At OnTheSnow we love an impeccably researched list and this month we made it our mission to bring you The Definitive List; the one to separate the men from the boys, the muscle from the waifs, the crazy from the sane. Indeed, what follows is the Experts’ Challenges as chosen by a pair of speed and thrill-seeking junkies: Britain’s highest-ranking female skier, Chemmy Alcott, and US expert freerider, Jess McMillan.
Our judges are true athletes. If you can pass these expert ski challenges then our hats we taketh off to you – for you too, my friend, are a pro.
1. Bec des Rosses, Verbier, Switzerland
Frequently called the scariest face in freeride competition, the Bec des Rosses is intimidatingly steep. Most of the lines down the face are between 55 and 60 degrees causing the skier to fly down at breakneck speed. A wise man, he who goes by the name of Woody, once said “Buzz, this isn’t flying! It’s falling with style.” Quite right. Seriously though, a gradient this steep is as steep as they get – there’s no room to incline because you’re already touching the mountain standing up straight.
Jess skied the Bec as a competitor in the Verbier Xtreme. She describes it as “riddled with dead-end chutes [and] sharky rocks” and says “in good conditions, it is intimidating and difficult to ski.”
Contemplating the competition in her online blog in 2009 Jess wrote, “A winning line includes: exposure, big airs, fast skiing, and pushing yourself to the edge. I spent two days and two sleepless nights trying to decide if it was worth skiing the winning line or skiing a less exposed line and giving up the win. The other thought I couldn’t get out of my mind was; if I don’t ski the winning line, will someone else ski it? The winning line was obvious. It was over heavy exposure (if you fall you will most definitely get hurt), included two 20-foot airs, and had the worst snow conditions on the face. The more appealing line began over heavy exposure into a chute that had a mandatory 20-foot air in the middle. This line was more appealing because once you made it into the chute you, were relatively safe. If you were to fall, you would be okay.
“In the end, my decision was made with my heart. I have always told myself to ski the line that looks like the most fun. The winning line didn’t look like fun at all and the other line looked like a lot of fun.
“I decided to rip my chosen line as fast and flawlessly as possible. And I did. I ripped my line with no hesitation off the mandatory 20-foot air and into two more airs. I was at the bottom in under 30 seconds. It was a beautiful line.”
Bec des Rosses, Verbier "Riddled with dead-end chutes and sharky rocks"
Copyright: Richard C Jones
2. Valluga Nord, St Anton, Austria
For gnarly expert terrain both in and out of bounds St. Anton does not fail to impress, and for Chemmy Alcott, the lines here rank among the toughest she’s skied. So where does one head to prove one’s mettle? Well, if you’re very good, and that’s not a decision taken by you but by the expert guides who assess your skiing ability first, you’ll make your way to the Valluga Nord.
A five-man gondola will whisk you to the 2,809m summit where you can pretend that you haven’t just soiled your pants and launch yourself down the 40-55 degree north-facing pitch. The first 100 metres to Pazieltal is the hairy bit; steep and exposed, there are cliffs just below it which are hidden from view as the pitch tucks underneath you. Unsurprisingly it’s a no-fall zone. If you’re hammering down it and you lose control you’re going to hurtle into rocks and, says Jess, “the consequences could be serious . . . No-fall zones require a level of control and precision that put the skier above the everyday skier/boarder. In my opinion, a pro line includes a no-fall zone.”
Upon conquering the descent you can then revel in the powder fields all the way to Zurs.
Standing on The Valluga, St. Anton "The lines here rank among the toughest in the world"
Copyright: Manuel Villena
3. Once is Enough and Twice Is Nice, Jackson Hole, USA
We’ve got a lot of good things to say about Jackson Hole and not just because one of our expert’s calls it home. The resort is a worthy recipient of three coveted spots on our completely non-biased list and we’re not the only ones who think it’s top-notch. Ski Magazine recently ranked its terrain most challenging in North America and it also scooped prizes for Most Character and Overall Satisfaction.
