In Search of Steeps

Vars Yeti Superior

Feel the gravity as Fall Line’s long-serving, and long-seeking, editor-at-large Jonny Richards picks his favourite marked runs from around the world – all gloriously steep

When you learn to ski, how steep becomes an obsession. Knees knocking, legs quivering, piste map almost always in hand, can you go green to blue… reach a little more to red… before, finally, bloody-hell-help-me it’s… black? 

Few things are as frightening, or rewarding, as upping the angle. And for some of us it’s a quest that never ends. Here are my choices for the most thrilling and frightening runs.

Kitakabe, Sapporo Teine, Japan 

There’s no better place on earth if you like skiing powder (not even Alaska) because the storms are so regular. It’s almost as if an immaculately uniformed Japanese officer from the department of snow, complete with white gloves and clipboard, is ordering the stuff in from Siberia, so consistent are the 20, 30 and 40cm drops. But, and it’s a big but, locations like Hokkaido, where the snow is most plentiful, struggle on steeps, being all mellow mountains gently rising up from sea level. Teine is the exception, my choice (after 20-plus weeks’ exploring Japan) for the perfect marriage of vertiginous and snowy. A slice of high-Alps action grafted onto Asia’s snowiest landmass. And the first time you catch sight of the north-facing slots from the bottom of the reassuringly precipitous Olympic Course that held the women’s GS in 1972 you’ll think: yes! I know I did…

Once loaded onto the high-speed Summit Express quad, there’ll be the familiar steeps-induced stomach-flutter as you survey the pitch, cliffs to skier’s left, and incredible views of Ishikari Bay as the waves crash in on Japan’s fourth largest city. 

And for me, it really did feel like I could ride Kitakabe, graded as Super Expert, and the steepest trail in resort, all the way to Sapporo, such is the aspect and incredible feel of the place. And while it is challenging, unlike plenty of other pistes here, it’s not worryingly sheer (peaking at a shade over 36°) so you can actually enjoy the run, and beseeching silver birches just off it, rather than be petrified.

Go, like we did on a week day, and wonder: where is everyone? A huge average snowfall (over 10m) and just a 40-minute drive from downtown – it really couldn’t be any more ‘yabai’ (amazing/wicked/awesome) as the locals say. 

φ sapporo-teine.com

Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole, USA

Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole, USA

There is only one marked run that has stopped me sleeping the night before I was due to try it. Only a single piste map-denoted trail that I began by lying flat on my stomach, inching forward like someone inspecting the edge of the world. 

Because in a bad snow year – which it was – bloody hell, Corbet’s is scary. So out of the usual skiing reality that I doubled checked I had remembered it correctly before writing this. Surely a slope that often begins with a mandatory four, five or even six-metres of air can’t be on the Jackson Hole official hit list? Can it? 

But yes, there it is (and was) lying in wait, a double-black-diamond slayer of the over-confident and under-skilled.

Locals say you might get lucky in a good snow year, late season, with a steep, narrow ramp sometimes building to skier’s left. But it was nothing like that the January I took it on with two friends.

Instead, bum perched perilously over the abyss, the idea was to swing your legs and smack your edges hard into the sheer, icy, wind-blown face. Then once set, stand to side-slip for as long as possible, before… dropping!

Apart from the fear, what I remember most is how quickly the ground rushed up. The side-slip was over almost immediately, and as I hit the hard snow below, the words of Jess McMillan, a Jackson local, and skier on the
Freeride World Tour at the time, sounded in my head like a survival alarm. 

“Get that turn in quick and avoid tomahawking into the cliff,” our guide for the day had warned, before adding:
“Are you sure you want to do this, it’s just plain nasty this season?”

Oh yes, the cliff. And if you think a big jump down a narrow chute onto a 50° slope isn’t enough, there’s also a brutal chunk of the Tetons jutting out, ready to forcefully arrest your fall. Which wouldn’t be such an issue if you weren’t travelling at 30-odd mph due to the vert.

None of our group were anything like as neat as Jess, who performed an almost balletic airplane-turn mid-air to take the giant rock out of the equation. But we made it. And just as importantly made ourselves do it, which is just as much a part of the challenge as the physical act of getting down. 

And during our few days in Wyoming we saw dozens take a look before turning back for the easy out that is Rendezvous Bowl, with only two skiers actually taking on the run. With this in mind, I’d strongly suggest not looking at Corbet’s as you ride the resort’s famous tram to the 3185m summit. This will sound counter-intuitive, but because the view is straight on, the couloir will freak you out. It looks absurdly massive and steep, and I know from experience that the extra ‘worry’ time this glimpse can give you is far from beneficial. Instead, take the two-minute run down from the top cabin, and scope the run from the entry cornice.

