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Snow patrol

From horse-drawn skiing beyond La Clusaz to carving lines through virgin powder in the USA, we’ve rounded up 10 of the best snow-sure resorts this winter.

Snow patrol

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1. Heavenly mountain resort, California: Best views on the planet

OK, so every ski hill on earth claims its scenery is the best. But trust me, this place is special. Shuffle your way onto the cable car for the 10-minute ride from town to the slopes, and watch Lake Tahoe reveal itself below you like an enormous sheet of glass.

Around four hours’ drive from San Francisco, Heavenly Mountain Resort’s 5,000 or so acres of skiable terrain straddle the California-Nevada border; on one side, there’s the lake, in all its glory — take the Big Dipper and it feels like you could ski right off the piste and land on to the water — while on the back side there’s the dead-flat desert valley.

Expect similar contrasts when it comes to après, too. The town of ‘Heavenly’ — officially known as South Lake Tahoe — also spans the state line, and in certain bars on the Nevada side, smoking and gambling are both legal. As are brothels, but we won’t go there.

For a taste of authentic Wild West culture, head to the nearby town of Genoa. On my visit, I was met with a Clint Eastwood-esque scene of raised wooden sidewalks, cigar smoke wafting out from underneath a bar door, and snow whipped into mini cyclones. www.skiheavenly.com

2. Davos, Switzerland: Powder struggle
Words by Chris Peacock.

Followers of international affairs will know the Swiss resort of Davos as being the place where the world’s political and business elite convene for their annual pow-wow on globalisation. But for those motivated by life’s more frivolous pursuits, Davos offers up some of the best skiing in Europe, with hundreds of varying slopes and virtually snow-sure conditions.

Nevertheless, the summit has cemented the mountain city’s image as a world-class destination for the rich and famous, although they clearly don’t come here for the architecture. Somewhat lacking in Alpine village charm, the resort is full of dreary block-style buildings, a hangover from its origins as a sanatorium-packed health resort.

The quality of skiing is the reason why Davos is now considered one of the founding Alpine super resorts and the European birthplace of downhill skiing — there’s been skiing in the region since the 1800s and the railway up the Parsenn was one of the first built for skiers, back in 1931.

On one side of the valley there’s the Rinerhorn, Pischa and Jakobshorn, offering a mix of family-friendly runs and dedicated area for boarders. On the other, there’s Schatzalp-Strela and Parsenn, the resort’s largest ski area, with wide-open pistes, including one of Europe’s longest and most dramatic runs: the 12km route from Weissfluhgipfel to Küblis — perfect for carvers, and where my skiing mettle was put to the test.

When my guide, moustachioed Rony Strässle of the Swiss Snowsport School Davos, enquired about my skiing ability during our Parsenn funicular ascent, I was probably being ambitious when I replied “good intermediate”. Rony nodded with an eager grin and suggested the 12k challenge. I hesitantly nodded back and nervously scanned the map in front of me.

Weissfluhgipfel was the starting point for the long run down to the village of Küblis, with a vertical elevation of well over 6,500ft. Perhaps sensing my slight trepidation, Rony suggested starting lower down at Weissfluhjoch, skipping the perilously steep first section. From here, there was a lovely mix of warm-up blues and epic long reds, moving from wide runs to narrow tracks through pine forests and out onto clearings and meadows past Schwendi huts and farm buildings.

As we racked up the miles, it wasn’t long before my untrained legs began to tire and buckle under the repetitive turns. On a few occasions, I had to stop in my tracks, telling Rony I wanted a moment to take in the views — but was really getting a much-needed breather. He humoured me, of course, but was determined to keep me going with just the right level of encouragement and goading.

A gruelling but equally exhilarating hour later, I made it to the bottom. I felt and looked like I’d skied a marathon — dishevelled, weary and plastered in snow — but there was no fanfare or celebration, just a small railway cafe marking the end of the run. Rony had hardly broken a sweat and was without a speck of snow on him. He looked eager to make the ascent back up the Parsenn and do it all over again. But I bid him farewell and caught the train back to Davos Platz, ready to immerse myself in the city’s clutch of raucous bars and clubs — something those conference delegates know only too well.

www.davos.ch  www.ssd.ch

3. Leukerbad, Switzerland: Best for ski & spa

If your idea of off-piste is a trip to the spa, then you may want to give Leukerbad a whirl. Hidden away above the Rhone Valley, a few hours’ drive from Geneva, it’s the oldest spa town in the Alps, with 30 natural hot pools. People have been coming here since the 16th century to wallow in its waters, although in those days there were no ‘spa-cinema’ nights or spa breakfasts. And if you opt to swap your swim shorts for ski pants, there are more than 30 miles of piste, spread over 18 runs. They’re not the most challenging (mostly blues and reds) but the scenery is stunning, the runs are super-quiet, and at 8,860ft, you’re almost guaranteed good snow. www.leukerbad.ch

4. Obergurgl, Austria: Best for snow

Despite the daft-sounding name, Obergurgl has been a favourite with Brits for decades. One of the biggest reasons we love it so much is the quality of the snow, which tends to arrive early and linger until spring.

