Ski Instructor, James Young gives his top five alpine resorts for off-pisters . . .
Launching yourself off the side of a mountain into powder is a surefire way of getting the adrenalin pumping. Some people go as far as to say off-piste skiing is better than sex. I'm not sure I agree with that but it definitely lasts longer.
With wider skis and snowboards available for hire in most resorts, it's never been easier for people to throw caution to the wind and get stuck in to off piste. Europe has some of the best powder runs in the world and you don't have to be an extreme skier to enjoy them.
Five resorts for off-piste powder fiends:
1. Val Thorens, France
Of all the resorts in the Three Valleys, Val Thorens has always been my favourite. It's an extremely friendly place to stay, marginally cheaper than its two counter-parts and also boasts the highest mountain range in Europe.
Off-piste skiing in Val Thorens
The cold, dry climate at the top of this mountain provides some of the lightest powder snow you'll find anywhere and will keep you amused as late in the season as May. If you're heading up to the Peclet and Chaviere glaciers, its advisable to take a guide or at least someone whose skied the area a fair few times but once you are there, the powder runs are fantastic as are the views and both seem to go on forever. For some amazing couloir skiing, head to Le Plein Sud. It can get tracked up fast here after a fresh dump of snow so it's worth setting your alarm early and staying off the Tequila the night before.
2. Verbier, Switzerland
Verbier is not only one of the most attractive ski resorts in the Swiss Alps but also one of the best for some good powder action. With a 400-kilometre ski area spanning four valleys, there are endless possibilities for off-piste skiing. What makes this place stand out is the fact that the long powder runs are relatively easy to access and don't involve hiking half a day for 20 minutes of skiing. There are plenty of bowls, couloirs, and tree-lined runs to have fun in and some infamous runs like ‘The Backside' and ‘Rock Garden' that will have you boasting away in the après-ski bars afterwards.
3. St Anton, Austria
For the intermediate deep snow skier, a perfect place to work on your technique and your confidence levels is St. Anton in Austria's Tyrolean Alps.
Off-piste powder in St. Anton
The lift systems here are excellent and will get you up to the top in no time. The off piste isn't too far away from civilisation too so if you do get into trouble or get tired, you know you haven't got far to go for help. Get up early in the morning and head to the Rendl area for some fresh tracks and then straight over to the opposite side where you'll find Stuben. This is a little known area so is pretty crowd-free and, with its north-facing hills, it holds the snow a lot longer in the day.
4. Chamonix, France
Chamonix is one of the giants in off-piste skiing, and for very good reasons. The one thing all powder enthusiasts seek is the run that keeps going for miles on end and Chamonix has plenty of those. The Valley Blanche is the obvious place to head to, but in an area this good it's worth getting a handful of friends together and hiring a guide for the day. He will not only ensure safety but will show you some of the hidden gems that this mountain has to offer.
5. Ischgl, Austria
One of the main problems with resorts that attract powder skiers is that they can (annoyingly) get tracked up within minutes of the lifts being opened. Ischgl in Austria doesn't have that problem - most people on holiday here are too hungover in the morning to go off piste due to the fact the après-ski is so wild.
Plenty of off-piste in Ischgl
The runs can sometimes stay untouched for most of the day and there is no shortage of challenging powder fields, all accessible from the lifts. Some of the best areas are over on the far western side from the Palinkopf area down to Fimbatal or the steep descent from Hollenspitz to the Hollenkar valley. This is one of those resorts that holds its snow really well so you are going to find plenty of powder at the side of most pistes and through the trees too.
Exploring off-piste adds an exciting new element to your holiday, even if, more often than not, you find yourself waist-deep searching for a missing ski. As famous powder-hound Dolores LaChapelle once said; "Powder snow skiing is not fun. It's life, fully lived in a blaze of reality."
1) Before leaving, consult the weather forecasts, snow bulletins, and avalanche risks.
2) Rather than going it alone, it's better to round up a small group of skiers with the same level and physical condition or go with a professional guide.
3) Equip yourself: if possible, take an avalanche transceiver, an ABS avalanche airbag, an Avalung vest (for breathing the air contained in the snow), and Recco avalanche rescue reflectors.
4) Prepare your itinerary and be back before nightfall
5) If you get caught in an avalanche, let go of your poles and remove your skis or board and leave behind any heavy objects, such as your backpack, to avoid being buried. Lay on the snow if possible, making large swimming movements.
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