The world's biggest lift-served verticals

7th January 2013 | Patrick Thorne

Making the 2800m vertical ascent up the Aiguille du Midi before skiing the Vallee Blanche

Making the 2800m vertical ascent up the Aiguille du Midi before skiing the Vallee Blanche

Copyright: Chamonix Tourist Office

It’s one of those key statistics we’re all drawn to when comparing ski areas – how big is the lift-served vertical drop?

If you like your drops huge – which should mean perhaps 10 miles of gentle cruising or half an hour of shorter steeper stuff in the 2000m+ descent category – then the Alps wins hands down. Indeed 49 of the 50 biggest lift-served vertical descents in the world are in the Alps.

But not all big lift-served verticals are made equally, and there are more than 50 ski areas claiming at least a 1700m lift-served vertical. Before being dazzled by the numbers you need to check the small print, or at least the piste map.

Firstly, can you ski the full vertical in one go?  Do you need to take a lift halfway down to get to the bottom, as is the case between the top and bottom of Les Arcs, or is there a big cliff in the way, which you’ll find if you ever thought about skiing from the highest point above Wengen or Garmisch down to the valley.

Secondly, how likely is it that the lower section of the lift-served vertical will have snow?  If you time it right you might be able to ski off-piste below Meribel or Verbier for example, but those lower sections are unofficial off-piste terrain.

Third, check that the descent is feasible for your ability level. Many of the longest descents are wholly or partially off-piste routes of varying levels of difficulty which may be increased by weather and snow conditions on the day.

Finally, does the descent arrive back at the base of the lifts so you can head straight back up? A few of the long descents, for example from the peaks above Davos, or again down from the summits of Les Arcs to neighbouring Villaroger, are wonderfully long runs but end up in neighbouring hamlets – so you need to get a ski bus, train or taxi back.

Walking down the ridge of the Aiguille du Midi at the start of the Vallee Blanche, Chamonix

Copyright: Chamonix Tourism

Europe’s biggest drop

The Vallee Blanche, Chamonix, France

The Vallee Blanche is an iconic descent of 2755m, creating runs of up to 22km down from 3790m to 1035m – the longest descent in the world over the biggest lift-served vertical.

The image portrayed is of floating down through light powder and spectacular scenery but sadly weather conditions means that the reality is rarely like that.

Firstly, let’s be clear on what skiing the Vallée Blanche requires. Firstly you need to be at least a good intermediate skier. Most of the usual route (and there are many others) would rate as a blue for gradient and challenge, but you do need stamina to keep going all the way down and then, at the bottom, tackle the long flight of 350 stairs back up to Montenevers rail station (easier in snowboard boots rather than ski boots) for the ride back to Chamonix.

Secondly you need a guide – this is high-altitude, glacier terrain and sadly most winters one or two people still fall into crevasses or are lost in some other accident; it’s very foolish to tackle the Vallée Blanche alone.

“Unless you know it like a local, ski the Vallée Blanche with a guide," says Richard Sinclair of travel agency Sno.co.uk, “Even someone confident on reds can ski it with the right guide who knows your ability, but remember it’s a glacier with many deadly crevasses, often hidden by snow bridges of unknown strength. Pick a reliable local outfit like Chamonix Experience run by legendary Everest mountaineer Russell Bryce. Chamonix has been called the death-sport capital of the world, but it doesn’t need to be dangerous there to enjoy the majesty of the highest peaks in the Alps.”

Thirdly you need a head for heights. Your day begins with a vertigo-inducing and ear-popping 2800m-vertical ascent of the Aiguille du Midi. But for many people the most challenging part of the Vallée Blanche experience is shuffling along the icy ‘arête’ that links the lift station to the start of the ski run (although for experienced mountaineers, it’s no doubt a walk in the park). You have a rope to cling on to but you are carrying your skis and wearing your ski boots of course – crampons and roping your party together are often options offered. Snowboarders have the advantage of more secure footwear but the disadvantage that the board is more likely to catch the wind.

Other than that you just need good gear, a helmet, standard off-piste avalanche kit, your camera, a sandwich and some drinks for the way down, and you’re sorted.

But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Well the answer is likely to depend on the conditions when you tackle it. I was unfortunate enough to ski the Vallée Blanche on a day when it hadn’t snowed for weeks and found several hours of skiing over icy ridges and hard old crust to be rather exhausting. But I know plenty of people who’ve skied it on a good-snow day and mark it down as one of the best, most thrilling experiences of their lives and something they want to repeat as often as possible.

