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Top 5 ski resorts for experts

by Fraser Wilkin, 24th February 2014

Andermatt, Switzerland Gemsstock, Andermatt

Looking for the most challenging slopes in the Alps? Here’s our pick of the 5 best ski resorts in Europe for experts.

 

Long fluffy mogul pitches, open powder bowls, steeps, chutes, couloirs - these legendary resorts have it covered and are guaranteed to set your pulse racing.

1. Chamonix, France

Self-styed “extreme sports capital of the world”, Chamonix Mt Blanc offers some of the longest and most challenging descents in the Alps.

 

The valley has six main areas, but for expert skiers the biggest draw is undoubtedly the Grand Montets above Argentière. A two stage cable-car rises 2km above the valley floor to 3275m from where the off-piste possibilities are endless. To the right (as you look down) there are several interesting routes towards the Glacier d’Argentière. To the left you can access the famous (and steep) Pas de Chèvre, that passes under the colossal granite spire of Le Dru. Either way, a guide is essential as this is serious (often glaciated) high mountain terrain – the kind of place that inspired (and is still used in) many of the classic ski extreme movies.

Pas de Chèvre, Chamonix, France Pas de Chèvre - Photo: highmountainguides.com

There are plenty of on-piste challenges too, including two epic blacks off the top of the Grand Montets itself. The first (Pylones) follows the fall-line under the cable-car and is usually mogulled from top to bottom. The second (Pointe du Vue) dips out of sight of the lift system and gets you up close and personal with the Glacier d’Argentière – making this one of the most visually spectacular pistes in the Alps.

 

There is lots to amuse experts elsewhere in the valley. The Valleé Blanche (perhaps the most famous off-piste run in the Alps) may not be technically demanding, but it is exceptionally long (21km) and not without its dangers. There are endless variations to the standard descent, depending on your level of expertise and experience.

 

The other main sectors in the Chamonix valley also offer plenty of off-piste, notably Le Brévent (directly above town), though snow conditions here are unpredictable due to its southerly orientation. There is additionally, contrary to popular belief, plenty of tree skiing should the weather sock in. The best of this is at Les Houches (home to the famous Kandahar downhill run,) but there is also lots of fun to be had in Le Tour and Vallorcine at the opposite end of the valley.

7 nights at the Hotel Les Grands Montets from £725pp

(including flights, transfers and B&B)

 

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2. Verbier, Switzerland

When it comes to easily accessible, world-class off-piste skiing, Verbier is up there with the best of them - only perhaps Val d’Isère and Tignes give you more options without the need for a serious hike. What’s more, Verbier’s upper slopes have a serious “high mountain” feel, with some of the most spectacular and far-reaching views in the Alps.

 

Only one piste presents a genuine challenge - the steep and relentlessly mogulled black off the top of Mont Fort. However, there are numerous itinerary runs (marked and avalanche controlled, but neither groomed nor patrolled) which are often skied into a piste-like state.

Mont Fort, Verbier, Switzerland View from the top of Mont Fort (with Matterhorn middle left)

Mont Gelé’s cable-car accesses some of Verbier’s most famous expert terrain. The long, steep, open slopes down to Sivier are particularly satisfying, and excellent for honing your powder technique. There are narrower and technically more demanding options in the other direction towards Lac de Vaux.

 

The runs off the back of Mont Fort (Verbier’s high point) are also legendary, as are the couloirs on Attelas - small wonder the free-ride world tour finals are held here!

 

In bad weather, try Bruson across the valley. Not only are its slopes heavily wooded (invaluable in poor visibility), but few people bother making the journey (despite a new link) and you may find you have the slopes to yourselves.

7 nights at the Hotel Cordée des Alpes from £1295pp,

(including flights, transfers and B&B)

 

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3. St Anton, Austria

In other Alpine countries the question as to which ski resort is best for experts is open to debate. In France, you could make a case for Chamonix or Val d’Isère. In Switzerland, it could be Verbier, Andermatt or Zermatt. When it comes to Austria, however, there is no contest. Steeped in mountain history, St Anton am Arlberg is not only one of the best known resorts in the Alps, it is also right up there among the most challenging.

