Want to join skiing’s pow division? There’s no easier way than a large portion of sidecountry. Here are Fall-Line’s favourite lesser-known spots for all-day freshies
Les 7 Laux, France
This place is a happy contrast to the marathon journey required for many of the exotic options featured here – at just 30 minutes from downtown Grenoble – but in many ways it is just as exciting. I mean, who do you know that’s ever skied here? Or even heard of the place? But boy do they get some snow, with the resort’s location in the Belledonne meaning any storm rolling in from the west dumps on it.
The sweet spot is the summit lift Pouta (topping out at 2400m), which gives access to the sort of ridge line, with options either side, that decent skiers dream of. Hike or skin just a little beyond the Vallons du Pra black run and the vast bowl beneath the Pic des Cabottes is an all-you-can eat buffet of awesome.
There’s no doubt about this, it’s an absolute f***** to get to (requiring UK to Stockholm, then all-day faff before internal flight to Kiruna followed by 90-minute drive). But where else are you going to get amazing sidecountry and the Northern Lights?!
I was in Riksgränsen last season for the Haglofs Arctic Weekend (hopefully happening again this winter, details as we get them) and despite being surrounded by every shit-hot skier in northern Europe, it never felt too busy or tracked. So heaven knows how good it would be when the elite are not in town.
The mountains are not huge, but large enough to hold the Scandi Big Mountain Championships, and the feel is very much: you’re here, so no doubt you can handle yourself, have a small amount of cut runs and a monster menu of off-piste.
You really have to want to visit this little-known diamond, passing far more celebrated resorts like Breckenridge, Vail and Copper on the road out from Denver. But in my view the four-hour drive is so worth it, especially with them spending $5m this summer installing their first… high speed lift! And on a good day, despite its size (just 1600 acres), you really will have a session to rival any mountain in the world.
Why? Well, it has a magic feel and soul that the big players lost years ago, and the pillows are sensational thanks to the natural terrain being boulder fields. I was here one March, a week after the last snow, and it was still glorious and powder-filled with the sort of tree runs and tight bump trails that keep you dreaming of skiing.
I was not lucky with the snow when visiting this South Colorado resort in 2014. But I did all the hikes and scoped all the terrain and even in poor condition, God it’s gnarly… and exciting. With a decent storm blowing in, I’m not sure there’s a hill I’d rather be at in terms of sidecountry.
Gold Hill Chutes reminded me of the best of mighty Jackson Hole, with a load of options from five to 40 minutes’ walk, with the far-end steepest stuff even needing a rope-assisted entry. Across the huge powder basin below, Dihedral Chute is a mini-Alaska rolling malevolently away beneath your feet so you’re totally unsighted into yet another couloir set (some with cheats, others just mandatory airs!). Towering above it all is the biggest challenge of the lot: the fire-breathing 4060m Palmyra Peak with mythical runs like Senior’s.
Val Senales, Italy
South Tyrol doesn’t have to mean rammed Dolomite slopes and everyone bashing round the Sella Ronda like they have a firecracker up their arse. And the Schnals valley couldn’t be more different to Alta Badia and co. Minimal lifts, mellow ambiance, more famous for Ötzi, the 5000-year-old ice-man, than its ski runs. But what they have can be magnificent in the right conditions.
Eric Kendall, Fall-Line’s long-serving backcountry guru, warns that high winds can stop powder play, but it more than makes up for it with a snow-sure glacier, cable car to shoot you up there, and features like the Croda Nera cliffs and Vedretta Peak. Eric, who’s skied over 300 resorts, rates it as his favourite lesser-known Euro spot for sidecountry, and loves the nearby Bella Vista hut almost as much (see goldenerose.it for details).
Not featured in many guidebooks, and I only chanced upon this off-the-beaten-track place while touring the Pyrenees. But it knocked spots off all the other Spanish hills we took in during a week-long, resort-a-day road trip, and beats all the stuff I’ve skied on the French side of this underrated mountain range too.
Yes, it doesn’t quite have the charm of oh so Gallic Font Romeu, or the reputation and reach of Baqueira Beret (the most visited resort in this part of the world). But it’s just one of those places that feels so right. Much of that – like so many of the resorts here – is down to the perfect mix: good terrain and bugger all people! I really did wonder on various lonely lift rides how they were still in business. But who cares when the powder lies for weeks, and queues… well they’re just for Christmas.
Nearby Niseko takes all the props, and traffic. But while Hokkaido’s best-known resort can be skied-out by 11am, just over Mt. Yõtei Rusutsu is far less frenetic. I’ve been here three times and never had to queue, not even for a minute.
Crucially, this season they’ve opened up the sectors between runs. And where before you had to subtly dip in and out, worried about having your pass clipped, now it’s that rare thing in Japan: help yourself! The place reminds me of ever-so-good (if it’s deep) Steamboat (with both once owned by the same company) and just like the Colorado banger it’s packed with heavenly trees, steep-but-not-too steep slopes (ideal for pow charging) and a load of snow, averaging 13m annually.
This place was so much fun last December. Yes, there was a decent amount of snow, when nowhere else in Europe had much, but more than that it was the way no one was skiing the sidecountry. It made it a proper skier’s fantasy. No rush, no aggro, just creamy ankle-deep pow, all wrapped up in an easy bow thanks to accommodation at the base and Crystal’s civilised 2.30pm departure from Gatwick into Fagernes (just an hour from resort).
The mountain is low by usual Euro standards but a good size (49 runs) with excellent exploring skier’s left of Røgjin (1370m) and towards town from the rear of another local peak Totten (1497m). I came expecting ski-God locals to ransack the place from first lift and before (touring out), but midweek it was ski tumbleweed. Bliss!