by Chris Madigan and travel writer, The Telegraph, March 7, 2018
From indulging in the finest cheese fondue money can buy to a week pigging out on powder in a Canadian heli lodge, we’ve put together the ultimate snow-sports bucket list, so you don’t have to. Here's our pick of the best must-do experiences.
1. Brave the Hahnenkamm downhill course
The weekend of Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkammrennen – the annual series of World Cup ski races, which include the famous men’s downhill – is winter sports turned up to 11. The après is as hardcore as the racing, with fireworks flying, cowbells clanging, carnival bands parading around making a brassy racket, drunk fans staggering, and at the Londoner pub the racers letting their hair down, with the winner pulling pints. But before that, 45,000 people come to this Austrian resort to watch the race itself.
The Streif is a fearsome test of bravery. Like an F1 track, this piste has features with world‑famous names that echo in the mind from childhoods watching Klammer or Cuche on Ski Sunday – Steilhang, Seidlalm, Hausberg and Mausefalle. The latter, with a name that translates as “mousetrap”, is a jump with a pitch of over 40 degrees, so racers hitting it at nearly 100km/h fly almost 80m. Elsewhere, the highest speeds approach 150km/h.
Silverstone doesn’t open the track to Nissan Micras the week after the Grand Prix, but a few days after the Hahnenkamm, anyone can take on the Streif. Still glacial from the watering it takes during preparations, it demands sharp edges and precise technique – people can end up sliding unceremoniously down it on their behinds. Even turning frequently, it’s an adrenalin rush, passing ruts where the pros jammed in their direction change. And in the finishing area, the pride and relief at simply getting down is immense.
More info: kitzbuehel.com
2. Rack up a week of heli vert
The tension of waiting for the weather to break, the expectation as the helicopter rotors begin to spin, the eagle’s eye view of pristine wilderness peaks as you’re flown to the drop zone, the deep, dry snow you get to ride… all of these contribute to the thrilling experience of heli snowsports in Canada. And with a week in a lodge in the middle of nowhere, being flown to new runs every day, that thrill can be repeated again and again.
Over 50 years since it pioneered this experience, CMH Heli‑Skiing has now expanded to offer a huge choice of bases. There’s the original Bugaboo Lodge in the Purcell Mountains or Cariboos in the mountains of the same name, which allows access to over 2,000 sqkm of terrain. Or pick the very remote Adamant Lodge in the Selkirks, with spectacular views of the glaciers and forests you’ll be riding in small groups of up to five. For the ultimate luxury, the Bighorn chalet in Revelstoke is only available as an exclusive booking, with eight enormous bedrooms, a highly-regarded chef and heli groups of just four, with a guide for every two riders.
More info: canadianmountainholidays.com
3. Cross the Alps under your own steam
Touring means you truly earn your turns, as you strap skins to your skis or splitboard and zigzag up one mountainside to ride down another. The ultimate tour is the Haute Route, a 120km journey between Chamonix in France and Zermatt, Switzerland – 5,000m uphill, 7,000m down dale. The tough but peaceful experience leads far from civilisation, with highlights including the couloirs of the Val d’Arpette near Verbier; topping out at 3,790m on the Pigne d’Arolla; and passing under the north face of the Matterhorn.
The overnights are part of the appeal and a far cry from the usual nightlife of resorts. It’s early to bed (after a simple dinner) and early to rise, praying that you’re not sharing the dorm with a snorer and gradually getting used to a heady aroma. Of all the huts, Vignettes in the Valais region of Switzerland has the most spectacular setting, perched right on the edge of a cliff and with the longest of long-drop outdoor toilets.
Many mountain guides offer the experience. The Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix has three‑day to week‑long versions, as well as the chance to complete the route over the course of three weekends.
More info: chamonix-guides.eu
4. Do the long face
With no time to pause and catch your breath, the Laub off-piste route in Engelberg, Switzerland, is a one‑shot deal – 1,100m vertical in one go, a vast powder field with no cliffs, trees or other obstacles, and a pitch of around 40 degrees the whole way. It’s north-facing, and about 500m wide for most of its length, so the day after a snowfall only the latest sleeper will fail to get untracked snow the whole way down.
However, Engelberg is not a place to risk taking on without a guide and avalanche safety equipment (and you need to keep an eye out, because those above may not be as responsible as you). The Laub experience combines spiritual euphoria, as you link endless off‑piste turns in a natural rhythm, and femoral agony as you don’t stop linking them. At the Café Ritz at the foot of the run, collapse on a bench and look back up at what you’ve achieved – your heart says thanks for riding it while your thighs say thank you for stopping.
