

Once you've mastered the basics, a truly wonderful winter world opens up. Popular ski resorts such as Voss, east of Bergen, offer cross-country ski trails through the forests and low hills beneath their downhill ski slopes. Gala has more than 600 kilometres of marked trails winding through pine-scented forests, beside frozen lakes and over whaleback mountains.

Ski trails are graded for difficulty and length so you never have to bite off more than you can chew. You'll find ski h?tte (huts) en route where you can stop for refreshments.

It may sound obvious, but try to go cross-country skiing in midwinter when the low angle of the sun creates beautiful pastel shades of lilac, mauve and purple on the deep, expansive folds of winter snow, especially at the beginning and end of the day.

Ice climbing - Alberta, Canada

In Canmore you can go ice climbing almost out of the front door of your hotel. And if you're new to the world of ice axes and crampons, you have the option of scrabbling up the area's frozen icefalls with Barry Blanchard of Yamnuska Mountain School.

Apart from being entertaining and laconic company, Blanchard, 52, is a Canadian climbing legend who has made first ascents in many of the world's major mountain ranges. He has been in charge of mountain safety in adventure films such as K2, Cliffhanger and The Vertical Limit.

Blanchard will show you how to ascend vertical ice using just six sharp metal points. That's two ice axes and the two 'front points' of the crampon on each of your boots. At first it seems improbable that these tiny slivers of metal could support your weight, but with proper technique and a bit of brute strength, you should be shimmying up 30-metre icefalls by the end of your first day (on the end of a rope, it should be added).

Your arms and legs will ache afterwards, but it's worth it for the massive sense of achievement.

Dog sledding - Ruka, Finland

Located just beneath the Arctic Circle and almost within sight of the Russian border, the small ski resort of Ruka in Finnish Lapland sits in the heart of a quintessential northern landscape of low fells, endless forests and frozen lakes. Snow falls here eight months of the year, and the Northern Lights are a common winter sight.

There's no better way to see all of this than behind a team of trained huskies. A team of six dogs will drag a two-person sled across frozen lakes and through silent forests as if their lives depend on it, howling and yelping in excitement.

Dog sledding is far easier than it first appears since the huskies simply follow the lead sled, which is controlled by an experienced local musher. The only aim in life of your team is to keep up with the leading sled, so there's rarely any need to cry 'mush!' or issue any other instruction. With a little leaning left or right from driver and passenger as you hurtle around a corner, and with judicious use of the brake, you can enjoy a morning - or a full day - of canine capers on the snow.

If you really get a taste for dog sledding, it's possible to go on multi-day expeditions in which you spend the nights in cosy cabins, and the days travelling and living in an way that's as close to nature in the Arctic as you can get.

Snowshoeing - Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Tucked beneath Idaho's jagged Sawtooth Mountains, a range of snowshoe trails for everyone from complete beginner to rugged mountain man snake through silent winter forests at Galena Lodge, a former mining camp. You can employ a guide if need be, but almost anyone can enjoy snowshoeing here on their own.

For millennia, snowshoes were used by Native Americans as an effective means of travelling in winter - the tennis racquet-like extensions to your feet spread your weight and allow you to move through deep snow that would otherwise swallow you to the knee or beyond. Modern snowshoes are lightweight and easy to use, and it's a matter of seconds to fasten the bindings to your boots. There's not really any special technique other than lifting your feet slightly higher than normal as you walk along. It's a safe activity as long as you keep to the trails.

The palpable silence of the forests will occasionally be broken by a soft 'whump' as snow slips from a tree branch, or the gentle tick of snowflakes landing on your shoulders. But despite this eerie lack of noise, there is life out here: look out for the tracks of squirrels, rabbits, hare and deer searching for food and listen for the tweets of birds such as winter wrens and mountain bluebirds. At the end of the day, there's nothing quite like heading back to civilisation, a well-earned cold drink and a hot bath.

Bobsleighing - Park City, Utah

The Olympic bobsleigh course at Park City is one of a handful of tracks worldwide where the public can give this most exhilarating of winter sports a go.

Bobsleighs get their name from the fact that in the early days riders would 'bob' back and forth on their sleigh at the top of a run to get the thing moving. But there's none of that nonsense these days: just three nervous punters squeezed in behind a professional driver, wondering just what they got themselves into. A team of trackside assistants wearing spiked boots give them a stout push, and it's all downhill from there - and very fast.

The sleigh's runners glide smoothly across the hard blue ice, a breeze begins to swirl past your helmet and there's even time to think 'Hey, this isn't too bad' before you hit the first real incline.

The first bend is fun as the sleigh gains acceleration, but then your speed quickly ramps up, the air whooshing past becomes a roar and the whole machine begins to clatter and shake as you pass 80, 90 then 100km/h.

By the time you reach your top speed of more than 130km/h, you'll be hitting bends like a missile, hammering into the arc of the curve and thrashing your way violently around it at almost 90 degrees from horizontal. Your gravitational force is up to 5G on the bends, similar to what you'd experience in a fighter jet, and trying to lift or turn your head is almost impossible (no wonder the driver has a neck like a bull). As each curve hurtles past, you're thrown around the sleigh like a pinball, and every sense is on overload.

When the gradient eventually lessens and the sleigh's brakes slam into the ice to bring your high-speed journey to an end, there's a sense of disappointment mixed in with the adrenaline coursing through your veins. The ride lasts only about a minute, but the utter thrill of the speed, the noise, the rushing and the rattling makes it one of the biggest subzero buzzes you're likely to experience. And all you need to do is sit back and enjoy it.

Cold play

Cross-country skiing

Most cross-country ski areas offer lessons and hire out equipment. The Doubles at Fleischers Hotel ( cost from HK$3,240 in Voss; in Gala's Hogfjellhotell (, doubles from HK$1,260.

Ice climbing

A two-day ice-climbing course including all equipment costs HK$2,361 ( Luxury double room at Canmore's Silver Creek Lodge and Spa ( from HK$1,990.

Dog sledding

Accommodation at the five-star Hotel Royal Ruka ( costs from HK$1,570 per night. Dog-sledding trips cost from HK$1,458 for a day trip to HK$14,020 for a five-day trip including food and accommodation (


Galena Lodge ( has several snowshoe trails and offers guided tours from HK$195 per person including equipment. The lodge is 37 kilometres north of the ski resort of Sun Valley, where Sun Valley Lodge ( offers deluxe rooms from HK$2,720 per night.


Bobsleigh rides at Park City cost HK$1,558 per person ( Luxury accommodation at Hotel Park City ( starts from HK$1,862 per night.