The fastest, and cheapest, way to access a good backcountry stash is to look beyond the obvious (and über expensive) resorts to some of the lesser-known gems. Martin Chester has scoured the bargain buckets of the tour operators for some great package deals to some great places
Before I became a professional ski bum, I was just an average run-of-the-mill-and perpetually-skint ski bum like so many others. Winters were spent with the wife, travelling and dossing in the back of our ex-Post Office van, exploring the obscure nooks and crannies of the Alps by skins.
Now an IFMGA guide, I have been running bespoke ski touring adventures for my clients for many years. I still take great pleasure in getting off the beaten track – away from the crowds (and expensive lift passes) to find some secret gems. Even better is the fact that these places usually offer greater adventure at lower prices than any of the crowded and better-known resorts. But every so often, someone calls me up to say they have found a package to compete with our flights and transfers, and my ears prick up.
A couple of years ago, my favourite ever hotel in Austria (the Alpenhotel Tirol in Galtür) was ‘discovered’ by Crystal Ski. All of a sudden, it was possible to buy a cheap package deal, as a great-value way to get flights, transfers and accommodation – all at a lower cost than we could ever achieve alone. Hence it became possible to bolt-on some great off-piste itineraries; the odd day tour, and maybe even a night in a hut, without blowing the budget.
So we wondered where else the package might compete as the best way to get more than your fair share of freshies this coming winter…
Passo Tonale, Italy
Skinning up to the Caduti dell’Adamello hut in Passo Tonale | Martin Chester
Passo Tonale is the perfect staging post for access to the Adamello and Presanella mountains. It’s also the winter home of guide Cain Olsen who knows the area better than most.
Where is it, I hear you ask? These are technically the Rhaetian Alps, but you might recognise them as the stunning glacial peaks to the north-west of the Brenta Dolomites, and to the south of the Ortler. Being in the heart of Italy, the snow record is super-good, the hospitality is second to none, and it seems to be a civil liberty to pay no more more than €1 for the best coffee of the winter.
Passo Tonale is all about great skiing at great value, but it’s not the liveliest place you will ever stay. The good news is that the ‘small but perfectly formed’ lift system keeps the cost down and the crowds at bay, while giving access to some amazing backcountry and off-piste itineraries.
The package: Half-board packages from £545 at the three-star Hotel Eden, including flights from Gatwick to Verona and transfers from crystalski.co.uk.
The classic descent: Tackle the most famous off-piste route on the Tonale – the Fuoripista Cantiere – descending the upper slopes of the beautiful Val Presena, or Sgualdrina valley as it is often called.
The day tour: The super-classic Pisganino should be on everyone’s bucket list, with only 400m of skinning providing access to more than 2000m of descent.
An overnight in a hut: The glaciated terrain of the Adamello is home to some great tours from great huts, and the Caduti dell’Adamello at Lobbia Alta and Città di Trento at Mandrone are open from mid-March to the start of May.
Get a guide: Hire Cain Olsen at mountainguidesitaly.com
La Clusaz, France
Room with a view: sunset at the Gramusset refuge | Martin Chester
While the ski resorts around Geneva are heaving with Brits in high season (and for good reason), the vast majority tend to stick to the well-known areas to the left of the road to Chamonix and the Portes du Soleil.
Over the road, nestling between Cluses, Annecy and Albertville is a more forgotten corner of the Alps. Megeve and St Gervais are the home and stomping ground of Bruce Goodlad – mountain guide, author, and a regular contributor to these pages.
But a favourite and lesser frequented area is ever so slightly further over towards the Col des Aravis and La Clusaz, or even Grand Bornand is as good (and great value) base as any. The ski area is comprehensive and well linked; the off-piste is rarely as quickly tracked as elsewhere in the area; there are a plethora of options for getting out of bounds with skins; and the day tours in the magnificent bowls of the Aravis are as good as it gets.
The package: Crystal Ski wins again with a self-catering apartment in La Residence for only £630 – and this includes flights from Gatwick to Geneva, transfers and your lift pass!
The classic descent: Get first tracks in the Combe du Borderan after a fresh dump and it’ll be a great start to your day. Now go amd explore the multitude of other great descents on offer.
The day tour: Hard to pick a favourite, but the Combe du Tardevant up to l’Ambrevetta is a good solid bet.
An overnight in a hut: The refuge Gramusset is tucked in under Pointe Percée, and is a great way to link the skiing between La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornand.
Get a guide: Bruce Goodlad is a local guide and fount of all knowledge for that area.
Not too shabby: the view from Cabanne des Becs du Bosson | Martin Chester
The Swiss valley of the Val d’Anniviers is not so well known amongst the Brits. Yet it is home to a wide range of fantastic village resorts. In their own right, only Zinal and Grimentz have made an independent name for themselves, but St Luc, Chandolin and Vercorin are all worth a visit.