At the start of Revelstoke's biggest vertical

Copyright: Patrick Thorne

North America’s biggest drop

Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada

The largest vertical descent in North America you’ll find in Revelstoke. It is a 1713m vertical from 2495m down to 782m (you can hike up a bit of Mount Mackenzie from the top of the chairlift to make it even bigger if you like), has only been skiable since the 2008-9 ski season when Revelstoke’s new gondola took the crown of biggest vertical on the continent away from its BC neighbour Whistler Blackcomb (although Whistler can still claim the most hectares of skiable terrain in North America).

The antithesis of the Vallée Blanche experience: there’s a plethora of routes on-and-off piste down from the top of Revelstoke’s slopes to the base, including a 15.2km easy run ‘Last Spike’ which beginners with stamina could tackle by the end of their first week.

If you want a more Chamonix type experience hit the alarmingly steep chutes of the North Bowl on your left or take the less extreme option, as I did, and begin your long descent on blacks with those telling names North American ski areas are so good at, such as Jalapeno or Roller Coaster. You can in fact do almost the entire vertical on black runs like Snow Rodeo, Cannonball and Pitch Black, or there’s every level of terrain in between to choose from.

As with the Vallée Blanche, conditions do vary. When I visited right at the end of the season in early April the thaw had set in and the very bottom 100m of vertical wasn’t, ahem, officially open. You probably do have a slightly better chance of finding deep powder at Revelstoke as it averages up to 14m of snow each winter, compared to Chamonix’s 11m. 

You certainly don’t need a guide to ski Revelstoke. But you can, if you wish, sign up for a full day private lesson which can include skiing the full vertical several times by numerous routes.

Although Chamonix has a bigger reputation for extreme terrain, both resorts are among the handful hosting stages of the Freeride World Tour, so Revelstoke’s terrain is clearly not to be sniffed at.

Chamonix Vs Revelstoke

Take a look at the stats for both . . . 

 

Chamonix, France

Revelstoke, Canada

 

 

 

Lift-served vertical

2,769m

1,713m

Altitude at start

3,804m

2,495m

Altitude at bottom

1,035m

782m

Run length

17-22km

15.2km

Run ability type

Intermediate to expert

Easy to expert

Run surface type

Off-piste

Piste – perfectly groomed.

Glacier?

Yes

No

Below treeline?

Last 25%

95%

Snowmaking?

No – glacier

No – up to 20m snow per year.

Roped together at top?

Yes

No

Guide essential?

Yes

No

Lifts to the top

Two cable cars

Gondola and chairlift

View

Stunning

Stunning

Adrenalin Factor

Medium to high

Low to high

Cost

£100 (guide + lift ticket)

Lift ticket $74 CDN = £42

Duration

All day

30-90 minutes

Web

chamonix.com

revelstokemountainresort.com

The world's top 10

Here’s a list of the biggest verticals ‘possible’ to ski without needing to take a lift or jump a cliff halfway down in order to make the full descent.  The majority do, however, require some, or all, off-piste skiing and many need lower sections to be snow covered (which they rarely are) and sometimes skiing terrain that isn’t even usually considered as regular ‘off-piste.’ All are in France, Switzerland or just over the border into Italy.

2769m Vallée Blanche, Chamonix, France

2509m Verbier, Switzerland (the full vertical involves skiing on below Verbier which is subject to snow cover down to 821m and there’s no official piste on that lower section).

2310m Val Thorens, France, an off-piste route over into the fourth valley adjoined to the 3 Valleys and down to Orelle.

2269m Zermatt, Switzerland.  The biggest on-piste descent possible, but the top lift required to make the full vertical, Europe’s highest topping-out at 3899m, is only usually open in summer for glacier skiing, when lower runs are closed. Slightly longer descents are possible to Valtournenche on the Italian side of the border but these require an off-piste stretch or a drag lift ride mid-way down.

2220m Les 2 Alpes, France. The longest, normally open full on-piste vertical available in the world.

2200m Alpe d'Huez, France. Serving the world’s longest back run, the 16km Sarenne descent.

2174m Murren, Switzerland. The route skied in the famous Inferno race every January since 1928, but quite often closed due to lack of snow in the valley.

2138m Meribel, France. As with Verbier, this descent, beginning up at La Saulire, requires snow cover on an off-piste section at the bottom down to Brides les Bains, which is usually closed.

2100m La Grave, France. The cult off-piste descent.

2092m Courmayeur, Italy. Runs on the Italian side of Mont Blanc are almost as long as the French runs, accessed by a separate lift system (currently undergoing a €100m upgrade ahead of opening in 2014).

Next article: Top five Olympic downhill ski runs

Previous article: Top 10 challenges for expert skiers

 

 

 

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