Best Off-Piste Skiing in the Alps

    Whether you call it “off-piste'', "freeriding”, "piste hors", or “backcountry skiing”, more and more skiers and snowboarders are venturing onto the ungroomed slopes beyond the safety of a ski resort's piste markers. Here's our pick of 10 of the best off-piste ski areas in the Alps.

    Off-Piste in Val d'Isere 660x260

    Photo copyright Office de Tourisme Val d'Isere

    Off-piste skiing in La Grave and Les Deux Alpes

    La Grave is the cult resort for off-piste purists. There really is no other reason for holidaying here in winter. The lifts are few, old and slow; the groomed piste almost non-existent; the night-life basic; and the village itself, whilst relatively unspoilt, is no great beauty. But beneath La Meije, La Grave has high, steep North-facing slopes with a vertical of just over 2000m. For most of its skiable terrain there are no gates, fences, markers or patrols: you can go anywhere, but you do so at your own risk.

    Les Deux Alpes offers a way to sample La Grave’s backcountry skiing whilst also enjoying a more conventional winter sports holiday. The two resorts are sort of linked by a snowcat tow at the very top of their combined area, but Les Deux Alpes also has proper pistes and modern lifts, plus another sort of link (this time by bus or subsidised helicopter) to Alpe d’Huez which has even more. And off-piste enthusiasts won’t have to go to La Grave every day: Les Deux Alpes’ own freeriding is pretty good too.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers. Holding a race in a ski area renowned for its extreme off-piste might seem crazy, but the Derby de la Meije is over 30 years old and is actually one of the safest times to ski in La Grave because the more terrifying couloirs are roped off for a day. It’s also great fun and by La Grave’s standards, relatively inclusive – teams are encouraged to have men and women, boarders and skiers, and if you can’t win a prize for being the fastest, you might still get one for having the best fancy-dress. For more details see: https://derbydelameije.com

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    Off-piste skiing in Zermatt

    Zermatt is the resort for off-piste skiers who like a little luxury and see nothing wrong with finishing a long morning spent in the backcountry with a late lunch in a gourmet restaurant, complete with fine wines, table cloths, attentive service and picture-perfect views of the Alps’ most iconic mountain. As well as serious itineraries (some best reached by helicopter), Zermatt has some amazing between-the-piste skiing, with the 3km long, 3000m high, North-facing mountain ridge between Gornegrat, Hohtalli and Stockhorn providing almost endless possibilities (but watch out: there are cliffs and crevasses as well).  The exceptional height of Zermatt’s ski area – lifts go up to 3800m – enables piste skiing all year round, but off-piste skiers should delay their trip until at least Mid-February. The resort has a famously dry climate and some of the best slopes can be closed earlier in the season.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers. Zermatt is never going to be a cheap place to ski in but if you’re determined to experience its off-piste on a tight budget, we recommend staying down the mountain in Tasch, (a 12 minute train ride away from Zermatt) rather than in Cervinia (the Italian resort to which Zermatt is linked by lift). Not only is Tasch cheaper but it will take you much less time to reach Zermatt’s best slopes for freeriding.

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    Off-piste skiing in the Arlberg: St Anton, Lech, Zurs and Stuben

    The Arlberg is where Austria took on France at its own game – connecting high altitude mountain resorts to form lhige ski areas – but made sure the resorts retained their individual identities.

    St Anton is the Arlberg’s obvious resort for off-piste skiers. It’s extreme ski routes are shown on the piste map but they still offer phenomenal challenges for even expert skiers, and there are plenty of longer itineraries for those wanting a true backcountry experience. And afterwards if you want to celebrate returning safely, there is no shortage of bars, on the slopes and in town.

    Stuben is smaller and much, much quieter. It nestles beneath the North-facing Albona, a natural magnet for off-piste skiers, and the temperature outside is often a degree or two colder than in the other resorts. Once it was considered a distant backwater but the mighty Flexenbahn lift now means every part of the huge Arlberg ski area is within easy reach of it.

