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Backcountry skiing: Going off-piste

Advances in equipment and the availability of tuition has seen increasing numbers of skiers and boarders making it to parts of the mountain once reserved for extreme-sports types — the backcountry

Backcountry skiing: Going off-piste
Admiring the view, La Grave, France. Image: Getty

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Lift off: La Grave, France

I don’t want to think about what happens if I fall. Having watched my guide, Pelle, disappear over the edge of a 40-degree couloir, it’s now my turn to follow in his tracks. As his echoes of “follow me” fade away, I’m left here in the silence, facing down my inner scaredy-cat.

I’ve good reason to be nervous. When it comes to bucket-list backcountry destinations, La Grave is right up there with La Vallée Blanche in Chamonix, and the USA’s Jackson Hole. The steepness of its terrain has earned it a fearsome reputation among hardcore skiers, with several — including big mountain legend Doug Coombs — having perished in its couloirs over the years.

Tucked away in the Vallée de la Romanche, about 40-minutes’ drive from Les Deux Alpes, La Grave is essentially a smattering of weathered wooden restaurants and family-run hotels on the road that threads its way up the valley. You don’t come here for the nightlife.

Having checked into the Skiers Lodge, a no-frills bolthole dedicated to backcountry purists, I walked into the dining room on my first night to find groups of (mostly) guys clustered around candlelit tables chatting in hushed tones about the day’s adventures. At this point, owner Pelle came over and invited me out along with a group of Scottish lads he was guiding the next day. “Why don’t you come? It’ll be beautiful,” he said.

Fast forward to the next morning and I find myself shimmying into a harness — allowing me to be roped into certain chutes too steep for entering on skis — before Team Scotland and I shuffle onto the gondola for the ride up. Our excited banter fades as we climb out of the valley; the cable-car is tiny against the epic Alpine backdrop.

“This isn’t just a place to do extreme terrain,” says Pelle, as we line up for the drag-lift at the top — one of only a handful giving you access to the backcountry that lies beyond. “I could have a group of intermediate skiers here, no problem.”

Reassuring words, which I find myself latching onto, barely half an hour later, as I lower my goggles and prepare to follow Pelle over the edge. I take a deep breath, ignore the self-preservation instinct, and point my board into the abyss.

As the ground falls away beneath me, a spectacular backcountry valley reveals itself. I drop down, the only sound the wind in ears and the fizz of my board cutting through virgin snow, as I scribble fresh lines all the way to the bottom.

Pelle asks me how I’m feeling, but I can’t speak: my mouth is fixed into grin. From here, we traverse three miles through the Vallon de la Selle, far from civilisation. Or at least it feels so.

All too soon, however, we find ourselves in the hamlet of St Christophe, where the landlady of La Cordées hands us all mugs of frothy cold lager. “Same again tomorrow?” Pelle asks.

Best for: Advanced intermediates upwards. Six-day backcountry packages from €1,350 (£1,210) per person including guide, and half-board accommodation. Flights & transfers extra. skierslodge.com

Ski touring, Haute Route, Switzerland

Ski touring, Haute Route, Switzerland. Image: Getty

Four more to try…

Off-piste: Highland Bowl, Aspen, USA

These days you can have a full-on ‘backcountry’ experience without leaving the resort boundary — if you know where to look. The benefit? Peace of mind knowing the terrain you’re skiing is avalanche-controlled.

At A-lister hangout Aspen, in Colorado, for example, there’s a gnarlier side, too, in the form of the notorious Highland Bowl. The altitude alone (over 12,000ft) tells you that this is not to be taken lightly. A snow-cat ride takes you most of the way, then there’s another hour or so of hiking to the top.

The bowl is sliced up into sections, so you can pick a route down — they all funnel back to the resort — according to your mood. From the top, lay out big turns before it gets tighter by the trees.

Best for: Advanced/expert skiers. A week-long package to Aspen costs from £2,116 per person, including B&B accommodation at the Hotel Jerome, as well as flights and transfers. igluski.com

Ski touring: The Haute Route, France & Switzerland

Ski touring grows in popularity as people want to get away from the piste and put wild miles under their skis. For the uphill sections, skiers will need to strap skins over their skis. Snowboarders can hire ‘split-boards’ — a pair of skis that clip together snowboard-like for descents.

With 16,400ft of climbing and a whopping 23,000ft of descent, the Haute Route isn’t for the weak-kneed. Over the course of five or six days, this 75-mile off-piste odyssey takes you from Chamonix to Zermatt, traversing part of the Mont Blanc massif, stopping at remote huts along the way.

Best for: Advanced/experienced ski tourers. A week-long package from £1,325 per person, including half-board accommodation and guides. Flights & transfers extra. mountaintracks.co.uk

Cross-country: Venabygd, Norway

Who says you have to fling yourself down slopes to enjoy the backcountry? At the Venabu Mountain Hotel in central Norway, there’s an 87-mile network of Nordic ski trails right on your doorstep.

Book yourself into the Fjellhotell in the Gudbrandsdalen Valley and head out with one of the resident guides along a series of marked trails that are suitable for newbies and experts alike.

Most of the trails are groomed for cross-country — simply slot your skinny skis into the pre-made tramlines and off you glide. But ask nicely and your guide might lead you off-piste into the wilds.

In the evening, you can curl up by the fire or head out for some night skiing.

Best for: Beginners. A week at Venabu Fjellhotell, including full-board accommodation, flights, transfers, ski pass, equipment and tuition costs from £1,239 per person. tracks-and-trails.com

Snowshoeing: San Cassiano, Italy

For something slightly more leisurely (but just as scenic), why not swap skis for snowshoes? In the Italian Tirol’s Alta Badia region, San Cassiano is best known for skiing and while most people come to hit the slopes, it’s home to a bunch of gorgeous hiking trails, too.

Head east out of town on Trail 11, and you’ll soon find yourself shuffling through a pine forest that leads to a high-altitude pasture. By this point you’ll be up at almost 7,000ft — take a moment to soak up the sight of the jagged limestone peaks that typify the Dolomites. From here, it’s a short walk down to the family-run Fanes hut, where you can stay overnight.

Best for: Beginners. Seven-nights at Hotel Fanes, where you can book snowshoeing excursions with expert guides, costs from £1,669 per person. Flights & transfers extra. sno.co.uk

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)