Perched atop the Ötztal Valley, Obergurgl village lies at 6,330ft, giving you a head start on other European favourites like Méribel and Andorra, which can suffer from a lack of white stuff due to their lower altitude.

Here, though, you’ll find slopes at 10,000ft — with plenty of space to crank out wide, grin-inducing turns. Once you’ve worked your way through the piste map, nip down the valley to Sölden and help yourself to another 93 miles of groomers — where the views stretch 60 miles to South Tyrol in Northern Italy.

Of course, this being Austria, the après scene is — how you say? — bonkers. It tends to kick off around 3.30pm at Fire & Ice, a steamy glass cylinder in the centre of town where dancing on tables is de rigeur. In between customary ‘oompah loompah’ classics, the spiky-haired DJ mixes a selection of ‘quality’ Euro-pop sending the sweaty crowd wild with excitement. Then the sparklers come out. www.obergurgl.com

5. La Clusaz, France: Horsing around
Words by Sam Lewis

Our ponies’ breath is visible against the frosty, pine-tinged air. The smaller, an Austrian Hafflinger pony, paws the ground, impatient to get going, but the other seems content to doze as the sun warms his back.

“That one’s from Spain,” grins Julian, a wiry guy who’s bounding around pointing to various bits of tack that will help us steer them. “He’s built for sun and sand but he gets on just fine with snow under his feet.”

Although under an hour from Geneva, La Clusaz, a charming old Savoyard village, remains joyously untarnished by high-rise apartments. In a resort where cows outnumber people, it seems fitting to abandon the chair lifts and be transported over the snow, at least for a short while, by horsepower.

But while a relaxing horse-drawn carriage ride was tempting, ski joëring — where ponies pull you along on skis — sounded intriguing. But could my husband and I master it?

“C’est facile,” Julian says, nonchalantly waving his hands. It’s as easy as waterskiing he assures us, and instructs us to stand behind the ponies on our skis and hold onto a bar, keeping arms straight and knees bent slightly. There’s rope attached to the bar and we’re to tweak one to go left, one to go right, and to shout ‘whoah-ho-ho’ to slow the horse. “If you want to go faster, just bend down, pick up some snow and throw it at the horse’s bottom,” he grins. Take one hand off the bar? Bend down? Pick up snow? Is he joking?

But as we start at a slow trot, the snow hypnotically crunching under the ponies’ hooves, I forget the potential dangers, so lost am I in the scenery. We ski past pine forests, streams and chalets at a canter — clumps of snow and ice flying through the air — and I realise I’ve mastered turning.

After half an hour or so, my arms tire and we say a fond farewell to our ponies, pick up our ski poles and head for the nearest chair lift, weaving our way on easy green and blue runs across to Col de Balme. Here the sun is shining and we pause alongside other tourists for the panoramic view of Mont Blanc. But it’s the descent that excites us more — long, wide, steep reds that are uncrowded and layered in snow: perfect for racing down side by side.

We ski right down to the village, where church bells are ringing and the cobbled streets bustle with activity, and end the day indulging in Bordeaux and the region’s legendary Roublochon cheese. Horse-drawn carriages line the cobbled square but I’m no longer interested in being a passenger. I want to be in the driving seat, with the wind in my hair, scooting around corners with snow flying in my face. And yes, as I take another gulp of wine, I think I would be brave enough to throw snow at my pony’s bottom this time.

www.hotel-aucoeurduvillage.fr  www.laclusaz.com

6. Aspen, USA: Cold mountain 
Words by Matt Carroll 

My friends rolled their eyes with envy when I said I was off skiing in Aspen; their heads filled with thoughts of five-star hotels, concierges and meticulously-groomed corduroy. What I ‘forgot’ to mention, though, was that I’d be staying in a backcountry hut with no electricity and an outside loo.

Tucked away in the heart of Colorado, Aspen is best-known as a playground for the under-worked and overpaid — a place where private jets line the Tarmac at the local airport and A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio get papped on the slopes.

Less than an hour down the road, on Mount Yeckel, however, it’s very different. Here you’ll find wolves, elk and bobcat roaming the woods and enough fresh powder to last several lifetimes. Located on the edge of the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness Area, Yeckel is surrounded by 125sq miles of backcountry; put simply, it’s a powder junky’s dream come true.

Having booked a trip with local specialist Aspen Expeditions, I filled a backpack with supplies, and set off along the 6.3-mile trail to my hut. The route snaked between silver birch trees, and as I shuffled my way ever upwards, my guide, Dirk, pointed out nearby sites, including the spectacular Elk Mountains, many of which soar to over 13,000ft.

