Still Saving Up for the Helicopter?
Heli-skiing in Alaska is the ultimate dream trip for many skiers. Fresh tracks on every run, in waist-high powder - sounds good? But if, like most of us, you can’t quite stretch to renting or owning a helicopter, you might be interested to find out exactly which are the best resorts for off-piste, back-country and big-mountain skiing to hone your powder technique in preparation for the dream trip.
If you talk about big-mountain skiing, then you quite simply can’t avoid the Chamonix Valley. The French Alpine town stands at 1035m and is often referred to as the world capital of alpinism. It nestles at the foot of Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe (4809m). The cable car of the Aiguille Du Midi holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, rising from 1035 m to 3842m.
The Vallée Blanche routes start at the top of the Aiguille du Midi where after exiting the ice tunnel, you are straight on to the ‘arête’. This is potentially one of the most dangerous points of the route as it is essentially a ridge edge, which has a 50-degree pitch on both sides. In high season a safety rope is placed along the descending path, but it is still pretty intimidating knowing that it is all that stands between you and the buildings of Chamonix in the town centre far below.
There are four main Vallée Blanche routes. The classic route ‘voie normal’ is fairly straightforward, but it is always a good idea to go with a trained local guide. This route can be pretty busy during high season. The other routes are known as Le Vrai Vallée Blanche, the Petit Envers du Plan and the Grand Envers du Plan. These are technically more challenging and involve couloir skiing, so are definitely for more experienced skiers.
Staying in France, but away from the much vaunted slopes of Chamonix, you could always head down to La Grave in the Haute-Alpes departement of Southern France, an area which is famously unpisted. Whilst it is patrolled, it has no formal avalanche control. La Grave has just one téléphérique accessing 7,000 vertical feet of terrain. So it is not for the faint hearted! Let’s say that you’re unlikely to see too many movie or pop stars - this is proper skiing!
Across the Atlantic, the American equivalent of La Grave is Silverton Mountain in Colorado. Like the French resort, Silverton has just one chairlift that gives you access to an incredible 1819 acres of amazing descents in every direction. The official website describes itself perfectly: “…the highest and steepest ski area in North America with a peak elevation of 13487 feet, and no easy way down.”
If you want the best powder in the world, ask anyone, you have to look to Japan! Without turning this into a geography lesson, the cold Siberian wind blows off continental Asia, picks up moisture from the Sea of Japan and then slams into Japan’s mountain ranges. That forces the air to rise, which creates legendary amounts of snowfall. You will love skiing in Japan as Japan loves skiing! In the mid ‘80s Japan had over 1,200 ski resorts, that number has dropped to 615 but it is still more than any other country (USA has 480). However Niseko United is officially Japan's #1 snow resort. Located in Hokkaido, it is a two and a half hour drive from Chitose Airport, and comprises of 4 interlinked ski resorts - Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and An’nupuri. It is renowned for its consistency and quality of powder snow right throughout the winter season.
Finishing with our dream trip, if you still haven’t saved up quite enough, you don’t always need a helicopter to ski in Alaska. Alyeska Resort is 27 miles from the city of Anchorage, and has 1610 skiable acres, 76 named trails and over 669 inches of snow annually. They also have two terrain parks there if, heaven forbid, you get bored of all that natural terrain!
…So there’s plenty to keep you busy, before you get to the chopper!