Regular Fall-Line contributors and backcountry aficionados Eric and Penny Kendall are based here in Zinal (skizinal.com) and it is the home to Nick Parks – the founding guide of Mountain Tracks. So why does someone like Nick, who has skied all over the world choose to live in Zinal? Because the terrain is awesome, the return on the investment is huge, and there are secret nooks and crannies to ski freshies long after the goods are gone elsewhere.
Add to this the fact that the majority of the terrain is non-glaciated, so you can enjoy epic descents with a far-from-epic pack!
The package: Ski Solutions can get you seven nights in a self-catering apartment in Chalet Dragon for just £430. Flights and transfers extra.
The classic descent: Now that the new lift links Grimentz to Zinal, the descent from the Sorrebois to the Moiry Dam has become an über classic. Don’t forget to check out the plethora of couloirs available on the way up though…
The day tour: The opportunities are literally endless, but a quick skin off the top of the lift system will quickly gain access to the plateau of the Lac de Lona and the Basset de Lona, with an excellent ski down to the Moiry dam and back to Grimentz. Get a local guide for the spicier alternatives!
An overnight in a hut: The Cabanne des Becs du Bossons regularly features as a veritable gem in my ski season. Quickly accessed from the top of the Grimentz lift system, a picture postcard overnight stay gives instant access to the amazing Réchy valley the next morning.
Get a guide: Nick Parks is the local guide in the know at Grimentz Zinal Backcountry Adventures; or contact the team at Mountain Tracks.
Galtür & Ischgl, Austria
Galtür became famous for all the wrong reasons following the great avalanche disaster in 1999. The authentic alpine village is just up the valley from Ischgl and provides access to all the good skiing at a fraction of the cost of its glitzy big brother. Furthermore, the free and regular bus service allows you to ski in Wirl, Ischgl, Kappl and even the secret tree-covered gem of See on the same Silvretta Pass.
The skiing is as varied as it is comprehensive, and the ease of access into the Silvretta Alps (especially now the new Piz Val Gronda lift has been completed) is second to none.
The package: With Crystal Ski you can get seven nights half-board (in the most amazing four-star luxury) at the Alpenhotel Tyrol for only £700, including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers.
The classic descent: Now the new lift is in place, work your way (off-piste, of course) to the Piz Val Gronda. In the right snow, the north-west-facing descents back into the Fimber Tal are awesome. Time for another lap!
The day tour: High above the village of Wirl, the Gorfen Spitze is a refreshing antidote to the bustle of the lift skiing. With 1000m of north-west-facing slopes, never less than 20°, there is not a duff turn to be had.
An overnight in a hut: The quintessential trip is to extend the Val Gronda descent to the Heidelberger hut for the night. The next day, a modest skin will get you over the Kronen Joch, from where you can ski some 15km through the Silvretta Alps, descending 1300m to take your skis off in the hotel car park.
Get a guide: I am always mad keen to go back and share some more obscure itineraries, so find me via martinchester.co.uk
The wild lift-served backcountry of Hemsedal | Hemsedal Tourist Board
Hemsedal is a small resort on the Norwegian Freeride Tour, to the north-west of Oslo. I first visited Hemsedal some 25 years ago, and have been going back ever since. On my last trip, I rented a cheap self-catering log cabin, just down the road from the bottom of the lifts. It was bliss.
Every morning for a week I would dig myself out of the fresh overnight snow, flop the skis down at the door, and choose between lift-served backcountry, a quick tour over the other side of the valley or a day of ice-climbing. Being so far north, Hemsedal is snow sure, yet the days lengthen as you get into early spring. March is a great time to visit!
The package: Crystal Ski have regular weekly deals from Gatwick – but there is nothing listed beyond December as yet, so keep any eye on Crystal’s website…
The classic descent: With loads to choose from, head for the top of the system and the summit of the Totten. The classic run is a long, steep couloir known as the Annus. Be careful though, as many appealing tree-lines end in icefalls!
The day tour: Skogshorn, Nibbi and Skurvefjell all offer great day tours, but don’t let their modest height put you off. With summits around 1700m, that still fits over 1000m of great terrain before you get back to the valley.
An overnight in a hut: The Norwegian Trekking Association (known as the DNT) have a great range of huts, but they are mostly the reserve of the skinny-skiing cross-country posse. Give it a go for a change, or stick to the great freeride options around the resort as well as the day trips from your cosy cabin in the valley.
Get a guide: The Hemsedal website is full of info and links to local guides, but I would gladly go back again so get in touch with me at martinchester.co.uk
To make this fair, we based any price comparisons on two adults, leaving London on Saturday 4 March 2017. This way, we can find some fantastic packages for seven nights, at the height (or depth – as it is snow we are after) of the season, when conditions are consolidated and some great day tours become an option. We also went out of our way to avoid any school holidays…