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 12 of the best off-piste ski areas in the Alps.
Photo copyright Office de Tourisme Val d’Isere
Off-piste skiing in Espace Killy: Val d’Isere and Tignes
Espace Killy links the high-altitude French ski resorts of Val d’Isere and Tignes and is a favourite of off-piste skiers because of the amount of steep freeriding opportunities close to its lifts, and a microclimate that sucks in snowstorms from both west and east, 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. The centre is mostly traffic-free and buzzes with nightlife, but if you want tranquillity, that’s available too, especially in the outlying hamlet of Le Fornet which is also the end point for the Vallon and Pers off-piste itineraries reached from the Signal and Montets lifts.
Tignes is entirely purpose-built. The main villages of Val Claret and Tignes Le Lac are located well above the tree line and have never won awards for charm or good looks. But they are surrounded by mountains with excellent freeriding on all sides and at the head of the valley is La Grand Motte, with lifts reaching up to 3456m, which ensures good snow throughout the season and even into summer.
Top Tip for off-piste skiers: Whether you stay in Val d’Isere or Tignes, you’ll want to ski in both areas. For off-piste skiers the classic route between the two resorts is “Mickey’s Ears ” (“Les Oreilles de Mickey”) named after the antenna and satellite dishes that supposedly resemble Mickey Mouse’s ears. The nearest access point is the Combe Folle lift on the Tignes side, but if you’re coming from Val d’Isere you get here via Tommeuses. You then have to walk along the ridge before swinging right towards La Daille if you’re heading for Val d’Isere or left towards Le Lavachet if you’re heading for Tignes. It can be dangerous so hiring a guide is highly recommended. And make sure you stay well above the Lac du Chevril, which is beautiful to look at but a potential death trap for skiers.
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: the North-facing mountain ridge between Gornergrat, Hohtalli and Stockhorn is over 3,000m high and about 4 km long, and provides almost endless freeride 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 enthusiasts 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.
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 nightlife 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 verticals of 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 so take a guide.
Les Deux Alpes offers a way to sample La Grave’s backcountry whilst enjoying a more conventional ski holiday. The two resorts have a basic link via a snowcat tow at the very top of their combined area, but Les Deux Alpes has proper pistes, modern lifts and much more nightlife. It also has some decent off-piste of its own and another rudimentary link (this time by bus or subsidised helicopter) to Alpe d’Huez which has even more runs for all standards, on and off piste. Hardcore freeride enthusiasts will always prefer to stay in La Grave, if only for its charm and authenticity, but for a mixed group, Les Deux Alpes offers a good compromise.
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
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 a huge, lift-linked ski area. The result is certainly impressive, and all the more so because each resort has retained its individual identity.
St Anton is the Arlberg’s obvious destination for freeriders and off-piste skiers. Some of its extreme ski routes are shown on the piste map but they still offer phenomenal challenges for even expert skiers, and there are plenty more unofficial itineraries for those wanting a true backcountry experience. And afterwards there is no shortage of lively bars, on the slopes and in town, in which to celebrate your safe return.
Stuben is smaller, colder, windier and much, much quieter. It nestles beneath the north-facing Albona, a huge unofficial freeride zone with a vertical of nearly 1000m. Once Stuben was considered a distant backwater but the mighty Flexenbahn lift now means every part of the vast Arlberg ski area is within easy reach of it.
Lech is famous for its immaculately groomed runs but it also has a lot of off-piste skiing. 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 on the steeper rockier slopes above St Anton. And if it’s powder you’re after, Europe’s snowiest ski resort, Warth-Schroecken is just over the hill and connected by lift to Lech.
Zurs lies between Stuben and Lech. It’s a modern, purpose-built, high-altitude resort, but a very luxurious and snowy one. 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: The Arlberg ski pass also covers Sonnenkopf . Most piste skiers overlook this sector because there are no lifts or pistes connecting it to the main circuit, but off-piste skiers shouldn’t neglect it. With a guide, you can get half way to it on skis, descending from the top of the Albona down to Langen, then completing the journey by taxi or bus. Sonnenkopf’ has great freeriding between the pistes, and the guide can also show you how to return off-piste to Langen, going off the back of Glattingrat. From Langen you can catch a train to St Anton, or a bus or taxi to Stuben which is just 10 minutes’ down the road.
Off-piste skiing 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 Chamonix 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 within the Chamonix valley, it includes Les Houches (good for tree skiing in poor light) and the highest lifts in Chamonix and Argentiere which the Chamonix pass doesn’t. And it also gives you access to off-piste skiing in Verbier, Megeve and Courmayeur. But be warned: bus connections between these resorts and Chamonix are few and far between, so you will have to plan ahead, or bring a car with you, to extract maximum value from the MBU.
