THE TOP ADRENALINE-FUELLED SKI DESTINATIONS
Where to go for the best off-piste, slack, side and backcountry powder skiing experiences in some of the world's best known - and also off radar - top ski destinations
As the utter tedium of lockdowns and other Covid-related restrictions on everyday life massively restrict our opportunities to get out into the mountains again we can at least read about and even plan new adventures and travels for when normality returns.
Ultimate Skiing Adventures by STYLE ALTITUDE contributor Alf Alderson makes a great starting point for those travel plans. It takes you on a skiing safari around 100 of the planet’s biggest (and smallest), best and most unusual ski destinations – from the huge mega-resorts of the French Alps to sailing along Iceland’s north coast in search of great snow, there are exciting adventures that will appeal to everyone from novice to expert.
The inspirational descriptions of a hundred locations combine Alf’s personal experience with the input of experts in all aspects of skiing and mountain sports and are accompanied by stunning full-page photography from some of the world’s foremost ski photographers.
And it’s not just about skiing – the contents cover avalanche rescue techniques, snow science, road trips, the work of ski patrollers and resorts so remote and obscure that you may never have heard of them.
The book is divided into sections on Western Europe, Eastern Europe, North America, Scandinavia and the Rest of the World. Published by Fernhurst Books as a large-format paperback and eBook, Ultimate Skiing Adventures makes a great Christmas present for anyone looking to explore fantastic and off-radar ski areas.
Among Alf’s favourite ski destinations are several small ski hills you may never have heard of. ''Usually they’re less crowded, the locals are almost always keen to introduce you to their hill, and it’s a very different experience to the swish mega-resorts that so many of us visit each winter', he says.
Here’s a taste of some of the author’s favourite small ski hills, taken from the text of Ultimate Skiing Adventures:
LA MONGIE, FRENCH PYRENEES
Back to the Seventies
At the centre of the Grand Tourmalet ski area in the French Pyrenees, the purpose-built resort of La Mongie is defiantly Seventies in style and appearance, which won’t appeal to everyone; but this isn’t really a problem as the village is lost in a huge snow bowl among the imposing peaks of the Midi-Pyrenees soaring above, culminating in the 2,872m Pic du Midi de Bigorre and its summit observatory, which looks every bit the lair of a James Bond villain.
You can access the Pic du Midi by cable car from the centre of town, and from the summit there are various off-piste descents. For confident skiers this is likely to be one of the main reasons for visiting La Mongie.
All the descents of the Pic du Midi are steep and challenging, however,, so you may want to psyche yourself up by spending the night here first – the observatory offers overnight accommodation which includes dinner and a tour of the observatory, not to mention incredible sunsets (no Bond villain, though).
Even if you have no desire to take on the steeps of the Pic du Midi it’s worth the ride up to the observatory just for the panorama, which stretches from Catalonia to the Basque Country; and you can take the lift back down when you’ve had your fill to enjoy a good selection of red and blue runs above La Mongie.
Freeriders will love not just the Pic du Midi but also the surprisingly large array of side and backcountry terrain. For intermediates there’s an enticing selection of often sunny, uncrowded pistes (the long, blue-graded Bergers is a classic) along with attractive tree runs above Bareges, which as an authentic alpine village is considerably prettier than La Mongie.
The more than adequate selection of beginners’ slopes are easily accessed as they’re right in the centre of La Mongie; and the considerably lower cost of skiing here than in the Alps makes the resort a good option for first-timers.
In recent years the region has seen excellent snowfalls, and since most of the accommodation in La Mongie is ski in/ski out it has a lot going for it if you like to spend most of your ski holiday on skis (how else would you spend a ski holiday?). Why not book into the Crete Blanche Hotel in the middle of town and right beside the pistes? It remains a classic of Seventies style, with all that’s needed to complete the picture being Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg sipping martinis in the bar while clad in tight ski pants and sucking on Gauloises cigarettes.
Not the classic chocolate box alpine hotel, perhaps, but still an authentic piece of French ski culture.
ACCESS: Nearest airports Lourdes (48km), Pau (116km).
ABILITY LEVEL: Beginner - expert.