Safe to say then that Jackson Hole has the goods: ample terrain, heaps of powder and some of the finest lift-accessed backcountry in the US. For Jess, “Jackson Hole is the best terrain for making the leap from good to great in the US.” She also says, “It’s amazing to watch average skiers transform to phenomenal skiers after spending a full season in Jackson.”
It’s where Olympic slalom skier and silver medallist Pepi Stiegler honed his all-mountain skiing skills and where he beautifully ripped across our next challenge and one of Jess’s favourite backcountry lines: the heart-stopping ‘Once is Enough’.
To reach it, hop on the drive-through aerial tram that drops you off at the top of Rendezvous at 10,450 feet (3,185m) where you can climb to the pinnacle of Cody Peak 10,750ft (3,276m). After a right-turn on the exposed entrance you’ll face a 60-degree edge requiring a solid-drop turn technique into a chute packed with rock-hard snow.
If you can carve effortlessly down Once is Enough, next on Jess’s list is Twice Is Nice. Shaped like an ‘S’ you’ll find it on your right at the pinnacle of Cody’s Peak. The entrance looks easy enough but underestimating it could be a fatal error as the terrain is unforgiving; lots of exposed rocks and ice. If you successfully manoeuvre your way through this death-trap you’ll be rewarded with a glorious expanse of powder down below.
Freeskiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming "Heaps of powder and some of the finest lift-accessed backcountry in the US"
Copyright: Jackson Hole
4. Skiing Tower Three and the Alta Chutes with “style and grace”, Jackson Hole, USA
Jess’s favourite two in-bound runs at Jackson Hole are Tower Three and the Alta Chutes. She says, “When I first start to ski them in the early season, I'm not as strong as I will be mid-season. I train everyday on these two runs and I know I am skiing like a pro when I hear cheers from the chairlift as I'm ripping down.
“A lot of people can get down runs, but does it count if they don't ski them with style and grace? When I think of style and grace I think of technique. In my mind a pro makes the most difficult terrain look easy and fun. Effortless skiing.”
To get to the Alta Chutes ride the Sublette Chair, locally called ‘the quad’, straight past the thick glades on either side of the chair. The chutes are on your left and are numbered from the top down.
Remember the aim is to make your run look effortless; the Alta Chutes are steep, and not only does it not count if you slip-slide down them, or worse fall, you’ll also look very un-cool.
Tower Three is a popular run and not as steep as Alta 1, 2 or 3 but the slide path is dotted with trees which could be nasty if you were to take a tumble. Nastier still would be smacking into the rock wall on the right. But if you’re a pro this kind of talk won’t deter. You’ll be jamming all the way down to the funnel at the bottom without breaking a sweat.
Standing above the Alta Chutes at Jackson Hole "Remember the key is to make your runs look effortless"
5. Corbets Couloir, Jackson Hole, USA
Corbets is famous in the skier community and makes many an appearance on similar (but not as good) Challenges Lists. Skiers and riders are split into three camps: the ‘I skied Corbets (and got the T-Shirt)’ the ‘One dayers’ as in ‘One day I’ll ski Corbet’s’ and the ‘No way Jose-ers!’. Those who’ve done it say that the hardest part is the mental challenge which requires the participant to commit to throwing him or herself off of the couloir’s lip. Once you’ve done that you’ll freefall into an upside-down funnel before landing onto a 55-degree slope. The rest is easy. Trophy run bagged: job done.
Corbets Couloir, Jackson Hole "The hardest part is the mental challenge"
Copyright: Tristan Greszko/Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
6. Super C Couloir, Portillo, Chile
Many of the world’s top professional riders can be found training in Portillo during the summer months. The resort is home to the highest peak in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aconcagua, and to one of the sweetest most raved about lines in the Andes: the Super C Couloir. Jess was there with Warren Miller filming during the summer of 2011 and was so stoked that she chose it along with McConkey’s in La Parva as her preferred pro line in South America.
The Super C Couloir is accessed from the top of the Roca Jack poma by a two-hour bootpack if you’re lucky. It’s taken some committed riders four hours or more. That’s serious love for the Super C.