Valluga, St Anton, Austria The vast snowy bowls of the Valluga - Photo: worldsnowboardingguide.com

St Anton’s most famous mountain is the Valluga, its vast snowy bowls reached by a choice of lift – either the Schindlergrat chair or the Valluga 1 cable-car. There are two main itinerary runs down, but also plenty of free-riding terrain that becomes a powder lover’s paradise after a big snowfall. A second cable car (Valluga 2) accesses the 2810m summit from where you can ski down towards Zürs on the spectacular, but hair-raising (and highly technical) “North Face, Bridge Couloir and East Couloir” off-piste routes.

 

On the opposite side of St Anton, Rendl also has plenty to amuse experts with a mixture of woods and high open bowls. This area is less crowded than Valluga – as is the Albona sector above Stüben, which is where many of the locals make a bee-line for on their day off.

7 nights at the Lux Alpinae from £1350pp

(including flights, transfers and half board)

 

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4. Val d’Isère/Tignes, France

Collectively known as L’Espace Killy, Val d’Isère and Tignes have long been a huge draw for expert skiers and riders alike. Super-reliable snow is part of their appeal, but it’s the lift served off-piste that these resorts are most famous for. Simply put, no other resorts in the world offer such a variety of instantly accessible off-piste with so little effort. There are seemingly multiple options off the top of every lift, with little or no need for any hiking.

 

There are many classic descents, some of the best starting with a short traverse off the top of the Pisaillas glacier. This is the entry point for the famous Col Pers route which traverses a huge bowl before dropping down into the Gorges de Malpasset. In the right snow conditions you then ski over a frozen river before bottoming out at the Fornet cable car, a vertical drop of some 1400m.

Val d’Isère, France Powder turns in Val d’Isère - Photo: Pat Zimmer

Over on the Tignes side, the must do off-piste run is the Vallon de Sache starting at the top of the Aiguille Percée. This magical descent plunges 1200m vertical down a remote valley well away from the lift system and into the heart of the national park, finishing in the unspoilt hamlet of Tignes Les Brevières.

 

Val d’Isère and Tignes may be famous for their endless off-piste, but there are plenty of on-piste challenges too. Best known of these is the relentlessly mogulled La Face from the top of Bellevarde all the way down to Val d’Isère. Our favourite, however, is the beautiful Sache over in Tignes, not far from the classic off-piste route of similar name.

7 nights at the Hotel Le Samovar from £845pp

(including flights, transfers and B&B)

 

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5. Andermatt

If, like most expert skiers, you like your mountains tall, steep and exceptionally snowy, then Andermatt should be high on your list of priorities. Indeed, the chances of finding powder here are as high as anywhere in the Alps.

 

Why? Because Andermatt sits at a kind of weather crossroads that can snare storms from almost any direction. Add to that its impressive top height and slopes that face due north (much of the mountain doesn’t see any sun early in the season) and it’s not hard to see why its snow record is so revered.

Andermatt, Switzerland Andermatt dominated by the mighty Gemsstock

Reliably good snow makes Andermatt’s famous expert terrain even more appealing. The north face of the Gemsstock is basically one huge open bowl with a solitary challenging black and countless off-piste routes plunging nearly 1000m vertical to Gurschenalp, just below the mid-station. From there, a further black continues through the trees to Andermatt, or you can catch the lifts back up to the 2965m summit in preparation for another formidable descent.

 

Outside the main bowl there are routes away from the lift system, some of which wend their way back to the village, others that drop into deserted valleys and require a walk back out to civilisation.

 

Andermatt is changing - a new multi-billion dollar investment hopes to transform this once sleepy backwater into a major international resort. However, most of the new lifts will be on the gentler Nätschen side of town, and for now at least the Gemsstock’s uniquely un-commercialised “expert only” appeal is likely to remain intact.

7 nights at the Chedi Andermatt from £1755pp

(including flights, transfers and B&B)

 

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