More info: engelbergmountainguide.ch
5. Table dance on-mountain at the Mooserwirt
The Mooserwirt in St Anton is the place that defined Austrian après in all its naffness and riotous excess. Whether in the disco cow barn interior or on the terrace, prepare to be part of a huge crowd who left their musical taste at the door, dancing on the tables in ski or board boots to the infectiously terrible tunes played by DJ Gerhard (on the wheels of steel since 1994), such as DJ Ötzi’s Hey Baby and oompah-techno versions of Take Me Home, Country Roads. Staff carry their bodyweight in beer steins, schnapps shots (complete with pear on a cocktail stick), vodka-Red Bulls and Jägerbombs to sustain the crowds. And when night falls and the Mooserwirt closes, there’s an added frisson of jeopardy as everyone slides the final few hundred metres down to the village itself, while not at their sharpest.
More info: mooserwirt.at
6. Tackle western Europe’s highest mountain
You might get a good view of it from other Alpine resorts, but in Chamonix, France, you can actually ski or snowboard down the Mont Blanc massif. Take the Aiguille du Midi cable car, emerge on a narrow, vertigo‑inducing ridge and edge your way along in your boots to the point where you can don skis or board – in icy conditions, you’ll be glad of the rope banister. After that, the Vallée Blanche is open to most levels of rider, with a guide (and snowboarders need touring poles for the flats). Gentle, wide slopes disperse the crowds quickly, and there’s plenty of time to admire the surrounding peaks – it’s a 17km run with a 2,000m drop, or 22km and 2,800m if the snow’s good enough to reach the valley floor.
Later, after a stop for lunch at the Requin hut, off the main route at 2,500m, the route narrows into the Mer de Glace. The glacier comes in waves, and you pick your way through crevasses, seracs (columns of ice) and moraine (boulders carried along by the ice movement), bathed in the blue glow of the ice. When you reach Montenvers at the end of the glacier, ride the funicular down and plan to do it again next year, via the more challenging Grand Envers route.
More info: chamonix-guides.eu
7. Head to North America for in-bounds off piste
European resorts define safe and unsafe via a sophisticated network of, er, coloured sticks at the sides of pistes that indicate when you’re heading beyond the protection of ski patrol and avalanche control. But in North America, anywhere within the ski area boundary is designated safe, including off-piste ungroomed snow. All resorts have in-bounds off piste, but some leave large chunks ungroomed to offer a backcountry challenge with an in-bounds safety net, sometimes involving a hike.
The Colorado resort of Vail is extra special, because it has two such areas. Those new to deep snow should start in the Back Bowls, wide-open spaces of differing steepness, from China Bowl’s blue pitch to Tea Cup’s couloirs. The tree runs of Blue Sky Basin are more challenging – some gladed to give space to weave around the pines, some scarily narrow, and others leading over cliff drops and powder pillows. Although you would be rescued in the event of an accident, you still need to be careful – if you do something foolish, there are plenty of people with headcams to make you #JerryOfTheDay.
More info: vail.com
8. Access unnamed mountains by sail
For a winter lover, Greenland is the purest, most perfect environment. Mountains so remote they have no name afford dazzling views of the sunlight glinting off the Arctic ocean, and there are as many different classifications of glacier (cirque, shelf, stream, tongue and tidewater) as most geography professors see in a lifetime.
To maintain that immaculacy, it pays to approach the mountains by sail. The former Transat and Vendée Globe yachting competitor Thierry Dubois has built a four-sail schooner with reinforced hull, like a floating mountain refuge, to transport eight guests (including guides) around the coast of Greenland, spotting whales and dodging icebergs – or rafting up to them so you can climb on.
The ship drops its passengers at the foot of mountains, allowing them to skin up from sea level to summits up to 1,500m high. The lower altitude brings a cardiovascular advantage, and long days of touring are possible because, in May, it’s light till 10pm or later. From the peaks the sunsets are kaleidoscopic, and once it’s dark, on clear nights the starscape is mind-boggling.
More info: lalouise.fr
9. Complete a classic black-piste double
Alpe d’Huez in France presents one of cycling’s greatest tests of endurance – a 1,100m vertical climb over 13km of road, via 21 hairpin bends to the summit. Equally challenging, its winter downhill equivalent comes as a pair - the black pistes of Le Tunnel and Sarenne. They both begin at Pic Blanc (3,330m), but they’re not identical twins. At 16km, Sarenne is the longest piste of any colour in the Alps, but Le Tunnel is steep, bumpy and often icy – do it first, with fresh legs. The route begins when the eponymous tunnel, rough-hewn out of the mountain, emerges on to a ledge at the top of a lumpy 800m-high wall of snow. Be sure of your first turn but don’t wait too long before taking the plunge – nerves build with time and, anyway, there is extra kudos to be had from descending it all in a smooth, continuous rhythm. After the initial extremely steep pitch, there’s a brief respite before a merely steep one. On the run-out, don’t miss the Lac Blanc chair, which links to Pic Blanc for part two of the challenge.