Portillo’s other attractive features include vast terrain, frequent epic dumps, and fresh dry pow which remains untracked for days. Throw in the Aconcagua for superb scenery and you’ve got a pro’s wonderland.
Super C Couloir in Portillo, Chile "It’s taken some committed riders four hours or more"
Copyright: Andes Ski Tours
7. Hahnenkamm, Kitzbuehel, Austria
If you want to make like a pro but you dig speed and snow over flying through space then Kitzbuehel's Hahnenkamm piste could be the perfect challenge for you. According to Chemmy the Hahnenkamm “is the gnarliest men's piste in the world” and “at certain times of year fairly ski-able for your average holiday-goer.”
She’s right of course. There are variables, not least snow conditions, which change the game. But let’s put it into perspective. Chemmy’s ‘average’ is like a normal person’s ‘amazing’ and she added ‘fairly’ which, we think, indemnifies her. Translation: The Hahnenkamm is, maybe, ski-able for your averagely-amazing holiday-goer. If that sounds like you then completing this course, where you can reach speeds of up to 88mph, moves you another step closer to pro-status. Kitzbuehel is also one of Austria’s most beautiful towns complete with cobbled streets and historic buildings. We most certainly approve.
Hahnenkamm piste, Kitzbuehel "The gnarliest men's piste in the world"
8. Mad River Glen, Vermont, USA
To be a true pro you’ve got to be able to ski in the harshest of conditions which is why we’ve included Mad River Glen in our Top Challenges. MRG has minimal snow-making and limited grooming, and at the time of writing the area’s snowpack had taken a hit due to warmer weather, leaving them with just “dust on crust” (their words, not mine).
That said, when Mother Nature’s feeling more generous, you’ll see gnarly skiing at MRG. The terrain, a mix of bullet-proof ice, monster-bumps and boulders, is technically difficult forcing skiers to up their game. To sample some of the most feared glades in New England hop on the famous single-chair lift to the Patrol Hut, from there you can climb up to an unpatrolled area. Ski out along the Long Trail for more vertical and tighter trees.
Ski the harshest conditions on Upper Antelope at Mad River Glen
Copyright: Adam Franco
9. Frankie’s, Las Lenas, Argentina
Las Lenas offers pros access to the kind of diverse terrain that they like to ride; big-mountain terrain where they can push themselves to the limits amid breathtaking scenery.
Jess has spent eight summers skiing in Las Lenas, the largest resort in Argentina, and says that Frankie’s, the Hour Glass and Antres Rios are sweet backcountry lines – perfect for ripping down.
The other real draw of Las Lenas is the Marte chairlift which transports expert skiers to an extensive number of extreme runs: there are hundreds of chutes, bowls and steep couloirs of 50-degree pitch. Even better is the lack of skiers off-piste which means you’re likely to find more untracked pow than you could smash in a week.
Andean weather is the downside, high winds and avalanche danger can shut down the upper mountain, and it’s generally agreed that you’ll get the most out of your stay if you go in September.
Las Lenas, Argentina surrounded by big-mountain terrain
Copyright: Las Lenas
10. La Combe to Gers, Flaine, France
Our final challenge is one that Chemmy Alcott first skied aged four, yes, a four-year-old little grom although if it makes you feel better she says she couldn’t take the treacherous single poma alone until she was seven.
We’re talking about La Combe to Gers, in Flaine, which is a north-facing, semi-circular bowl. Much of the slope is in the shade which makes for quality-grade powder all the sweet season long. Flaine itself is a brilliant all-round resort. It’s in the centre of the Grand Massif ski area which connects it to Morillon, Les Carroz, Samoens and Sixt-fet-Cheval.
If you’re with a group of mixed-ability (damn their incompetence) then you can escape to Sixt’s challenging black runs. Better yet, book a trip with one of the local ski schools to nearby Chamonix to face the notorious Vallée blanche. Oh yes, that’s Challenge 11, but who’s counting? We’ll throw that one in for free.
Ski La Combe to Gers, in Flaine - "Much of the slope is in the shade which makes for quality-grade powder all the sweet season long"
Copyright: Agence Zoom