    Lech is famous for its immaculately groomed runs but it also has quite a lot of off-piste skiing, although less of the extreme stuff than St Anton. Its grassy meadows require much less fresh snow to be enjoyable, so you can make fresh tracks here when you’d be better off sticking to the piste in St Anton. And if it’s powder you’re after, Europe’s snowiest ski resort, Warth-Schroecken is just over the hill and within easy reach by piste or off-piste itinerary from Lech.

    Zurs is a compromise because it’s just down the road from Lech and just over the Flexen pass from Stuben. It’s a modern, purpose-built, high-altitude resort, but a very luxurious and snowy one  – in the Alps, only Warth-Schroecken (easily reached on skis) receives more of the fluffy-stuff in a typical year. At night, Zurs’ residents tend not to leave the comforts of their four and five star hotels, but during the day they are spoilt for choice, as it's the central crossroads of the Arlberg ski area. For strong off-piste skiers, it is also the end-point of the famous ‘off the back of the Valluga’ run.

    Top tip for off-piste skiers: All the Arlberg resorts have micro-climates and weather and snow conditions can vary widely. Most off-piste skiers stay in St Anton because that’s where most of the steepest runs are, but in a typical year Warth, Schrocken, Zurs, and Stuben receive more snow so use the lift network to find the freshest powder.

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    Off-piste sking in Chamonix and Argentiere

    Chamonix is probably the most famous off-piste resort in the Alps, and deservedly so. Even people who don’t normally ski off-piste will try the 24 km long Vallee Blanche. But for true enthusiasts, there is so much more, from simple between-the-piste skiing to epic multi day itineraries such as the Haute Route. Other Alpine resorts might offer larger ski areas and easier connections, but nowhere else with this sort of vertical gets so much fresh powder, and nowhere else has Chamonix’s vibe.

    Argentiere is a small ski village in the Chamonix valley, about 9km from the main town, and connected by bus and train. It does not have Chamonix’s buzz at night, but it has the high lifts that take expert skiers to their favourite playground within the Chamonix ski area – Les Grands Montets. So keen off-piste skiers may prefer to base themselves here.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers: if you’re staying in Chamonox or Argentiere for a full week or more, and really want to get the most out of your stay, the Mont Blanc Unlimited skipass (or MBU) might be a better option than the Chamonix pass. Yes it’s expensive but it also covers Verbier and Courmayeur, plus Les Houches (good for tree skiing in poor light) and lets you take the highest cable car in the Grands Montets area without paying a supplement. But be warned: bus connections between Chamonix, Courmayeur and Verbier are limited so you will have to plan ahead or have a car to extract maximum value from it.

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    Off-piste skiing in Monterosa: Alagna, Gressoney and Champoluc

    The Monterosa Ski area is sometimes called ‘the Italian 3 valleys’, but a better description is its domain name: ‘www.FreerideParadise.It’  The piste network is actually quite small despite stretching across three valleys, but its top lift reaches 3275m – and for determined off-piste skiers with skins, this is just the starting point for a further upward climb. Monterosa is not a tremendously snowy region of the Alps, but its height and lack of competition from other skiers and boarders (on weekdays, its slopes are almost deserted) means the snow that does fall, stays in good condition longer.

    Alagna Valesia is the most famous off-piste base in Monterosa and is probably the prettiest village in this list. It is not a good destination, however, for a mixed ability group: it has very few pistes of its own and the only route home from the other valleys on piste is a 1700m descent on a black then steepish red run. But off-piste skiers have much more choice,  with descents from Passo Zube, Punta Vittoria, the Bors glacier or Passo Salati.