Off-piste skiing in Andermatt
Andermatt has undergone quite a renaissance, with new pistes and lifts stretching its ski area (now called the SkiArena) across to the neighbouring resort of Sedrun, and smart hotels like the Chedi opening for business in the town itself. But for off-piste skiers Andermatt’s appeal never faded, because it was based on an unchanging and immovable bit of geography:the 2965m high, naturally snowy, north-facing Gemsstock mountain. The piste map shows only three ways down: an ungroomed ski route, a black run named after the local hero B Russi (which admittedly splits into two lower down the mountain), and a red piste which winds its way down a separate bowl. All of them access huge amounts of freeriding, both close to the piste and on itineraries and ski tours which take you far away from the official ski area.
Top tip for off-piste skiers: ski resorts in Europe divide into those that mostly cater for skiers booked into week long holidays which tend to empty out on Saturdays because it’s the most popular transfer day, and those that primarily attract weekenders (albeit with some overspill onto Friday and Monday). Andermatt is very definitely in the latter camp. There is only one way up the Gemsstock mountain, a slightly old-fashioned two-stage cable car, and on Saturdays and Sundays lift queues are the norm when conditions are good. If you have to come here on these days, get to the lift as soon as it starts operating as the queues will be worse by mid-morning; other good times are around 1.15pm when most European skiers will be at lunch, and late in the afternoon when more people will be coming down than going up. And if you have a chance to ski in Andermatt on a normal weekday, grab it, because usually the Gemsstock is delightfully empty.
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 the prettiest village. 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 a 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 freeride enthusiasts have mixed feelings about heliskiing. It hugely 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.
Off-piste skiing in Verbier and the 4 Valleys
It’s easy to gripe about Verbier. It’s expensive and the resort has outgrown its main lift up the mountain, so all too often you have to start the day with a long walk or a bus ride followed by a time-wasting queue. Too many of its pistes face south, and the other parts of its Four Valleys ski area are hard to reach. And yet it’s still one of the world’s greatest ski resorts, 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. Nendaz is another option: it has reasonable access to Mont Fort, and is even better placed than Verbier for exploring the freeriding around Greppon Blanc.
Off-piste skiing in La Plagne
La Plagne is not widely regarded as an off-piste resort, but it has one of the best off-piste mountains in Europe – Bellecôte. There is a huge freeriding area between the Chalet de Bellecote and Traversee lifts. And over the ridge there is more on Friolin. But all this is just a taster for the main event – the north face of Bellecote. There are more than 20 routes down, many classified as extreme. Even the Petite Face Nord, perhaps the easiest and most accessible, has a vertical of about 2000m. And if you want a change from the north face, the south face has itineraries that are almost as long, reaching down into the Champagny valley. The approach to Bellecote can be fun too, if you take one of the off-piste routes down from the Roche de Mio. And of course there are other freeriding opportunities scattered around La Plagne, and also in the neighbouring lift-linked resort of Les Arcs, which has its own 2000m vertical off-piste descents.
Top tip for off-piste skiers: The north face of Bellecote is no place to be without a qualified mountain guide. But mountain guides are expensive to hire, especially if you are the only person in your party who wants to ski off-piste. The French ski school ESF has tried to alleviate this by organising regular off-piste group expeditions for experienced off-piste skiers that you can sign up to as an individual for a modest price on a pay-per-person basis. ESF also have good introductory half-days for first time off-piste skiers. Further details are on out La Plagne Ski Schools and Mountain Guides page.
Off-piste skiing in Engelberg
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 and there are also good train connections (see our Getting to Engelberg page). 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 suitable warm-up exercise. 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: For keen skiers who want to spend at least some of their time on groomed runs, Engelberg’s pisted ski area is a little limited if you’re staying for a week or more. But there is another great off-piste ski resort about an hour away by car in the form of Andermatt (see above). It’s not a journey you will want to do every day, but off-piste skiers who are staying in Engelberg for a full week should consider one or two day trips, if only to be able to participate in the age-old apres-ski argument about which is the better mountain for freeriding – Titlis or Gemsstock.
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 and there is more than enough freeriding to keep an expert busy for a week.
Top Tip for off-piste skiers: One day at La Thuile, another Valle d’Aosta ski resort, is included in most Courmayeur lift passes, and with a guide you can almost ski to it from Cresta d’Arp (the final leg is by taxi and the return is by bus – there is a good ski bus service between the two resorts). You will want to stay there till the lifts close, however, because La Thuile has uncrowded slopes, including one of the steepest black pistes in the Alps (Number 3 / Franco Berthod) and great freeriding in the new Mont Valaisan sector.
Off-piste skiing in Davos-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 its strong point. But it’s 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 for most people is the preferred place stay, because it’s more like a traditional Alpine village, and it’s also the end point of some 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 resorts, late January is an excellent time to try off-piste skiing. The snow is crisp, 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 immediately after it finishes, there are usually bargains to be had, and lots of untracked powder to explore.
Important Safety Warning
Before venturing onto the ungroomed slopes beyond the safety of a ski resort’s piste markers, remember to equip yourself properly which means always take a phone (and know the European Emergency number – 112), 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