Sarenne is never frighteningly steep, but it is relentless, can be bumpy and occasionally dives down suddenly. Take your time – it’s also beautiful and worth savouring. From the high, wide-open, sunny ridge at the top, it flows like the glacier it is into the valley. When the steep part ends after about 8km, what’s left is a green trail through the pretty Gorges de Sarenne, past little chalets in the trees, along with a babbling brook in spring – eight more kilometres in which you can figuratively put your feet up and take pride in your achievement.
More info: alpedhuez.com
10. Spend five minutes in the air for a full day off piste
A day’s heli in the high Alps lets you fly over some of Europe’s most dramatic peaks to reach its remotest terrain – and get back in time to regale companions in the bar with jargon such as “LZ” and “vert” (landing zone and vertical descent to the uninitiated). Italy has the most permissive rules on helicopter activity and the Monte Rosa massif offers the most variety, with dozens of routes.
The classic is the Zermatt Tour. A day’s outing with Guide Monterosa starts at Gressoney in Italy, airlifting to an impressive 4,151m on the Colle del Lys (or another high pass, depending on conditions), before you head into Switzerland over the stunning serac-strewn glacial terrain of the Grenzgletscher. You use the Zermatt lifts to return to the border at the Breithorn pass, hike a little then come back into Gressoney via Champoluc . The last leg is a full afternoon’s descent in itself, over the Verra Grande glacier.
More info: guidemonterosa.com
11. Mingle with condors in South America
Surrounded by sharp Andean peaks, including South America ’s highest mountain (6,961m Aconcagua), the Portillo hotel, on the Chilean side of the border with Argentina, feels a little like a luxury cruise liner tossed on a frozen sea, with condors in place of albatrosses. It has formal service to match (although there is also a staff bar with a more genuine local feel, offering pisco sours and Andean folk music) and almost exclusive use of the ski area.
As well as the pistes, including long blue runs, there are numerous off-piste opportunities accessed by traverses, notably from the top of the resort’s unique va‑et‑vient lifts (which translates as “go and come”). These are slingshots designed especially for Portillo’s avalanche-prone black runs, where pylons are impractical. A sort of five‑person T-bar is winched to the base of the lift, held like a crossbow while riders load, and then released. You are shot straight uphill, over bumps and ruts, until the tension eases – at which point you have to make a jump turn off the lift to avoid sliding backwards and flipping over.
More info: skiportillo.com
12. Air into a serious couloir
It’s the staple of every extreme snow-sports film - the gully that starts so steeply you have to get air to enter it. For mere mortals, there’s an example that’s a designated piste – Corbet’s Couloir in the American resort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There are two route options, one with the bigger leap (around six metres), the other the trickier landing. The first, on the right of the couloir, simply requires bravery and good forwards weight distribution before riding out the sweet powder. The left drop is usually half the height but requires a turn in the air to avoid one cliff, before banging in another turn after landing to avoid the opposite one.
There have been serious injuries at Corbet’s, and it should only be tackled by those who are confident, fit and have practised smaller drops. But the rewards for success – great snow, a thrilling run and knowing that people in the passing cable car are watching you – are huge.
More info: jacksonhole.com
13. Defy gravity in the park
When Maverick and Goose talked about their need for speed in Top Gun, it was airborne velocity they were hankering for. The thrill of hitting a kicker, flying through the air in perfect balance, stomping the landing and riding away cleanly, arguably beats any perfectly carved turn or powder run. Still, you have to build up your skills before you take on jumps as big as houses.
Many resorts have a terrain park or two, but the broadest range and biggest jumps are in North America. Whistler-Blackcomb in Canada has six separate terrain parks, with over 40 jumps, 90 rails and an enormous halfpipe, covering 99 acres in total. Options range from the School Yard for kids and Big Easy for beginners up to the expert Highest Level (where helmets are compulsory). The resort offers freestyle classes for 10-18 year olds, and adults can book private lessons.
More info: whistlerblackcomb.com
14. Lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant
The French Alps have become a serious foodie destination – in fact, with 12 Michelin-starred restaurants, the Trois Vallées has more than cities such as Bordeaux. The best is L’Azimut in Courchevel Le Praz at 1,300m. It’s a humble bistro at first glance, but chef-proprietor François Moureaux uses state-of-the-art techniques, regional produce and the occasional exotic ingredient to wonderful effect. Dishes could include scallop coral mousse with cauliflower and curry foams and Iranian black lime, or veal in liquorice with Jerusalem artichoke. His €40 three-course lunch is incredible value and booking is essential.