Yes, you will still be filled with dread and doubts. But you can do it, you’re Fall-Line readers after all. And boy does it feel good… unless you break a rib, but that was only one of our group!

φ jacksonhole.com

Yeti Superior, Vars, France

Yeti Superior, Vars, France

This is the Hautes Alpes joker in the pack, the faux ami, the rule breaker. Because the idea of this feature was for
all routes to be marked on their mountain’s official piste map. And all are… with the exception of dear Yeti. But it’s just too good, and too damn close to Vars’ impressive infrastructure to miss.

And whisper it quietly (as we don’t want my boss, and possibly your insurance provider to hear) but what’s a
one-hour hike above the Col de Crévoux between friends? Especially when it opens up a legendary competition face that hosted the Red Bull Linecatcher – and Sage, JP, Candide and co. – for so many years.

To find it, for once you must deviate from the time-honoured tradition of simply locating the highest lift in resort. Instead, seek out the freestyle park above Vars Les Claux, and ride the Crevoux chair to its 2530m summit. Once here, take off a layer or two and steel yourself, because the hike is… demanding! 

“Just how challenging? Let’s just say it’s been five years since I did it, and still the memories of exposure and exertion make me blow out my cheeks”

Just how challenging? Well, let’s just say it’s been five years since I did it, and still the memories of exposure and exertion make me blow out my cheeks. With a bootpack so steep in parts that you find yourself pressing your whole body to the face, praying you don’t cartwheel down the entire L’Eyssina ridge and end up in the emergency department. 

Once through the climb, and past the fairly easy walk along the shoulder, you’re presented with a choice of six couloirs that in recent years have regularly hosted Freeride World Qualifier events. 

With a snowpack that can be iffy due to the steepness and unfavourable aspect, plus plenty of cliffs and sections that are perilously close to no-fall zones, there’s much to consider (and fear). And as you look down from beyond the radio mast at the entry to it all, crikey, the lifts and skiers of Vars and connected Risoul suddenly look very, very small.

What I remember most though, is how much I took from the experience; the satisfaction I got from taking a calculated risk or two and pushing my level.

In fact, when our guide Karl, from local operation Evolution 2, asked our group of five who fancied another lap, my hand shot up – even if my leg muscles exclaimed WTF?!

And speaking of encores (and swearing), don’t fret if your ski leader opts for the shorter hike and slightly easier L’Epaule to assess your skills before graduating to next-door Yeti Superior. Because make no mistake, the latter is a beast – even without the extra kickers they used to build for the Linecatcher contest – that’s best tackled with a healthy dose of respect.

φ vars.com

Steep Gully 1, Arapahoe Basin, USA

Steep Gully 1, Arapahoe Basin, USA

I used to call this Colorado resort small but mighty. But it’s been growing in the last few years to a wonderfully ripe 1428 acres. And is now so good, if you put me on the spot asking where I’d head if I could ski anywhere in North America for the day, this would be my choice.

Why? Well, it’s a doddle to reach from Denver (68 miles), has kept the feeling of a happy family hill that’s pleased to see you, despite the recent expansions, and most important of all not only has the steeps we’re after, but skis much bigger than its mid-table (in terms of US resorts) size.

Also, nowhere I’ve tried can match its lift-to-ski time. And if you pick wisely, a brilliant 1:3 ratio can be yours via legendary chairs such as Pallavicini and north-facing double-diamond bangers like Turbo, Spine and Rock Garden. 

“My notes simply read: bloody hell, steep, tight and long… then trees!”

Before the new terrain opened in 2018, Gauthier was my favourite – a short, jagged, brute of a chute that peaks at 46°. And the 10 years in-the-planning Steep Gullies offer more of the same… but longer! The best of Colorado and the Rockies, if you like, via a series of challenging, involving, addictive – thanks to just a dash of terrifying being thrown into the mix – slots. All appear hell-bent on inflicting an almighty yard-sale upon you, throwing skiers down to the road below far faster than they’d wish. While the tight, steep faces, plus ferocious rock walls, nasty-ass moguls and sharks aplenty, ensure all of the quintet (they are simply labelled Steep Gullies 1-5) easily merit inclusion here. 

In the end, SG 1 is the pick, thanks to the write-up in my notes, scrawled during a much-needed end-of-the-day pint in A-Basin’s 6th Alley bar, that simply reads: ʻBloody hell, steep tight and long… then trees!ʼ 

The only fly in the ointment, to an outsider at least, is the 30-minute slightly uphill hike that’s required to exit all the Steep Gullies. But boy are they worth it. And it does thin the crowds; never a bad thing in this ski-mad part of the world. 

φ arapahoebasin.com