Four hours of huffing and puffing later, I finally reached the hut, where my reward was a roaring fire, a warm tot of whisky and the sunset melting behind jagged peaks. Unlike ‘huts’ I’ve stayed at in Europe before, where you have restaurants, bathrooms and even broadband, this was the real deal; I collected my own firewood, melted snow for water and lit candles after nightfall.

There are around 17 such cabins scattered among the trees in this area, operated by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. Despite the military-sounding name, this is a civilian-run outfit, named after the elite US army unit that used to train around here.

Each cabin is privately owned and individually named; mine was Margy’s hut, built in memory of Margy McNamara, the wife of a former US Secretary of Defense.

Aprés was a few glasses of glühwein and an early night; with two more hours’ hike to Yeckel’s summit still ahead of me, I wanted to wake up bright-eyed. Next morning, I was lured from my bed by the smell of sizzling bacon, and after Dirk’s safety briefing we were on our way.

On top of Yeckel, I swapped snowshoes for snowboard and strapped in. Following Dirk’s line, I floated down the mountain on a carpet of fresh powder. Leaning in hard with knees kissing the ground, I cranked out a series of huge turns — sending up a rooster tail of snow. Arriving at the bottom, I was itching for more — requiring a 20-minute trudge to the top. It was a world away from the high-speed lifts of Aspen; but who needs electricity and running water when you’ve got a whole mountain to yourself?

www.aspenexpeditions.com  www.huts.org

7. Chamonix: Best for backcountry

The biggie here is the Vallée Blanche; harness up and strap yourself in for the 13-mile descent from the Aiguille du Midi, taking you past blue ice cliffs and the turquoise glacier. Another one to tackle is the Argentière Glacier. Take the cable car up to Les Grands Montets and shimmy into your safety harness; a mountainside of untracked snow awaits.

To hone your skills, and learn about secret local powder stashes, book a free-riding course with snowboarding legend Neil McNab.

www.chamonix.com  www.mcnabsnowboarding.com

8. Voss, Norway: Best virgin snow

Tons of snow, untouched terrain and the prospect of having whole slopes to yourself. These are just three reasons why you should swerve the mainstream European resorts this season and jump on a plane to Voss. Another is that you can stop off in Bergen on the way.

This buzzing little city on the southwest coast is packed with cool cafes, trendy restaurants and some seriously good shopping. A favourite stopping point is the Hanseatic Wharf, where brightly coloured boat sheds lean on each other for support, each painted turmeric, cinnamon and other spicy shades. If you’re feeling peckish pop into Enhjørningen (www.enhjorningen.no), an excellent fish restaurant where the cod comes straight off the boats bobbing about outside.

But the best bit about Bergen? It’s only an hour’s train ride from the slopes of Voss, which tends to serve up an obscene amount of snow. It may be small — with just 25 miles of runs — but it’s not unusual to see 10ft of white stuff here. And if that’s not enough to have you packing your woollies, then wait until you see slope-side views out over pristine Vangsvatne Lake. www.visitvoss.no

9. Saas-Fee, Switzerland: Best for foodies

Skiing gives you a licence to eat. And in Saas-Fee this is a good thing, as there are 40 or so restaurants in the village, plus over 60 miles of ski terrain to. Try the FerienArt Resort & Spa, where you can have a world-class meal at the High Table. Or head to the Waldhotel Fletschhorn, where Swiss Chef of the Year 2007, Markus Neff, will teach you how to cook up your own storm.

www.saas-fee.ch

10. Alta Badia, Italy: Natural beauty
Words by Nicky Trup

 As I prepare for the descent, my eyes are drawn to the town of La Villa, with its chocolate-box chalets and picturesque church.

While I dither, I’m overtaken by a gaggle of six-year-old ski-schoolers, who cruise down without hesitation. This is, after all, a nursery slope no steeper than a playground slide, but a recent injury, my clumsiness and the fact I’ve not skied for 10 years are conspiring against me.

Eventually I push off, slowly zigzagging down the hill, and after a few more runs I’m actually enjoying myself.

Although not as popular with Brits as the French and Austrian Alps, the Dolomites’ 18 peaks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s easy to see why. The view on the half-hour drive from La Villa to Ortisei in Val Gardena is all snowy peaks, dark forest and fairytale towns.

Günther, my guide, lures me up nearby Mount Seceda with the promise of a glass of Prosecco, but when I reach the summit I’m dismayed to find a red run standing between me and the bubbly. After a few tips to correct my dubious technique, I set off, and within minutes I’m sitting at a wooden table, glass in hand. Prosecco’s an excellent motivator, it seems.

www.altabadia.org  www.valgardena.it

 

Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)