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An expert's guide to the world's most challenging ski slopes

From British Columbia to Georgia, we bring you the expert’s guide to the world’s most challenging winter sports terrain.

The challenging upper slopes of Verbier, Switzerland.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Alf Anderson
Published 16 Dec 2021, 06:06 GMT

Skiing and snowboarding have changed enormously in recent years. Once, most people were content zooming around on groomed slopes with perhaps the occasional foray off-piste, but today an ever-increasing number of riders are looking to challenge themselves with steeper terrain and deeper, ungroomed snow. This is largely a result of improved equipment, from wide skis to avalanche airbags, along with the influence of high-profile events like the Freeride World Tour. Add to that the opening up of such wild, outsider locations as Georgia, Iceland and Siberia to winter sports-lovers, and it’s a trend that’s only set to grow.

So, where’s the most challenging riding to be found? Here are a few of the resorts that the experts love…

LA GRAVE, FRANCE


Why? Apart from three easy blue pistes, La Grave offers nothing other than challenging, ungroomed, natural terrain. Lying beneath the peak of 13,000ft La Meije, and accessed by a slow old gondola, La Grave has 7,550ft of relentlessly steep vertical, varying from hazardous crevasses such as Les Triffides and Y Couloir to glaciers and forests — none of which are groomed or controlled for avalanches. Swedish ski guide Pelle Lange has lived and skied here since 1989 and reckons that “skiing terrain like this regularly, it’s pretty hard not to have the occasional close call.” One for experienced skiers only.

Did you know? American professional extreme skier Doug Coombs moved to La Grave for the challenging terrain; tragically, he died in 2006 in a fall at the Couloir de Polichinelle while trying to rescue a friend. 

VERBIER, SWITZERLAND


Why? The Freeride World Tour concludes every year in Verbier, which tells you all you need to know about how testing the slopes are here. You don’t even need to venture off-piste to challenge yourself either — try the long, steep Mont-Fort mogul field, for instance, or head further out with one of the exciting ‘itinéraires’, marked but unmaintained and ungroomed runs. Add to this the high mountain feel of the upper slopes and the incredible panoramas, which take in Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn among other 13,000ft peaks, and you have one of the world’s most iconic — and challenging — ski resorts.

Did you know? The list of those who ski Verbier is endless, from royalty and movie stars to Freeride World Tour champions such as Xavier De Le Rue (who also, as it happens, lives here), Arianna Tricomi and Kristofer Turdell.

Off-piste in La Grave, France.

Photograph by Getty Images

TETNULDI, GEORGIA


Why? Only accessible via a nine-hour journey in a four-wheel-drive vehicle or on a rather bumpy light aircraft flight, Tetnuldi and its handful of ski lifts hunker in the shadow of 15,938ft Mount Tetnuldi, one of four peaks in the region higher than Mont Blanc. Ski presenter Rob Stewart describes the skiing here as “For the adventurous — just getting here is something of a mission, but it’s well worth the effort.” He’s right; if deep powder and non-existent lift queues are what you’re looking for, this is the place to be.

Did you know? The Georgian ski scene is in its infancy and has yet to nurture any high-profile skiers, but Salomon-sponsored freeriders Stan Rey and Josh Daiek recently visited the area and scored the kind of ‘pow’ (powder snow) it’s famous for. 

CHAMONIX, FRANCE


Why? For well over a century, Chamonix has been laying down the gauntlet for the world’s best skiers, and it still draws those who want to prove themselves on the slopes. The skiing is spread out across four distinct ski areas, with the most challenging and spectacular being the glaciated slopes of Grands Montets. And then there’s the Mer de Glace, an amazing, 12-mile-plus off-piste run from the top of 12,599ft Aiguille du Midi all the way to Chamonix (in good snow conditions). Strong intermediates can tackle this, while the experts will be sliding down 40-degree-plus slopes such as the Couloir du Dru and Rectiligne.

Did you know? Brothers Jean-Baptiste and Jonathan Charlet are fifth-generation Chamonix alpinists and world-class snowboarders who regularly ride the area’s steepest lines with grace and panache.

RED MOUNTAIN, CANADA


Why? Despite its hometown feel, Red Mountain in British Columbia has one of North America’s biggest ski areas. Tree skiing is a particular draw, along with the cliffs and powder. It takes a special kind of skier to leap off a cliff in the middle of a forest, but if that’s not quite your thing, there are plenty of less hairy runs — in particular, you can test yourself on the steep black diamond Links Line underneath the Motherlode Chair. Nail it or get it badly wrong — either way, you’re sure to get plenty of whoops and hollers from the folks on the chair above.

Did you know? Former World Champion and Olympic gold medallist Nancy Greene, big mountain charger Dane Tudor and world-class freeskier Leah Evans are just three of the big names who grew up skiing ‘Red’. 

Published in the Winter Sports guide 2021, distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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