Snow, that infinitely variable white stuff, invites us on an epic pilgrimage each winter in search of the best runs to sink our skis into. Sure, we all choose and hit those slopes based on different factors, but you can’t argue that powder is that special ingredient that adds extra flavor to the recipe.
Death-defying powder-filled ski runs
Piste grading differs from North America to Europe, but the colors pretty much mean the same thing, from green (beginner slopes) all the way to black. And then there are those extreme runs that stand out from the rest due to their scary access paths, sneaky turns, ridiculous gradient, many obstacles and dangers you might not even be aware of until it’s too late. Forget about sightseeing, just concentrate on making it in one piece!
Some of the world’s deepest powder holes can be found in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And if it’s double black diamond you want, Corbet’s Couloir might be just the thing for you. Often referred to as the world’s scariest run, the upper part is the actual monster. To enter the snow, skiers must dive off a cornice, between ten to 30 feet (nine meters) tall depending on conditions, followed by a 60-degree, 50-foot (15-meter) wide chute, rocks on both sides.
Delirium Dive in Banff ski resort, Alberta, is the very definition of hardcore skiing. To start the ride, you must take a near vertical plunge off the cliffs at the top and land into a narrow chute marking the start of a ridiculous 50-degree powder-covered slope.
When it comes to skiing and mountaineering, the French Alps have it all. You won’t find any groomed or marked runs, ski patrols or formal avalanche control on La Grave, “grave” in French. What you will find is a solitary cable car on the top of La Meije Glacier in Les Deux Alpes, opening to some of the world’s most challenging north-facing slopes. Choose your descent wisely and watch out for sneaky obstacles like cliffs, narrow couloirs, vertical rocks, crevasses, avalanches and extreme weather.
Take the Saulire Télépherique cable car, hike the scary path, and reach the steep chute that marks the beginning of Grand Couloir, the wildest and only market run of the three legendary Courchevel couloirs in France. But then again, “easy” is such a relative term. The couloir is not too narrow but it is quite steep and can be particularly deceiving when heavily moguled or when covered in ice.
The sign at the top reads “Experts only.” Officially called The Chavanette but widely recognized as The Swiss Wall, the top of the run stands right at the border between France and Switzerland, above Avoriaz ski resort. Never groomed, it is so steep you can barely see what lies ahead. Huge moguls, 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) of fresh powder and one of the world’s most rapid descents take you straight into Switzerland. The difficulty depends on conditions. After a decent snowfall, anyone in tip-top shape can attempt the run as long as they are mentally prepared for the 50-degree pitch. But when coated in ice, it turns into a man-eating monster.
Deep-powder off-piste skiing
Basically, if you can’t make a snowball out of it, it’s powder. Skiing on freshly fallen snow, not yet groomed or compressed, floating on its surface, does offer an unmatched sense of freedom. Off-piste skiing can simply be explained as off the beaten track, plunging into unmarked terrain. Naturally, this poses several dangers like ice, vertical drops or solid moguls, the biggest of which are avalanches.
When it comes to powder, quantity and quality are equally important. The Alta ski area in Utah has both. Their motto is “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” and it sure lives up to its reputation. Skiers love Alta for its steepness, freeriders for its dry powder and countless off-piste possibilities. Alta is connected to Snowbird by a short path, and skiers can opt for a joint ski pass.
For snow-sure skiing, look no further than British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb. Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain combined offer over 200 marked runs, forming North America’s biggest, steepest and longest ski area. Intermediates will find plenty of groomed slopes to have fun on, while powder hounds can exploit the varied terrain with bowls, couloirs, gullies and cliffs.
You can’t even enter the cable car with skis without a guide. The Backside of the Valluga, the huge bowl beneath the 9,222-foot (2,809-meter) Valluga summit above Austria’s ski resort of St. Anton, poses quite a few dangers.
When snow is plentiful, it is an off-piste paradise. Although the descent itself is not very demanding from a technical point of view, you need a strong stomach to get through. The first pitch has good powder and the angle is not very severe, but it ends with a ravine. Miss the left hand turn and you end up 2,300 feet (700 meters) below the vertical cliffs. If you do make it past the danger zone, a long and picturesque run awaits, with powder fields and bowls all the way to the village of Zürs.
Slopes to enjoy the view
These runs take you at high elevations on narrow ridges, where powder meets stunning mountain scenery. But high altitudes do have their downsides. Thick fog can cover the mountain without warning, allowing you to see no further than a few feet away. Wind gusts can throw you off your feet before beginning your descent.
Verbier is a Swiss chalet-style resort overlooking Europe’s highest and most inspiring peaks – Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and their many pointy towers and glaciers. It counts over 250 miles (400 kilometers) of runs and is considered the home of extreme skiing. Verbier’s slopes, off-piste of course, can easily wear out even the fittest of skiers. No wonder they’re rated black.
The most popular is the one off the back of Mont Fort, a huge bowl with untracked powder for a remote, adrenaline-pumping descent. After heavy snowfall, the north-facing Tortin becomes a heavily moguled powder paradise, one of Switzerland’s toughest runs. When the powder is less plentiful, it inspires terror. Legendary runs like Stairway to Heaven and Rock Garden, accessible through a short hike, both drop into a deserted, picture-perfect valley.
From the top of Mont Blanc’s Aiguille du Midi, 12,600 feet (3,842 meters) above sea level, Vallée Blanche is the world’s longest off-piste run, 15 miles (24 kilometers) to be precise. Not too steep, there are more ways to tackle the descent. In proper conditions, intermediates can try their hand at this one too, although the hike on the narrow ridge to the starting point can be pretty scary. It offers excellent views of crevasses, seracs, rocky towers, Mont Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses, standing proud above the traditional mountain town of Chamonix, the daddy of off-piste terrain.
If it’s adrenaline you want, take the Bochard Gondola to the top of Grand Montets to be welcomed by a series of warning signs. If you choose to ignore them, you’ll dive straight into La Poubelle, “garbage can” in French. First, you have to get to the start, which is no easy task. You must rappel 100 feet (30 meters) over some rocks to get to the snow. Here, you’ll be facing a narrow couloir that demands tight jump turns, then plunge into a large powder bowl to gain some serious speed. Wait, it’s not over yet! Another 65-foot (20-meter) rappel down some cliffs is another obstacle you need to get past in one piece.
With each heavy snowfall, powder hounds have only one place they need to be – on the slope. It is a never-ending journey, conditions constantly change and snow can turn into a man-eating monster in a matter of hours. But for some, this only adds up to the challenge. So tell us, where will you be skiing this winter?