    Gressoney is the middle valley. Stafal (or Tschaval) is where the keenest skiers will want to base themselves although its neither beautiful nor atmospheric, because it gives direct access to runs on both sides of the valley. Gressoney Saint Jean is larger, cheaper and has an attractive old town, but you have to commute to the skiing by bus; and Gressoney-la-Trinite is geographically in between the other two and a good compromise. Champoluc is in the Western valley and is the best resort for beginners and intermediates but you have to take a lot of lifts to reach the longest off-piste itineraries which generally start from the mountains between Stafal and Alagna.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers: many off-piste skiers have mixed feelings about heliskiing. It expands the amount of powder they can tackle in a day, but its noise and unnaturalness are the antithesis of what backcountry skiing is supposed to be all about. But if you want to try it, Monterosa is an excellent place. For a start it’s cheaper here than in Switzerland (in France it’s banned and in Austria it’s tightly limited); and there is a famous Monterosa heliski excursion that minimises time spent in a loud chopper: the drop off is above Zermatt; you then ski  down to Zermatt, take the Klein Matterhorn lift back up to the ridge between Cervinia and Zermatt, and ski all the way to Champoluc.

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    Off-piste skiing in Verbier and the 4 Valleys

    It's easy to gripe about Verbier. It’s expensive; the resort seems to have grown too large for its main lift up the mountain, so expect a long walk or a bus ride, followed by a queue; too many pistes face South; Verbier's own ski area is quite small for such a famous Alpine resort; and the other parts of the Four Valleys ski area are hard to reach and nothing to shout about (except perhaps for Mont Greppon and Bruson’s trees).  And yet we keep coming, and the reason why is simple – Verbier has spectacular off-piste.  Off the back of Mont-Fort is the show-stopper, but there are superb runs from almost every ridge including Mont Gele, Les Attelas, Lac des Vaux, Col des Mines, Gentianes and Chassoure.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers: off-piste enthusiasts on a tight budget should consider staying down the mountain in Le Chable which is much cheaper. Its lift into Verbier carries on up the mountain so you don’t have to get off, and it also has another lift to Bruson where the best tree skiing is. And it has its own train station, so it’s easy to reach by public transport.

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    Off-piste skiing in Espace Killy: Val d’Isere and Tignes

    The Espace Killy links the high-altitude French resorts of Val d'Isere and Tignes. It's a big ski area yet on your way to it, you will pass two even larger ones: The 3 Valleys and Paradiski. But Espace Killy is the favourite of off-piste skiers, because it has more steep freeriding opportunities close to its lifts and its micro-climate draws in snowstorms from both the West and East winds, so you usually don’t have to wait long for the next dump of fresh powder.

    Val d’Isere should be your base if you value resort charm. The core of the old village around its ancient church has been well preserved and it has an attractive atmosphere, by day and by night. The centre is mostly traffic-free and has a definite buzz, but if you want tranquillity, that’s available too, most noticeably at Le Fornet.

    Tignes is entirely purpose-built. The main villages of Val Claret, Le Lavachet and Tignes Le Lac are located above 2000m which is well above the treeline. Unlike Val d’Isere there are good off-piste runs coming down into the resort from both sides of the valley, and its head, La Grand Motte has lifts reaching up to 3456m which ensures good snow throughout the season and even into summer.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers: Given that there are so many excellent off-piste runs in the Espace Killy, it sounds perverse to suggest one which takes you out of the area for a full day. But guides can take you off the back of the Col du Palet in Tignes and escort you across a National Park all the way to Champagny or Peisey Nancroix which connect into the Paradiski area. If you start early enough you can then make two epic 2000m descents: one from the top of the Bellecote glacier in La Plagne and the other from the Aiguille Rouge above Les Arcs, eventually ending up in Villaroger, about a 40 minute taxi ride away from Tignes or Val d’Isere.