More info: restaurantazimut.com
15. Travel all four of the Trois Vallées in a day
The Trois Vallées ski area in France boasts 600km of connected pistes shared between the valleys of Courchevel, Méribel and Belleville (which includes the resorts of Val Thorens and Les Menuires ), but the name is too modest. Although it indicates three, there is a fourth valley, on from Val Thorens - the sunny Maurienne, with some almost deserted runs. A thigh-straining, lung-busting challenge is to ride all four valleys in one day.
Plan the route the night before, then fly down some of the most dramatic, best-groomed pistes in the Alps with joyful abandon. The blue Creux speedway from Saulire into Courchevel; the picturesque Pyramide on the eastern extreme of the area; the wild red Combe du Vallon in Méribel (although the Mont du Vallon detour is only for the fastest); the lovely quick black Combe de Caron above Les Menuires; Christine in Val Thorens, with its 700m drop down the Péclet glacier; Jérusalem, rolling and banking like an oversized boardercross run above St Martin; and Corala in the Maurienne valley, starting at 3,230m – the highest point in the Trois Vallées – and also the start point of a zip wire crossing high above the glacier du Bouchet to the col de Thorens. Wherever you’re staying, be sure to catch your final connecting lift home in time!
More info: les3vallees.com
16. Boot up to a legendary run
In the world’s great resorts, there are often boot-packed tracks at the top of lifts, leading up another few hundred metres. These are left by people who know that 15 minutes or so tromping uphill can lead to a snowy paradise.
The best example of this is the aptly named Stairway To Heaven on the Col des Gentianes at 2,950m in Verbier, Switzerland. Located off a traverse to the right of the top of the Jumbo red run, the climb leads up to a north-facing bowl that usually contains a stash of good-quality snow for days after a storm. And on a powder day, the extra space and the effort required to reach it means there’s more chance of fresh tracks on the lovely even-gradient descent. Stick to the left or central sections, then bear right after a hump in the terrain to rejoin the pistes.
More info: verbier.ch
17. Enjoy billowing powder in Japan
With Siberian storm after storm regularly hitting Japan’s north island, Hokkaido, it’s not unusual for fresh snow to fall every day from December to March, and an annual snowfall of 15-19m means the resorts are powder paradise. It’s dry snow, too, thanks to low temperatures and the short time the clouds spend crossing the sea. Resorts such as Furano and Rusutsu offer waist-deep fun in well‑spaced trees – strictly speaking, this is prohibited terrain, although the ban is not usually enforced. Niseko offers North America-style in-bounds ungroomed snow and backcountry gates that lead to the good stashes.
The other lure of Japan is cultural immersion – food and drink, pop phenomena, language, mannerisms, architecture – and literal immersion in onsen, the thermal baths which are often sited outdoors. If travelling this far for powder snow, it’s worth adding on a few days on Honshu, the central island, to see hipster capital Tokyo and Mount Fuji, and perhaps Shiga Kogen, Japan’s largest ski area – what it lacks in powder it makes up for in size, with 21 interlinked resorts.
More info: seejapan.co.uk
18. Write off the afternoon on a bad weather day
Of course, many of us are keen winter sportspeople who are on the slopes from the first lift to the very last. But what if the howling wind closes the lifts, the fog is so thick you can barely see your gloves, or the snow is suspiciously wet? Well, in that case, it’s a forgivable guilty pleasure to take an early lunch that extends into a late one and, indeed, starts to blend into the après. The post‑prandial drink guaranteed to get you lazy is found in Italy – the bombardino. Half advocaat, half brandy, it is all indulgence, topped as it is with whipped cream. The place to enjoy it is Maison Vieille in Courmayeur, after a delicious meal of vitello tonnato and wood-fired roast suckling pig with pasta. After a few bombardinos, you’re ready to dance round the pole on the bar, and after a few more, you’ll need a snowmobile lift back to the cable car down to town.
More info: maisonvieille.com
19. Travel to the Himalayas
If you really love the mountains, at some point you have to experience the greatest range on Earth – the Himalayas. The resort of Gulmarg in Kashmir has lift-served slopes up to 4,000m and hike-to-ride terrain beyond that, so the phrase “breathtaking scenery” is apposite. Wild backcountry descents are also a huge draw, but above all a visit should be appreciated as a cultural experience. While the Rockies and Alps homogenise into luxury resorts with all mod cons, this Kashmiri village is evidently in a developing country. There is a Raj influence in the architecture of this former colonial outpost, and of course the curry and chai for sale make it clear where you are in the world.
There is also tension, as this is disputed territory. From the 4,000m summit of Apharwat, the Line of Control between India and Pakistan is clearly visible, and there are soldiers on the streets of Gulmarg. Although the Foreign Office advises against visiting, locally based tour operator Ski Gulmarg insists that the village is safe, quiet and isolated from political incidents, and can advise on specific travel insurance.
More info: skigulmarg.com
This article was written by Chris Madigan and travel writer from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].