When looking for ski resort challenges, the natural place to start is with the proportion of black runs. The more black there is on the piste map, the more likely it is that the resort will step up to the mark for thrillingly steep and long descents, whether smoothly groomed and fast, or left ungroomed so that powder snow lies deep or bumpy fields of moguls build up.
Many experts also want to discover the terrain beyond the pistes, using hard won skills to plunder untouched powder and steeper runs away from the crowds. It may entail hiking, ski touring or trying heliskiing – and comes with additional risks, since off-piste runs aren’t protected from avalanches by piste patrollers.
This is where professional mountain guides come in, using their knowledge of local terrain and weather conditions both to lead skiers and snowboarders to the best snow, and avoid risky situations. Anyone thinking of heading off piste also needs to learn about avalanche safety, wear an avalanche transceiver, and carry a backpack containing shovel and probe.
In some European resorts, the next step up from black runs is itinerary routes – also known as ski routes, particularly in Austria. These deliver an ungroomed off-piste style experience, but are marked on the piste map and may also be made safe from avalanches – check at the resort.
It’s also worth knowing that American and Canadian resorts are managed differently from those in Europe. Everything within a ski area’s boundary is protected and controlled, including some of the most adventurous runs and steepest, narrowest couloirs. For a wilder experience, it’s also possible to go beyond the boundaries with a guide, through backcountry gates.
Whether you’re a fan of steep and deep, or steep, speedy and bumpy, we’ve picked out 10 of the best.
Best for combining on- and off-piste challenges
Val d’Isère, France
It’s not essential to be an expert to enjoy good times in Val d’Isère, but those who are will – particularly when investing in expert guidance to make the most of the challenging terrain, both on and off piste. Snow cover is reliable throughout a long season and nature is backed up by the largest snowmaking facility in Europe.
The resort village stands at a respectable 1,850m, and is spread along a high, remote valley, from the central hub at the base of the main Solaise and Bellevarde lifts to the quieter outposts of La Daille, Le Laisinant and Le Fornet. Val d’Isère’s top slopes are at an altitude of nearly 3,400m on the Pisaillas glacier, while the top lift on the Grande Motte glacier in the linked resort of Tignes reaches 3,456m.
The Bellevarde sector rises up to 2,827m and La Face, the steep and deeply challenging black back down to town, was the venue for the men’s downhill at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. The backside of Bellevarde is the starting point for an enormous area of varied slopes that lead towards Tignes in one direction and back down to Val in the other. Some truly outstanding powder terrain includes a selection of challengingly steep couloirs around the rocky outcrops of La Grande Balme and La Petite Balme in Tignes.
Where to stay
Refuge de Solaise is the highest hotel in France, at 2,551m in the former Solaise cable car station. It has a spa, 16 luxury rooms, four apartments and a 14-bed dormitory, and is only accessible via the lift and the pistes; once the Solaise gondola closes at 4.30pm guests have the mountain to themselves.
Best for scenic off piste
With a resort height of 1,035m and its top lift at 3,842m, Chamonix has a tremendous setting beneath the cliffs and tumbling glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif. It has been at the sharp end of Alpine adventure since 1760, when a Genevois scientist offered a prize for the first ascent of its famous local mountain – Mont Blanc, 4,807m, the highest in the Alps. It best suits experts in search of off piste.
Of Chamonix’s four separate ski areas, the Argentière/Les Grands Montets sector is an immense freeride playground, much of it glacier terrain, punctuated by two long black pistes. The two-stage Aiguille du Midi cable car from town to the resort high point is a highlight for spectacular views, as well as the launchpad for the stunningly scenic 20km Vallée Blanche off-piste glacier run. Long runs below the tree line offer good sport in bad weather.
The town’s old buildings have kept their sedate Victorian and more fanciful Belle Epoque look and it offers pleasant strolling, with cafés overhanging the river Arve’s torrent and a wealth of interesting shops. Powder hounds may prefer to stay in quieter Argentière for easy access to the Grands Montets, and good après including The Office for pitchers, pizzas and powder chat, and Les Marmottons for live music.
Where to stay
A comfortable modern hotel near the Aiguille du Midi lift, the four-star Refuge Les Aiglons has a heated outdoor pool, a spa with sauna, steam room and massages, and a garage. There’s also a restaurant, La Table du Refuge, on the premises, serving local specialities and tapas with views of Mont Blanc.
Best for partying hard
St Anton am Arlberg, Austria
Firmly on the map as the ski world’s party capital since the 1960s, the ability to handle the slopes like a god and the bar like the devil makes or breaks a stay in St Anton. It is part of the biggest connected ski area in Austria, the Arlberg region, which also has 200km of off-piste itineraries and plenty of challenging off-piste terrain.
St Anton’s village is at 1,304m and the highest lift, the Valluga cable car, goes up to 2,811m. In between lies an array of runs that vary from the moderately demanding to the just plain wicked. The marked but ungroomed itinerary runs are divided into “normal” and “extreme” routes. All should be approached with caution, and the extreme routes are best tackled with a mountain guide. Off-piste, an excursion to Zürs off the back of the Valluga is a must – anyone carrying skis or snowboard is only allowed up to the summit if accompanied by a mountain guide.