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    Off-piste skiing in Engelberg and Andermatt

    Engelberg is a good off-piste resort for a week and a great one for a long weekend because it’s only about  90 minutes’ drive from Zurich airport. The town has a history that predates skiing, including its famous 12th century Benedictine monastery, although this does mean most of the accommodation is a 10 to 20 minute walk (or 5 minute bus ride) away from the main lift station. For a keen off-piste skier, however, that’s just a warm-up exercise; and off-piste skiing is what Engelberg is all about. The Laub is the most well-known run (a steep North-facing mountain shoulder with a 1000m vertical), but others are almost twice as long, descending from the top of the 3030m Klein Titlis lift all the way to the valley floor at about 1000m.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers: Engelberg’s ski area is a little on the small side if you’re staying for a full week or more, but there is another great off-piste ski resort about an hour away by car or two hours by public transport: Andermatt. This resort's lift network is fast expanding and now stretches as far as Sedrun, but its chief appeal for off-piste skiers is the 2965m North-facing Gemstock mountain – a worthy rival to the Laub and well worth an hour’s drive. 

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    Off-piste skiing in Courmayeur

    Courmayeur is a pretty Italian mountain village more famous for its cobbled streets and smart shops than its tame and limited pistes. But off-piste is a different story. There are serious itineraries in several directions from the top of 2755m Cresta d’Arp, and even more from Punta Helbronner at 3455m, reached via the Skyway Monte Bianco. Add in heliskiing, and the option of a quick dash through the Mont Blanc tunnel to enjoy everything that Chamonix can offer (or a longer journey to Verbier), and there is more than enough to keep an expert busy for a week.

    Top Tip for off-piste skiers: If you value practicality above aesthetics and nightlife, consider staying in Entreves, a small hamlet/suburb two and a half kilometres from Courmayeur itself. Both the Monte Bianco Skyway and the usually queue-free Val Veny lift into the main ski area (and eventually Cresta d’Arp) should be within five to ten minutes walk. If you feel the need for a lively night out, it’s a slightly longer walk (30 to 45 minutes) into the centre of Courmayeur.

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    Off-piste skiing in Davos and Klosters

    Davos and Klosters share a large ski area with 56 lifts and 320 kms of piste. For off-piste skiers what makes it special are its long itineraries descending all the way to the valley floor from where you return by train or taxi. For some of the longest ones you will need skins.  There is also ‘short and ’steep’ freeriding as well, including the famous ‘Wang’  beneath the second stage of the Gotschnabahn cable car.

    Davos is a traffic plagued town and many of its hotels used to be sanitoriums, so atmosphere is not really it’s strong point. But its easier to reach from Zurich airport (there are trains and buses) and in the morning there are shorter queues for its lifts than there are in Klosters.

    Klosters is generally the preferred place stay, because it’s more like a traditional Alpine village, and it’s also the end point of many of the longest runs. It’s not cheap (this is Switzerland, remember) but if you were expecting it to be super-expensive due its fame as Prince Charles’ favourite resort, you might be pleasantly surprised. Generally, you get more for your money here than you would in Zermatt or Verbier.

    Top Tip for Off-Piste skiers. In most ski resorts, late January is an excellent time for off-piste skiers. The snow is good, the slopes are empty, the guides don’t have many bookings and prices are low. But in Davos and Klosters this is when the World Economic Forum hits town and costs go up. Fortunately, the Forum only lasts 4 days and most of the delegates do very little skiing (and even less off-piste) and leave quickly – so that’s when there are great bargains to be had, with the added bonus of there being more untracked week-old powder stashes than normal.

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    Important Safety Warning

    Before venturing onto the ungroomed slopes beyond the safety of a ski resort's piste markers, remember to equp yourself properly which means always take a phone, an avalanche transceiver, poles and a shovel, and sometimes skins, ropes and crampons too; and hire a ski guide, who can not only provide you with all this safety equipment (and show you how to use it correctly) but keep you free from mishap, lead you to the best snow, tell you about the mountains and reveal exciting routes you would never have discovered on your own. 

    Author: William Micklethwait 

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