5 Reasons why the European Alps is the Ultimate Ski Challenge

It’s a face-off! North America versus the European Alps….in a previous post we gave you 5 reasons why North America is the Ultimate ski challenge and now we are giving you the comeback from the European Alps.

Europe has so many ski destinations scattered over the continent in countries including Norway, Sweden, Russia, Spain, Greece to name but a few. But towering at the centre is an iconic range of mountains where modern day skiing all started, The Alps.

OK, so maybe skiing down a Himalayan peak might present a greater challenge, but the Alps present a real and immediate challenge because they are so accessible.

Here are five favourites, from a selection of Snowsports professionals, which would make any skier take a deep breath before setting off:

North face of the Valluga – St Anton, Austria
Austria’s most famous off piste descent is the North face of the Valluga and can only be skied with a qualified mountain guide.
Skiers, snowboarders and guides squeeze into a public telephone box sized cable car that ascends to the dramatic summit of the Valluga, at 2811m. The panorama platform perches over the steep slopes that fall away on all sides and even though the views into Germany, Italy and Switzerland are outstanding, all visitors are more preoccupied about which way their guide will be taking them as all options from this vantage point look terrifyingly exposed.
There are two sensational descents, the first being the classic North Face which zigzags its way through cliff bands of orange limestone rock. A fall in the first 300m is not advised and could lead to a frightening high speed slide over a precipice. After safely negotiating the challenging entry, the north face becomes more friendly and offers exciting skiing down often powder filled empty slopes to the ski village of Zurs.
The second option is the “Bridge Couloir”.

Skiers walking under bridge to ski the couloir

Photo: Skiers negioating the bridge system on Valluga

From the summit of the Valluga, skiers shoulder their skis and negotiate a steep ladder system to a bridge which spans a gap along the exposed west ridge of the Valluga. Skiers, with their guide, climb under the bridge to access the steep and extremely narrow couloir (only 2 meters wide in the first 30 meters). This dog leg shaped couloir is not for the faint hearted and requires a solid technique to navigate its length. Once the couloir has been skied, wide open terrain in dramatic scenery joins the lower sections of the classic north face leading to Zurs.

Section by: Piste to Powder an off piste guiding company, in St.Anton Austria, specialising in off piste skiing from novice to expert level. Our ski philosophy combines guiding and instruction together, this enables you to ski the best snow and terrain available to suit your ability but also to develop your skiing skills so you are able to tackle and ski more challenging terrain in confidence.

La Grave – France
We have just included the whole resort of La Grave, as an entry into this European top 5 challenge. This is because there is no easy way down the mountain. A long cable way takes you from the small village of La Grave right up to La Meije, at 3200 meters.
The first time I skied in La Grave I discovered a fully qualified mountain guide in a small hut at the bottom cable car station. I asked him some questions about the skiing and he asked me about my ability to ski well. He warned me that to enter the main ski terrain I had to jump over a small cliff and ski over rocks and ice. He wasn’t having me on. I asked if there was an easier way through, he said that there was not. Avalanche rescue transceivers (not Reccos) along with probes and shovel are mandatory, if you want to ski here. Don’t think about leaving them at home and don’t think about skiing alone. Best of all, hire the services of a local mountain guide of you don’t know the area. This will give you access to the myriad of possibilities that are hidden away on the vast expanse of La Meije mountain.
A resort with only 3 ski lifts, 1 marked ski run and no-one around. Sounds boring right, trust me, it’s not.

Section by: Robert Stewart, ski journalist at The Skiing Department

Bec des Rosses, North Face – Verbier, Switzerland
This legendary peak sits alone alongside the famous Mt Fort, the highest lift station in the 4 valleys ski area. It is now the centre piece for the world’s most prestigious freeskiing event, ‘The Nissan World Freeride Tour’. Bec des Rosses is the final destination for the tour and arguably presents the biggest challenge for the worlds top Freeride skiers.
This mountain is not for the faint hearted. Access alone makes it an exclusive place for skiing. First you have to get to Col de la Chaux which either means skiing down from Mt Fort on a route which is tricky at the best of times or ‘skinning up’ from below. Then it’s a walk up a long and rocky arête to the top of Bec des Rosses. This can take the fittest people up to an hour.
There are no easy ways down this mountain. Steep chutes and gullies of over 45 degrees laced with drop offs and rock bands are the only option. A serious fall here would result in severe injury or worse. The vertical descent is over 600 meters and the relentless terrain never eases up. Only the most experienced and fittest riders can attempt this mountain.
Verbier has an inspiring collection of epic routes to challenge skiers of the highest ability but Bec des Rosses stands at the pinnacle and constitutes one of the toughest mountains in the world.

Section by: Robert Stewart, ski journalist at The Skiing Department

Marinelli – Alagna, Italy
Italy’s ‘Big Mountain’ resort boasts one of the highest Alpine lifts and is home to the famous Marinelli ,the longest couloir in Europe. Although only a few will be brave (or mad) enough to tackle this 2500m 45 degree slope, at the eastern end of the Monte Rosa ski region Alagna has all the ingredients to draw the backcountry rider hell-bent on adrenaline descents. Alagna’s classics such as Punta Vittoria and the Malfatta will challenge especially if you enjoy ‘roping in’, top them off with a well deserved pasta lunch once back in the village and you will understand why Alagna is a firm favourite.

Section by: Mountain Tracks, a small, friendly team of dedicated professionals specialising in guided mountain adventure. Nick Parks founded Mountain Tracks in 2000. He is a member of the British Mountain Guides and has been a full IFMGA Mountain Guide since 1987. Nick’s vision for Mountain Tracks is to share with his clients, his passion for the mountains and to help them enjoy the exhilaration and excitement of mountain adventure.

The Haute Route – Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland
We have included this classic ski tour in our selection, not because of the ‘extreme’ nature of the skiing (it’s very achievable for any fit off piste skier) but because it is a truly an ultimate challenge without being ultimately exclusive. There are several variations of the Haute Route (or high level route) with the most popular being via Verbier. Typically this ski tour takes up to 7 days and nights are spent in the various ‘huts’ along the way. Starting off in Chamonix the first section takes you towards the Swiss border and a night at the Trient Hut. On the second day a bus or taxi to Verbier is required and then up to the Cabin du Mont Fort. From here a series of glaciers and overnight huts ends in Zermatt after some long climbs and (hopefully) great descents. Some ski touring experience is necessary to be able to complete the Haute Route as long days climbing with skins on the skis take up a large percentage of the time. Knowledge of the route and excellent mountain safety skills are required. For an ‘extreme’ version of the route, you can divert in various directions with ascents of La Grand Combin and Breithorn, but this is for very experienced mountaineers only.

Section by: Robert Stewart, ski journalist at The Skiing Department

Let us know of any other slopes, you think should make the list?


3 responses to “5 Reasons why the European Alps is the Ultimate Ski Challenge”

  1. misplacedperson avatar

    Vallons de la Meije was an easy bit. Walking from the top back to midstation in the summer wasn’t a good plan though.

    1. Robert Stewart avatar
      Robert Stewart

      I would stick to winter time with skis on, then you can jump over the rocks. Or take a rope 🙂

  2. […] 5 Reasons why the European Alps is the Ultimate Ski Challenge | The Skiing Department Blog blog.themountaindepartment.com/01/2011/5-reasons-european-alps-ultimate-ski-challenge/ – view page – cached In this Skiing Blog article we describe the 5 slopes or reasons why the European Alps is the Ultimate Ski Challenge… […]