In St Anton après starts on the mountain straight after lunch in places such as the Mooserwirt and Krazy Kanguruh on the slopes just above town, with live bands and dancing on the tables till it gets dark. Then everyone skis down and hits the bars and clubs around the lovely old Tirolean main street. Pedestrianised during the day, it is lined with some fine old hotels and inns, sports shops and cafés.
Where to stay
Rooms in Anthony’s Life & Style Hotel are ultra modern with streamlined wooden furnishings and open-plan slate bathrooms. As well as a steakhouse, sports bar, café and Italian restaurant there’s the rooftop Sky-Spa with mountain views.
Best for off-piste missions
This picturesque little village complete with stone church and attractive old wooden farmhouses in the giant Monterosa ski area has a cult following among powder hounds. Away from the limited local pistes, glorious snowfields provide endless entertainment and tough challenges for experts prepared to hire a mountain guide. It’s not for those interested in any form of nightlife, but to make the most of the off piste plenty of sleep is required.
Key to the Monterosa ski area’s attractions for experts is a 60-person cable car to the highest point, Punta Indren at 3,275m, above Alagna, one of the ski area’s three bases with Champoluc and Gressoney. The cable-car opens up a variety of off-piste routes, but there are no pistes down, and the Alagna side has the gnarliest options, with runs of over 2,000m vertical. One of the trickiest is Malfatta, which starts with a glacier crossing and a roped descent of a steep, narrow gorge that leads to couloirs with a 50-degree incline.
Runs on the Gressoney side are more mellow, and the Vallone d’Olen, around 950m vertical down to the gondola mid‑station, is fun even for strong intermediates. There is plenty of local off piste in the rest of the ski area too, plus heliskiing. The Monterosa massif separates Italy from Switzerland, and it’s also possible to descend to Zermatt, returning by lifts and a long off-piste run from above Cervinia to a village near Champoluc.
Where to stay
The four-star Alagna Experience Resort is a three-building complex built of stone and wood in the style of typical local Walser huts. It has a spa, pub and 49 bright, well-equipped units, from studio to nine-person apartments. From €72 pp/pn half board, booked direct.
Best for snow-sure luxury
With its luxurious chalets and hotels, vibrant après and challenging high-altitude terrain, Verbier is the epitome of cool cachet. Anyone who can handle Verbier’s itinerary routes, never mind its couloirs, can consider themselves pretty darn good. What’s more the slopes are snow sure and the scenery spectacular – from the top of the ski area, Mont Fort, at 3,330m, the views reach as far as the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
The itineraries (loosely marked but not formally controlled or patrolled) are where many experts spend their time, treating them like pistes. Epic highlights are the 900m vertical route from Col des Gentianes to Tortin, and the 1,000m vertical Vallon d’Arby to La Tzoumaz on the edge of the ski area. From Mont Gélé (3,025m) there are steeper itineraries and serious off-piste routes, while the top of Mont Fort offers a black mogul run on the front and adventurous off-piste routes off the back.
Verbier itself is a gentle sprawl of chalets, hotels and apartments, few of which are ski-in/ski-out – but the free ski bus system is generally very efficient. Resort life revolves around the après hub of the Place Centrale, the main lift base at Médran 500m away, and the buzzing street between the two.
Where to stay
W Verbier has the best location in town, opposite the Médran gondola. With stylish rooms, exposed timber, glassed-in fireplaces, chic bars and spacious lounges, it’s one of the sexiest hotels in Verbier.
Best for getting into heliskiing
Zermatt has many attractions – varied, extensive slopes linked to those of Cervinia in Italy, quality mountain restaurants, a characterful, car-free village and stand-out views of the Matterhorn. For experts, all the main sectors of slopes have long, testing marked itinerary runs, and there are also epic off-piste routes from several points, plus Europe’s biggest heliskiing operation.
The resort’s three linked sectors – Sunnegga-Blauherd-Rothorn, Gornergrat-Stockhorn and Trockener Steg-Schwarzsee – also offer 200km of pistes and have snow-sure top stations at, respectively, 3,103m, 3,532m and 3,820m. Off-piste opportunities are extensive with a mountain guide, more so for those willing to try touring or heliskiing. Air Zermatt, founded in 1965, runs trips to surrounding peaks such as Monte Rosa, at 4,634m the second highest mountain in the Alps after Mont Blanc. Heliskiing prices start from CHF405 per person, including mountain guide.
The partying is good in Zermatt too – bars such as the Hennu Stall at the bottom of the Matterhorn sector and Cervo at the bottom of Sunnegga have live bands generating atmosphere. And later on, there’s something for everybody, from squeezing into the panelled Elsie’s Bar for a glass of wine to having eardrums assaulted in one of the several venues in the Hotel Post.
Where to stay
Modern Swiss in style, the Cervo is themed around deer and accessed by an elevator in the Sunnegga tunnel. Rooms are spacious and arranged in six five-room chalets, each with a sauna, steam room and outdoor hot tub.
