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Safe, speedy off-piste pleasures for non-skiers

If skiing does not quite satisfy all your Alpine adrenalin needs, whizzing around a slippery race track just might. Ice driving and karting offer big petrolhead fun at altitude

Ski stations are rapidly evolving into winter holiday and leisure centres offering all kinds of activities and amusements, indoor and outdoor, involving snow or not. Helicopter rides, paragliding, ice diving... the experiences on offer are endless.

One of the most popular is driving on ice. The biggest ice driving circuit in Europe is in Abondance (Portes du Soleil), where you can learn to drive a variety of different cars on ice. Olivier Pignon runs the Ice Driving School in Val Thorens (Les Trois Vallées) and says it’s fun but also has a serious side.

“People can come ice karting just for the fun of it, and we have children’s karts for kids from seven years-old up, or people can come for a serious lesson, and learn how to steer on ice. It’s always going to be useful, because the techniques for controlling a skid on ice are the same as when skidding on oil, loose gravel, mud, rain or whatever.”

He says all kinds of people come. Locals who drive in freezing weather often, as well as holiday makers wanting to add a new skill. Age is no barrier – people in their 80s have done the course, and nor is having a licence. “Obviously people have to know how to drive but we don’t need to see a driving licence because we teach on private property.

Everyone is treated as an individual, he says. “We never have crashes because we always have an instructor in the car to explain everything. Driving on ice at 15kph is great because everything happens very slowly meaning learners can grasp the techniques and have time to apply them. It’s the equivalent of driving at 100kms down a motorway in slow motion, if you like. Anyone can get into a dangerous situation when driving, knowing how to get out of it safely can be the difference between arriving safely and having a nasty road accident.”

He says the course makes nervous drivers more confident and over-confident drivers more respectful of road conditions and the possibility of danger. “We teach the consequences of the driver’s actions; breaking, snatching at the steering wheel, closing your eyes and hoping the car will stop on its own...”

The centre offers karts for adults and children as well as buggies which are big like quads, seating two people side-by-side, as well as a variety of different vehicles, and the track contains plenty
of challenges. Sessions start at 10 minutes in a kart for 35 euros, while 15 minutes driving a car on ice costs 110 euros.

“But that is time actually behind the wheel,” explains Olivier. “Those 15 minutes don’t include all the explaining and theory before you get in the car.” People are welcome to use their own cars, but he says they don’t usually have the right tyres and from an insurance point of view, it’s better to use the cars at the Ice Driving Centre. “We don’t have crashes, it’s not the dodgems. We tailor make our courses for each driver, so it’s very, very rare for someone to hit anything. There’s always an experienced instructor in the car with the driver... come and try it sometime!”

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