SEASON: Dec – April.
OTHER LOCAL ACTIVITIES: Snowshoeing, dog sledding, cross-country skiing.
The biggest ski area you’ve never heard of
France and skiing – think Three Valleys, Paradiski and any number of other huge, interlinked ski areas. Or maybe not…
Maybe think Les Sybelles instead. Heard of it? Not many skiers outside of France have, yet it’s one of the biggest ski areas in a nation with some ski resorts that are the size of small countries.
Les Sybelles consists of six linked ski resorts in the Maurienne massif; St. Jean d’Arves (1550m), St. Sorlin d’Arves (1600m), Le Corbier (1550m), La Toussuire (1750m), St. Colomban des Villards (1100m) and Les Bottières (1300m), with a claimed total of 260km of pistes (plus another 50km of Nordic trails), not to mention some very impressive and seemingly limitless freeride options.
All six resorts are small enough that you can explore them easily in a day or two, but you’ll need a week or more to really get to know the whole ski area.
It lies in the shadow of the three mighty fangs of 3514m Aiguilles d’Arves, with La Toussuire and Le Corbier featuring the kind of utilitarian Seventies architecture you either love or hate - both villages were developed some 40 years ago in a no-frills style, which would allow ordinary mortals to enjoy the skiing experience without dipping into their life savings.
And if you don’t like the style - well you hardly see the resorts once you’re up in the mountains, and Les Sybelles has also done a good job of situating its ski lifts such that they don’t impinge on the scenery too much.
If you’d prefer a more rustic, alpine feel to your ski holiday, the other four villages that make up Les Sybelles offer this, so everyone is catered for – particularly when you consider that prices for everything from accommodation to ski hire tend to be noticeably lower than those in the nearby mega-resorts.
Local UIAGM guide Philippe Vincent (who has climbed the Aiguilles d’Arves well over a hundred times) explains that Les Sybelles aims to attract the family market, hence all the intermediate terrain, but, as he says: 'That’s good for us, because it means the off-piste is never busy – and there is a lot of it”.
This is apparent from the resorts’ various high points, from which Mont Blanc and the Tarentaise region are clearly visible to the north, along with heaps of expansive off-piste terrain closer to hand.
For skiers looking for something less testing, Les Sybelles has a lovely selection of easy blues and reds that will flatter any intermediate skier, and although some of the lifts are a bit slow (a matter being rectified over the next few years by the installation of several high-speed lifts) queues are a rarity. There are also some fine mountain restaurants such as L’Alpe above St. Sorlin, where you won’t spend the price of a new pair of skis on a salad and chips.
All in all, not bad for a ski area no one has heard of…
ACCESS: Nearest airports Chambery (86km), Grenoble (115km), Lyon (194km).
ABILITY LEVEL: Beginner - expert.
SEASON: Dec - April.
OTHER LOCAL ACTIVITIES: Fat biking, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, snowshoeing, paragliding.
Leaving the 21st century behind
Despite being one of the most snow-sure ski resorts in the French Alps, Bonneval is as low key as you can get. The village sits at an altitude of 1800m in the Vanoise National Park and is a member of the group Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which aims to preserve traditional architectural styles and cultural traditions.
Any building work has to remain true to the alpine vernacular style, telephone cables and street lighting is routed underground and shops and other businesses are not permitted to use large, garish signage.
The squat, stone tiled houses and baroque-style chapels have survived largely due to the village’s high, remote location – when German forces razed many of the region’s lower level, more accessible towns and villages on their retreat towards the end of World War II, Bonneval was left untouched.
While tourism remains important to the local economy year-round, traditional transhumance agriculture and craft work are also still important – produce such as Bonneval blue cheese, Savoie tomme and cured ham and the work of local wood carvers is still very much a part of the local economy.
So, as a skier you may think that you’d stand out a tad in this traditional alpine setting. Not a bit of it. Bonneval has somehow managed to get the perfect balance of being a village that relies on skiing for much of its winter income but hasn’t sold out to it.
And while the skiing infrastructure is all human-scale and basic, the resort’s slow old chairlifts carry you up into a mountainscape that is far from human-scale and, for that matter, far from basic.
