There’s nothing as addictive as the taste of adrenalin – skiers know that most of all. While some skiers prefer the safety of a freshly groomed green slope, others want to put their bodies – even their lives – on the line for the biggest rush of all – conquering the world’s steepest slopes and the world’s most challenging backcountry terrain. We show you the best places to go on Earth to satisfy your thirst for adrenalin.
1. Chamonix, France
They call Chamonix the “death sport capital of the world” – on any given day you’ll see ice-climbers, para-gliders and extreme skiers defying death beside the tallest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, which looms large over the resort. But this is a mountain with a bit of everything: it’s one of Europe’s tallest resorts so the snow is more consistent than most other resorts and there’s over 170 kilometres of piste so skiers can slowly gain confidence before taking on some of the world’s most infamous backcountry terrain – sometimes just metres from the lifts. There’s more ski guides here than anywhere else on earth ready to help you down backcountry chutes. It’s also home to France’s most lively après ski environment (it was practically invented here) – why not share a drink with some of the world’s craziest extreme skiers who live here each winter.
2. Revelstoke, Canada
Revelstoke is the world’s epi-centre of backcountry skiing. Heli-skiing was pioneered near here in the ‘60s, now there’s five heli-ski companies based in or around this tiny town in central British Columbia. Ninety-five percent of the world’s heli-skiing happens in BC – it’s easy to see why when you look at Revelstoke. Operators can access millions of hectares of skiable terrain across three different mountain ranges – and here moist Pacific air meets the cold dry of the Rockies resulting in over 12 metres of dry snow falling each season. And when your heli-skiing’s over, Revelstoke Mountain Resort is home to the steepest slopes in North America – it has the greatest vertical descent of any resort on the continent. You can also run into your favourite pro skiers here on magazine shoots at bars and restaurants right across this former mining and railroad settlement.
3. Verbier, Switzerland
Verbier is considered to be the home of extreme skiing in the Alps because around Verbier it’s a simple task to find extreme backcountry terrain – just take a cable car up the mountain and take a short hike and you’re set to take on Europe’s most famous off-piste stomach-churning runs. If you remember to look while you’re at it, you’ll see stunning views of Europe’s two biggest alpine draw-cards – Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. If you’re interested in improving your skills to take on Verbier’s tight chutes and bowls, the resort has the best clinic for expert skiers in Europe. You’ll also find many of Europe’s best skiers and snowboarders here competing at some of the world’s most renowned Big Mountain extreme skiing competitions.
4. Kicking Horse, Canada
Canada’s Powder Highway is one of the world’s most under-rated ski areas – it’s a series of roads that wrap their way around nine of Canada’s most extreme ski resorts (in the south-east corner of British Columbia). It’s not surprising then to find Canada’s best mountain for thrill-seekers here. Sixty percent of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is designated ‘experts only’. With its extreme ski bowls and chutes so close to its chairlifts, since opening in 2000 Kicking Horse has won every hard-core ski accolade awarded by North American ski magazines. And the nearby truck-stop town of Golden is the perfect place to feed up on elk stew and local craft beers rubbing shoulders with the toughest skiers in North America.
5. La Grave-la-Meije, France
With a name like La Grave, it’s not surprising this place is known as ‘Death Mountain’. There’s just one cable car at La Grave and no groomed terrain or ski patrols – so when you ski La Grave you’re entirely on your own. Take a cable car to 3,200 metres where there’s only two marked pistes on the glacier, the rest is entirely up to you to get down – you can follow as extreme a course as you dare. With 2,000 metres of vertical drop and ski runs that tilt beyond 50 degrees La Grave is the most extreme backcountry ski mountain in the world. Don’t even think about going unless you’re an expert.
6. Jackson Hole, Wyoming
If you don’t like steep ski runs, don’t even consider Jackson Hole – a sign at the bottom of the resort warns: “Our mountain is like nothing you’ve ever skied before”. Jackson Hole is North America’s most extreme ski mountain – you’ll have access to some of the steepest backcountry ski runs in the world. But with plenty of groomed runs still suitable for intermediates, Jackson Hole is regarded as one of the best mountains on the planet for skiers to hone their skills and work their way to areas like Corbet’s Couloir, America’s scariest ski run, where you’ll need to take a six metre drop off a cornice just to enter this 40 degree-pitched slope.
7. Niseko, Japan
Niseko has sure gotten popular amongst Australian skiers and snowboarders – but there’s a reason for it: Niseko is the world’s snowiest ski resort. Each season it receives over 15 metres of the world’s driest snow. It’s not unusual to have a metre of snow fall overnight in January or February. In fact, if you arrive between late December and mid-February you’re virtually guaranteed waist-deep powder snow. And unlike many other resorts in Japan, you’re permitted to ride between the trees at Niseko, offering more deep snow backcountry ski thrills. But be warned, skiers have suffocated here. Take a tumble and you might not get up (always ride with a buddy). Stay on your feet and you’ll ski the deepest runs of your life… guaranteed. Après ski is fairly light on, but after a day in powder you’ll be happy to soak in the Japanese onsen (volcanic hot spring) and dine early at a traditional Izakaya restaurant.
8. Kitzbühel, Austria
There is no more historic backcountry mecca in European skiing than Kitzbühel – the site of one of the first alpine ski descents in Europe. Kitzbühel is huge – there’s 54 cable cars on site, but it’s the challenging steep pistes and 200 square kilometres of treacherous backcountry skiing here that should excite thrill seekers. Kitzbühel plays host to the world’s most famous downhill ski race – the Streif. The best skiers on the planet battle gladiator-style travelling at up to 150 km/h across jumps, bumps and extreme steeps. But the Streif is now also a public ski area, allowing anyone to try it. Kitzbühel is so steep it’s where the Austrian ski team chooses to practice and it has the most famous ski school on Earth – the Red Devils – to help you perfect your backcountry skiing.
9. Heli-skiing The Valais, Switzerland
Heli-skiing differs greatly in Europe from what’ll you experience in North America. It’s also banned in many European countries but the best place to access the best heli-ski terrain is from the Valais valley in Switzerland. You’ll be picked up from either Zermatt or Verbier ski resorts and taken by air to designated landing zones across Italy and Switzerland. The big advantage to heli-skiing in Europe over North America is that you’ll cross borders by air, meaning you’ll get to ski in different countries in the one day. You’ll also access long glaciers, huge deep bowls and more tree runs than you will in North America – and ski runs are generally longer; you’ll also get to ride the best runs at resorts around the Valais.
10. Mayrhofen, Austria
Want to be frightened? Oh boy, you’ve sure come to the right place. Mayrhofen has one of the world’s top snowboard parks – and its rated Europe’s best. The Burton Park here has huge table-top jumps that attracts Europe’s biggest names in skiing and snowboarding – and so does Mayrhofen’s legendary après bars which rock out every night of the week. But the park is merely the beginning of the thrills – Mayrhofen is home to the world’s steepest groomed slope – called Harakiri Piste after the Japanese ritual of suicide by Samurai sword – that should tell you something about it. People line up to watch crazies take to the slopes. If that’s not enough thrills for you, there’s always Europe’s steepest glacier runs (Hintertux) 19 kilometres away.
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Ski resorts tend to be a bit far from the airport and sometimes the hotels aren’t right on the mountain. Renting a car can make your ski holiday less stressful. Compare car hire deals to save money.