This winter marks OAP (old-age-powder seeker) Jonny Richards’ 100th issue of writing for Fall Line. Here he shares his favourite spots from the past 17 years, and just as importantly the ever-so-snowy locations he’s still desperate to visit
It started with a kiss. Oh no, that’s not right, I mean a trip to Kopaonik (because no one else in the office fancied Serbia); then it was on to the Pyrenees for Font Romeu; Spain for Cerler; and finally, a spring session at Vogel in the Julian Alps. In short, I loved that first winter for the magazine, despite the tiddler resorts, often poor snow conditions, and usually silly o’clock flights, followed by far too long bus transfers.
But would I return now? Would I heck! Because just like the senior writers of my early days, experience has taught me how, where and when to get the really good stuff. Here’s what any dedicated powder seeker should not be missing. Even me!
It seems perverse to start with a place I’ve yet to ski (largely thanks to various cancelled trips). But I suppose a bucket list is all about aspiration, and it’s mine this winter to finally reach the ‘mountain of the angel’ after what feels like a lifetime writing about its big snow (5m-plus annual average), ideal northern aspect, and 100,000 acres of gnarly backcountry, pock-marked with cliffs, moraines, bergschrunds and mighty granite-fins.
“It’s a serious mountain, you seriously should go,” says Sierra Shafer, Editor-in-Chief of Ski magazine, who raves about the hour-from-Zürich spot and was part of the Powder editorial team that gave Switzerland a rare on-location full-issue special, headlined by Porter Fox’s love letter to Engelberg, calling it the country’s ‘best-kept secret’.
Filmmaker Anton Thorin agrees. “I’d had eight years in Chamonix,” he says, “but after three days visiting friends here one March I was hooked… it was time to explore another resort, a new way to ski, with less people and more powder.”
Last winter he was inspired, via his Evoke Motion Studios company, to corral 13 skiers (and the likes of Tof Henry, Piers Solomon and Martina Muller) to help him make the released-this-December Freeride Symphony. A movie that guides viewers at full gas through Engelberg’s myriad of flowing descents (think 2,000m-plus of vertical in a single thigh-busting burst) below the Titlis and Jochstock, and what Anton calls “easy-access, untracked, tits-deep” terrain.
Just check out the epic what-dreams-are-made-of pow images shown here, stills from the movie – our favourite of which we chose for this month’s front cover (showing Engelberg local Oliver Carlin immersed in the white room).
“It’s a truly special place… with the focus on skiing and not (what goes on) after-skiing,” he says, perhaps due to just how hardcore the mountain can be, even if you don’t stray far beyond the couple of dozen marked runs and legendary options like Galtiberg or the Laub (Europe’s longest lift-served powder field).
“I think Porter wrote about someone falling down a crevasse while he was there,” says Sierra. Adding that Fall Line may wish to book a guide and pack the bravery pills when visiting the settlement that dates back to 1120, when Blessed Konrad laid the foundations for the monastery that he hoped would guarantee him a passage to heaven.
Anton, by the sounds of it, feels things are celestial enough, even at ground level. “Engelberg’s well known for its ridiculous amounts of powder,” he says, “but I wanted to show even during a poor season (like ’22/23) you can still have a kick-ass winter. And if you ask me we did – it was one of the best winters of my life.
Keep your tips up
Pack you avalanche gear, book a guide, and stay at Ski Lodge Engelberg – ground-zero for the valley’s freeski scene and recent(ish) Swedish invasion (think Windstedt, Rappaport, Hargin and more). Nifty, modern bunk-rooms for two cost 125CHF (£120) per room, per night. Sauna, hot tub and excellent bar too! skilodgeengelberg.com
This incredibly snowy place (season average 15m-plus) doesn’t quite have the allure it did pre-Covid thanks to lift ticket prices creeping up to European levels, and the quickest/easiest route to Hokkaido (via Helsinki and across Russian airspace) being kiboshed by the war in Ukraine. But… if you said to me, pick just one place to ski for the rest of your days, this would be it, without a moment’s hesitation.
Why? Because for anyone who loves shredding powder, you just can’t beat the regularity of the 20, 30, 40cm top-ups. And in high season (from late December to late February) it really does seem as if tracks are filled to order every evening, with storms blowing in from Siberia, collecting moisture over the Sea of Japan, before dumping on the mountains surrounding Mount Yotei (the mighty volcano that dominates the area).
