Six of the best sidecountry skiing spots

The best pow doesn’t always have to be hard work. Here are Fall-Line’s favourite sidecountry hits, all within five minutes’ hike of lifts, pistes and civilisation

Niseko, Japan

Niseko is made up of four interlinked mountains on the mythical island of Hokkaido, all incredible and ever so snowy. My pick of the sidecountry bunch after 15 weeks here is above Hanazono Hooded Quad No. 3. So good, it’s where I go in my dreams…

Stand with your back to the main town, Hirafu, and this is top right, just under what everyone calls The Peak (Mt Niseko Annupuri). And while that’s a near-hour bootpack, this is just a 90-second shuffle, often through shin-deep powder. Check your beacon, dial-up a huge grin and push out of gate five (one of the mountain’s many out-of-bounds but avalanche controlled sweet spots). Ignore the urge to dive right down the first candyfloss slot that takes most of the traffic, and instead hug the ridge and traverse.

My favourite is gully three with its perfect pow pitch and heaven-sent silver birch. Forty incredible minutes’ skiing later, it’s just a short walk to pop back out on the aptly-named Stairway To Heaven piste.

Orcières Merlette 1850, France

I was in this little-known resort in the Hautes-Alpes (south of all the usual French candidates) last winter, hoping for a dump that never came. Instead, rain (and high winds) wrecked what had been a pretty good February base.

But skiing below Lac Des Estaris on the classic Prapric itinerary (accessed via a 10-minute traverse from the top of the Estaris chairlift and so-called as the run ends above the town with the same name) it was impossible not to think: what if? And: must come back. Because even in shitty conditions, this long, flowing, ever so wild zone is majestic. A 50-minute joy ride mixing couloirs, trees, open rips and a… river crossing! Always amusing in ski boots as long as you’re not the one who ends up knee deep in freezing water.

If you like a hike, tack on 2956m Roche Brune to start (via the Le Gnourou lift and a 40-minute bootpack). Oh, and best book a guide if only to arrange your pick-up at the end, as it’s a reasonable drive or hitch back to resort.

Winter Park, USA

Proceed with caution. We’re going out of the ski area. Onto public land. That is Forest-Commission controlled. God knows what the Winter Park policy is on this. I daren’t ask for fear of driving them up the wall.

Whether they’ll take your pass if caught? How much a rescue will cost? If any of that puts the wind up you (or you’re solo, without the right kit, or understanding of topography – as everywhere looks identical in wooded-terrain this thick) stay safe, smart and head for the also excellent Cirque area for an inbounds hike/ride.

If not, we’re heading top left of the resort map, keeping eyes skier’s right for a backcountry gate off Parry’s Peak. Called 40 Gate, as all out-runs meet Highway 40, I only found this via a friend of a friend doing a season here in the early 2000s. Intermediate at the time, it was an awesome, incredible world of gnar for me, usually followed by a redneck truck ride back to resort.

Sweet, sweet Hokkaido powder |Pally Learmond/Red Bull Content Pool

Sweet, sweet Hokkaido powder |Pally Learmond/Red Bull Content Pool

Furano, Japan

Because Furano is owned by a hotel group, it feels like all the effort and money goes into lodging, with the ski hill just an afterthought. The gondola creaks and needs a coat of paint, the 100-passenger ropeway delights in shutting mid-afternoon and tortuously spacing its laps. But damn, the sidecountry’s incredible! And has few people skiing it (with most of the hotels’ guests beginners or professional hot tubbers).

Pick of the options is the Dam Run: my most memorable trail in over a decade skiing Japan. Hop off the top lift, Downhill Romance No. 3 (only in Asia could it be called this), cut skier’s right off the Panorama black run and you’re in.

Hug the contours, and carefully nibble rather than devour the fall-line to stay well above the river. I’ve never been in here and seen more than a single person, nor had anything less than knee-deep pow. Legs burning, reach the damn wall, clamber up and ski the narrowest, craziest cat track between trees you ever saw.

Sunshine Village, Canada

From the top of the Continental Divide Quad (peel left for Pacific, right for Atlantic) follow signs to the Delirium Dive gate. Bleep your beacon to buzz in (no solos allowed; must have full avi gear too) then it’s a short hike to the entry of Sunshine Village‘s large off-piste, but controlled, area.

If the force (and health insurance premium) is strong in you, just below the summit there’s a five-metre rock band to drop; or you can get a little lower via the flight of access stairs.

I definitely did the latter, and be assured this is not one of those zones that’s all chat. Conditions weren’t great when I was there, but it’s more than a little amateur Alaska: all steep/rocky start, then slowly mellowing into a beautiful bowl (although there was a mandatory three-metre drop to access the out-run during my visit).

If you’ve no gear/experience, you’re fine too, as the resort runs instructor-led show-rounds. The Wild West zone here is even more of a challenge, if you want to push it…

Verbier, Switzerland

Don’t worry, we haven’t gone totally crackers. It’s not Verbier’s Bec Des Rosses (where the Freeride World Tour ends every season) that we’re on about. Or even no-fall-zone stuff off Mont Fort. Instead it’s mighty but easy Mont Gelé.

Plenty complain the cable car’s never bloody running, but catch the conditions right and you’re dropped at 3002m (saving a 50-minute hike) just below the summit.

Unlike plenty of lines here, it’s not technical – so come on down intermediates – as long as you stick to the two official marked, but unpisted, itineraries (rather than going couloir searching). Either head down the south face to La Chaux, going hard left to avoid the rock bands below, before the face opens into a huge bowl, or carry straight on out of the lift over the back for Tortin. Both are long and mighty, and in great snow, hard to beat. On the downside they get a load more traffic than the other options mentioned here. So have an early-up strategy. Or hire a guide.

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