The best resorts for adventure
11 Chamonix, France
Ringed with glaciers and massive peaks, Chamonix can feel brooding and slightly claustrophobic even in bright sunshine. It is attractive, historic, buzzing with activity, shops and nightlife, but it’s a place for adventure not relaxation and you can feel your pulse quicken as you arrive in town.
Along the valley, there are 44 lifts and 155km of pistes, spread across four distinct ski areas, but it is the abundance of off-piste routes through the impressive alpine scenery that keeps drawing skiers.
The Grand Montets ski area, towards the Swiss border and 8km northeast of the town, has one of the biggest vertical drops in the Alps: 2,035m. Many of the runs are fairly challenging – the Pas de Chèvre (Goat’s Step), for example, is a classic descent which drops off the back of the ski area to the Mer de Glace, the wide glacier at the end of the Vallée Blanche. A guide is recommended – the route involves couloirs and sometimes a small section needs to be abseiled. But there’s plenty of less challenging skiing too, with dramatic close-up views of the Argentière glacier.
The Vallée Blanche is itself one of the Alps’ most celebrated runs, a glacier descent of up to 24km. Just getting to the start of it is an adventure. First there’s the two-stage, cable-car journey from the town centre, at 1,035m, to the Aiguille du Midi summit, at 3,842m – the world’s longest such journey. The original lift was built in 1955 – an extraordinary feat of engineering in such steep and rugged terrain. It’s worth knowing that there’s some surprisingly little-known off-piste skiing from the halfway stage: most skiers are so intent on getting to the top to ski the Vallée Blanche that it would seem pointless to get off halfway.
At the top, you and your guide (it’s foolhardy not to hire one, because of crevasse danger) must walk down an exposed, narrow ridge, holding on to a fixed rope, before putting on skis. For some, this is the scariest part of the descent. On no account wander off to the left under the rope if there’s a sudden call of nature, as you could find yourself hurtling down to Chamonix, almost 3,000m below.
Most first-time visitors will take the classic route to find out what the Vallée Blanche experience is like. Technically easy, it allows you to take in some truly astonishing scenery: you’re surrounded by lofty crags, spires and needles. Snowboarders won’t like the long, flat section across the Mer de Glace at the end of the descent, unavoidable whichever route you take. Steeper variants of the classic route like the Envers du Plan and the Vrai Vallée Blanche are more challenging and satisfying. Many skiers end at the mountain-railway station at Montenvers, for the 25-minute journey back to Chamonix, but in good snow conditions you can continue right to town, a route that eventually brings even the most extreme skiers – ropes and ice axes dangling from their backpacks – right back on to the nursery slope.
12 Alagna, Italy
Three linked villages, Alagna, Gressoney and Champoluc, make up Monterosa, “the only ski area in Europe where you can do everything on skis you could ever wish for,” says British guide Nigel Shepherd. “You can do steeps, gnarly abseil entries, day tours, heliskiing, big glacier trips, lots of pistes, tree-skiing.” Alagna is by far the best for adventurous experts (but the worst for intermediate piste skiers). The huge sweep of mountainside above the idyllic village has just five marked pistes, the rest is left as a “free-ride paradise”.
Not a ski resort in the conventional sense, La Grave’s steep, rocky slopes are ungroomed, unpatrolled and unsecured against avalanches; this is “ski sauvage”. There’s just one main lift, plus a couple of short T-bars, but together they allow access to some of the Alps’ most challenging runs, passing through numerous narrow rocky couloirs. The area’s feared status was reinforced when US extreme ski champion Doug Coombs was killed here in 2006.
14 Andermatt, Switzerland
At the crossroads of three key alpine passes, Andermatt was an important garrison for most of the last century, but today it’s skiers rather than soldiers who fill the few bars on the sleepy main street. They are drawn here by the Gemsstock, a 2,965m north-facing mountain right above the village, and with a cable car right to the top. Piste skiing is limited, but there are enough long, off-piste routes to keep even the best skiers busy for weeks.
15 Verbier, Switzerland
Where Alagna, La Grave and Andermatt are tiny villages only suited to experts, Verbier is a vast resort catering for skiers of all types, not to mention those who come for its glitzy clubs and bars. Nevertheless, for lift-accessed, off-piste skiing, it’s hard to beat, with a host of celebrated descents. Be quick though: only early birds will get fresh tracks.