Best for a Wild West adventure
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Jackson Hole does a great job of projecting a macho image, enhanced by pictures of daredevils jumping into the resort’s signature run, Corbet’s Couloir. This narrow chute can normally only be accessed by taking off into the air, and has an initial ultra-steep pitch of 50 degrees. For the slightly less daredevil, there is also a huge amount of easier to access steep and challenging slopes.
The ski area is made up of two mountains, Rendezvous and Apres Vous. The main one, Rendezvous, has virtually nothing but genuine black runs and experts can use the Tram, Jackson’s village to summit cable car, to lap over 1,000m of vertical. There are easier options too, for easing into the steep stuff – the Cirque, on the shoulder between Rendezvous and Apres Vous, is home to fairly steep descents like Snagtree, Downhill and Broadway. Out of boundary adventure is available via gates for accessing the backcountry at the top of Rendezvous.
There are two options for staying in Jackson. Teton Village, a horseshoe-shaped community of shops and comfortable hotels at the base of the ski area is the most convenient. For a more characterful place to stay there’s the town of Jackson, a 15-minute drive from the slopes, with Wild West atmosphere including wooden sidewalks, cowboy saloons and pool halls.
Where to stay
The boutique Wort hotel, just off Jackson’s main square, exudes historic charm, which is combined with high-end amenities and service. It has 55 guest rooms, including five “Western Theme” suites.
Best for snow in the trees
Fernie has long held cult status among locals in the western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia because of its abundant snowfalls (up to 11m some seasons and 9m on average) and its adventurous steep, ungroomed terrain largely in the shelter of trees. This makes it a superb mountain for experts, so long as they know where they’re going – a lot of the runs are difficult to find and involve long traverses.
This means that to get the most out of the terrain it’s best to get shown around early in the holiday. Once a month the resort holds two-day Steep and Deep Camps – well worth going on if the timing is right. For more off-piste adventure, there are also great snowcat operations nearby; at Island Lake Lodge and Fernie Wilderness Adventures.
Fernie has two options of where to stay. The resort village at the base of the mountain is convenient but small, with few eating and drinking options. Fernie town, a couple of miles away, has a much better selection of bars and restaurants, including Yamagoya Sushi for gourmet dining. The Fernie Stoke ski shuttle runs from 7.45am to 10.30pm every day.
Where to stay
A few steps from the village plaza at the base of the slopes, Fernie Slopeside Lodge is a conveniently located ski-in/ski-out hotel with two indoor hot tubs.
Best for taking the whole clan
Whistler has more steep terrain than any other resort in North America. For experts, numerous high open bowls offer a wide range of possibilities, complemented by regular dumps of powder streaming in from the nearby Pacific. There’s also extensive off-piste terrain, backcountry itineraries, cat skiing and heliskiing.
But Whistler is also a great all-rounder. Its two linked mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb) add up to the biggest ski area in North America, which suits intermediates who like to rack up the miles without repeating the same slopes. For beginners, Whistler mountain is very friendly and there are top-to-bottom green runs to progress to. The resort runs a free orientation tour for intermediates and experts every morning.
Whistler’s purpose-built resort village is big and busy, with lots of bars and restaurants, a lively après scene at the lift base from mid-afternoon onwards, and a wide range of shops. There’s also plenty for non-skiers to do, from zip lines and tubing to snowmobiling and eagle-watching tours.
Where to stay
It’s hard to beat the location of The Crystal Lodge, at the centre of Whistler Village and less than a five-minute walk to the lifts. There’s a large outdoor pool, hot tub and saunce and direct access to over 20 shops and restaurants (where Lodge guests qualify for discounts) on the resort’s main street.
Best for a massive ski area
Les Arcs, France
The Les Arcs slopes are remarkably varied, with plenty to suit all standards from beginner to expert, including easy cruising as well as some seriously steep ungroomed black runs. Its ski area is linked to that of neighbouring La Plagne to form the huge 425km Paradiski area.
For experts, the steepest black runs are above Arc 2000, most served by the Varet gondola. None are groomed (the resort calls them Natur’ runs) and there can be huge moguls, but the snow is generally in good condition because of the shady aspect. Some of the best off piste is on the open slopes reached from the Varet gondola and the resort’s high point of Aiguille Rouge (3,225m). It’s possible to go over the back from the Aiguille Rouge on secluded slopes towards Villaroger, a descent of almost 2,000m.
Les Arcs has four purpose-built resort villages. The original three, Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and Arc 2000, consist of large apartment blocks, while Arc 1950, built in the early 2000s, is in a more sympathetic low-rise chalet style. All the villages (if not quite all the accommodation) are ski-in/ski-out and it is easy to get between them on skis. Après ski in general is fairly quiet – Arc 1800 is the liveliest.
Where to stay
A boutique, ski-in/ski-out four-star hotel with just 12 rooms, the Aiguille Grive is a modern wooden and glass building just above Arc 1800. All the rooms have a balcony and spectacular views of Mont Blanc. It also has five chalets varying in size from two to six bedrooms. There’s a sauna too.