Spectacular would be more the word of choice. The vast bulk of 3,638m Mont Albaron towers above the ski slopes, blue glaciers glinting on its steeper flanks, while its snowfields display the dark tracks of ski tourers heading for Italy, on the mountain’s far side. This side of the massif faces north, and the ‘3000’ chairlift will allow you to access it.
Bonneval has only a modest 25km of groomed pistes and seven lifts, hence the resort’s increasing popularity as a freeride destination, with the huge, cold, shadowy snow bowl directly beneath Mont Albaron’s north face being the go to area.
Take a break from skiing at the low-key, friendly Restaurant Criou; the staff could be as diffident as they want since it’s the only restaurant on the mountain, but there’s an amiable atmosphere here as everyone from adrenaline-fuelled freeriders to family groups gather.
After heading out to search out more lines on the mountain as the afternoon sun sinks low in the sky, you’ll eventually be forced back down into town. Why not stay the night in a traditional auberge and enjoy the luxuries of modern living while surrounded by the past?
ACCESS: Nearest airports Chambery (145km), Grenoble (175km).
ABILITY LEVEL: Beginner - expert.
SEASON: Dec - April.
OTHER LOCAL ACTIVITIES: Ice skating, snowshoeing, paragliding.
No easy way down
Any normal skier – especially one visiting from Europe – would surely question whether it’s worth travelling several thousand miles to visit a ski resort (and I use the word ‘resort’ in its loosest possible sense) with just one ski lift – and even that is no more than a rickety old two-person chair that most modern resorts wouldn’t tolerate as part of their high-tech lift system.
The answer to that question is short and simple, however.
Professional freeskier Chris Davenport sums it up nicely: 'Silverton Mountain is pretty close to the purest skiing experience one can find today – an epic mountain, bountiful snowfall (the deep and light Colorado kind), and none of the distractions of other ski areas [such as] crowds - Silverton is like heliskiing [but] with a chairlift'.
That ticks most of the boxes then. However, there are a few things you need to bear in mind before you book your flight and pack your fat skis. This is the highest and purportedly the steepest lift-accessed mountain in North America (the most gently angled slope is 30-degrees); it tops out at a lung-busting 13,487ft and as the Silverton website almost gleefully points out, ‘There are loads of bowls, chutes, cliffs and wonderful natural terrain features to be discovered everywhere you look…and no easy way down’.
This is not hyperbole either – last time I skied there I found myself using a rope to descend a small cliff band on one run, and since the single chairlift only takes you up to 12,300ft there’s a certain amount of hiking involved if you want to make the most of the vertical that’s on offer, so like pretty much everyone else I also found myself gasping for air most of the time.
Other than avalanche control none of the terrain is treated in any way, so what you ski is what Nature provides, pure and simple. Another huge bonus is that lift ticket sales are restricted to a maximum of 475 per day although there are usually far fewer skiers than that on the mountain – especially mid-week – so scoring fresh tracks, even days after a snowfall, is par for the course on pretty much every descent.
The idiosyncratic nature of skiing at Silverton doesn’t end when you get to the bottom of your chosen run, since you’ll be picked up by an old bus and taken back to the base to head up and do it all again.
Catch this place after a fresh dump and on a bluebird day and without a doubt it’s one of the most remarkable skiing experiences in North America; and make sure you spend at least one night in the nearby town of Silverton too, since if you’re looking for a taste of the old Wild West you’ll definitely find it here.
ACCESS: Nearest airports: Durango (52 miles), Montrose (50 miles), Telluride (110 miles), Grand Junction (100 miles), Denver (355 miles).
ABILITY LEVEL: Advanced – expert.
SEASON: Nov – Apr.
OTHER LOCAL ACTIVITIES: Heliskiing.
Top 12300ft (chair); 13487 (hike to)
Lift serviced vertical drop 1900ft
Hike-to and helicopter accessible vertical drop 3887ft
Skiable acres 26819 acres
Want to discover 96 more ski destinations for adrenaline adventures? Order your copy of Ultimate Adventures now...