For those who have not visited this 90-minutes-from-Sapporo spot, it’s a head-scratcher, even if you love-love-love riding fresh. Because it’s not that steep, or huge, or challenging (unless you really know where to look). And then there’s the elephant in the room, that however you cut it (via Tokyo, Hong Kong, wherever) Niseko is two flights from the UK, and twice the price of a non-stopper to Salt Lake, Denver, Vancouver etc, from where you can unlock an equally snowy spot. But, while all those aforementioned airports leading to options from Alta to Whistler can be sensational, they tend to be feast or famine. With the snow often arriving in huge, magnificent, close the resort (and roads) for a day or two dollops.
Whereas in northern Japan, it’s just tick-tick-tick, go-go-go for the Nippon powder express.
Add in excellent (and excellent-value) on-mountain food at characterful independents like Boyoso, lack of lift lines (it’s getting busier, but still a way off top-notch Euro or North American spots), plus a seamlessly connected four-hill (Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri) single-ticket system and it’s… an offering I still dream about.
Further good stuff? How about catskiing/touring around the corner at abandoned ski resort Chisenupuri?
Or additional sidecountry hors d’oeuvres via three-lift Moiwa (just a short skate or hike from Annupuri).
And we’ve not even started on the myriad of lusty 360-degree top-to-bottom options from the peak (a 30-minute bootpack above Niseko’s highest lift, King 4).
“It really is fantasy island,” says Mike Richards (no relation) who is about to begin his 15th winter teaching and guiding clients around Niseko and also not-far-away Rusutsu and Kiroro. “I could teach anywhere in the world,” he says, “but for me it doesn’t get any better than here”.
Hard to disagree. So see you this January on bangers like Super Ridge (best as the lights just go on late afternoon, for fabulous views of the main strip below), Mizuno-no-sawa (bring your avy gear), and my all-time favourite, the Gate 2 traverse that grabs all Annupuri’s goodies, but without the hike.
KEEP YOUR TIPS UP
Hokkaido used to be a doddle, but these days you need some Euro-ski-smarts and strategy. And if you’re staying in best for atmosphere/night-skiing/nightlife Hirafu, take the free ski bus to start your day in one hill over Hanazono (or locals’ favourite Annupuri) for fewer queues and a good hour before the masses arrive to try and steal your powder. niseko.ne.jp
GEMS ROADTRIP, COLORADO
It’s easy to become fixated on Breckenridge, Vail and co., as they shine so brightly in the North American ski firmament. They have mega marketing dollars, infrastructure to out-bazooka almost any resort in the world, and obviously share the Epic (Vail Resorts) pass.
But I just find them a bit, well… busy, formulaic, and somehow despite all the high speeds and endless acres, underwhelming. Whereas a trip tacked on after these biggies to explore Colorado’s smaller Gems resorts, I totally loved. So much so I’ve done variations on it twice. Once by car (easy) and once by RV (not easy, but a lot of laughs as we battled an exploding pressurised porta-potty, and nights in a tin can at 10,000 feet).
Anyway, this trip magnifico is built around ordering your $48 Gems Card (for heavy discounts at 11 ski areas) online, before flying into Denver and hitting the I-70.
We’d suggest starting at absolute banger 1,428-acre Arapahoe Basin (under two hours west from DIA). With the Steep Gullies or legendary Colorado runs like Gaultier, under the Pallavicini lift, guaranteed to get you smiling and banish any jet lag. In fact, the only downside to the 73%-of-all-terrain-black-or-double-black-rated hill is that it’s the only Gem not to offer a 2-for-1 adult day ticket, and instead your card gets you a $79 mid-week (or $99 weekend) special. Still, more than worth it we say.
Just around the corner, but not quite as packed with 40-degree steeps, is Loveland. Definitely worth consideration we say, especially if you stay/night ski at nearby Keystone (with neither of the Gems mentioned so far offering accommodation). Again, it’s mid-sized rather than huge (coming in just a shade bigger than A-Basin) but, like its neighbour, has an excellent snow record, and more than enough action to ensure a brilliant day. This winter the mountain also launches guided snowcat skiing across just over 500 acres of bowls and trees.
Moving further west, another Gems option is Cooper, a mellow Mom ‘n’ Pop style hill that somehow shoehorns 64 runs into just 480 acres. But the one we really love is almost identically sized but studded with double-diamonds, Sunlight. In fact, I wrote after my last visit, ‘60 odd trails and a quarter of them nasty-ass brilliant challenges… joy packed, varied, testing, and great fun if you can handle yourself.
Makes you want to visit, right? And if you do, stay at Glenwood Springs (just 12 miles from Sunlight) and a straight-forward 100 minutes along Interstate 70 from Loveland/all the handy accommodation at Keystone. Finally, if you’ve the time and budget, Powderhorn (yet another excellent Gem) is an hour and 20 minutes further west and then south. With the Grand Mesa spot so good it inspired our still-running ‘Little Hills, Big Thrills’ section, thanks to addictive trails like Upper Thunderbird, a forest run locals simply call Black Magic. coloradoski.com
KEEP YOUR TIPS UP
If you can, make it a full-of-Gems giant loop back to Denver, and include Purgatory and Monarch as you journey further out west. Few British skiers know these hills, and boy are they missing out on some primo San Juan’s soul skiing. Better value and better skiing than so many more feted road trips; you just need to get to know I-70 and beyond…
OVIT MOUNTAIN, KAÇKAR RANGE, TURKEY
As mentioned when I first wrote about this gloriously snowy locale last winter, not much in skiing is new. And one of the few benefits to so many destinations red-carding us coming out of Covid was that we discovered this under-a-dozen bedroom, 30,000-acre gem that opened for a first full season in 2021/22.
Based at the 2,640m Butik Hotel (think well-equipped Euro-style chalet), and so far east of the country it almost feels like you can reach out and touch Georgia, Ovit mixes touring with ad-hoc uphill assistance via sleds and a snowcat.
With no lifts (bar a buried, never-running-during-our-stay bunny tow), and a Prinoth that’s principally used for collecting guests from the 8km away village/main road, I’m not sure it would have attracted me outside a restricted, PCR tests and rolling closures winter. But clomping out of the ski room, amidst huge January drifts (there was 80cm of fresh the night we arrived) it was impossible not to feel we were onto something rather marvellous. Especially with so few skiers, and so much epic terrain.
To put that into numbers, I can’t recall any day during our stay where there were more than 12 of us on the slopes (including guides), sharing out a meagre… 47 square miles! As a result, I’ve never felt more relaxed or zen on a proper big-powder day, and rather than the usual rush-rush-rush, must-get-some-before-it’s-gone feelings, the stress came from there being a little too much snow, and too many available lines. The sleds got stuck, the cat struggled at times, and I think on one single run down from Eagle’s Nest (on the south side of Ovit, where on a clear day you can spot a distant shimmering Black Sea) I got more buried than the previous couple of seasons combined.
Standard sessions began with pre-breakfast early ups (moving up the Ikizdere Valley with the sun), leading to powder runs back for chef’s home-cooked bread and menemen (Turkish-style scrambled eggs with tomato and peppers), before further boosts up the cirque by sled gave way to afternoon snowcat laps of Home Run (a moorish, 30-degree glacial tarn).
More than once, we looked at each other over a late-afternoon Efes and agreed it was one of our best days on skis. With the satisfaction coming not only from the big snow (7.6m annual average) and mega terrain waiting to be conquered (there’s a host of couloirs opposite the hotel’s sundeck that we didn’t have time to bag), but also the feeling that you’re enjoying a proper, totally different to the norm, ski adventure.
Currently, there are no direct flights to nearest airports Rize (98 km) or Trabzon (120km). But six hours’ flying time (and an easy routing via Istanbul) is just fine with me if it keeps the place this unspoilt and welcome-to-the-east exotic.
Tiny customer numbers mixed with swanky accommodation / plentiful staff/ kit / terrain is never going to be cheap. So, if too many Ovit days at €200 per night each is going to bust your budget, tack on 3,200m Palandoken resort: just over two hours away by car, with day passes under £15 and decent accommodation about double that. Bargain! ejder3200.com