The Alps--Because Bigger is Better

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

The Alps--Because Bigger is Better

You can't ski out of bounds where there are no boundaries
By Lito Tejada-Flores

American skiers living happily with the myth that the world's best snow and best skiing are found in the Rockies clearly haven't skied Europe. More than just glacier-and-limestone pretty, the Alps are big--immense, actually--in every sense that matters to a skier: more resorts, more lifts, more runs, more vertical drop, more square miles of snow waiting for sinuous signatures. It's not that mountains in Europe are higher, but, curiously, that the valleys and villages are lower. Timberline in the Alps is at about 3,000 feet, compared with an average of 11,000 feet in the Rockies. This explains the vast, treeless, alpine snow bowls, ski tracks stretching to the sky, and terrain on a scale that most American skiers have never seen.

The French Alps have the biggest vertical drops and the most modern, if not the most charming, ski resorts. The French are fans of everything avant-garde, so expect to see futuristic lift designs, crazier skiwear than you'd see in the States, and lots of snowboarding teens.

The French call their mega-ski zones domaines skiables, which often comprise several villages, several valleys, and more than several mountains--all networked into a super-resort by scores of lifts and a common lift pass. Best choice for your first trip: Les Trois Vallées, "The Three Valleys," with their interconnected resort villages--the main ones of Courchevel, Méribel, and Val Thorens, and the smaller ones, La Tania and Les Menuires. The three parallel valleys rise in white sweeps toward a backdrop of glacier-hung peaks too steep to ski on. Cable cars and lift towers provide the only visual clues that these valleys are part of a vast ski area. There are nearly 400 miles of groomed pistes and more ungroomed snow than you've ever seen. One pass gets you on about 200 ski lifts.

Courchevel (which itself is four separate villages) lies at the far, chic end of the Euroresort spectrum, with genuine four-star hotels and restaurants to match. Val Thorens, the highest ski village in the French Alps, offers real glacier skiing (shimmering ice, blue crevasses) and the highest lift in Les Trois Vallées, a tram to the top of the Cime de Caron. The most centrally located base, however, is Méribel, in the middle valley, an easy morning's ski from all the other zones of Les Trois Vallées. Stay at the Hotel Residence le Merilys (doubles, $135-$229, breakfast included; seven-night packages $763-$872 per person, including six-day lift ticket; 011-33-79-08-69-00), with 28 antique-filled rooms; a second chalet has two-bedroom apartments that can be rented by the week ($1,000-$1,778). In Courchevel a good choice is Le Chabichou (doubles, $165-$192; seven-night packages $1,080-$1,269; 011-33-79-08-00-55), a chalet-style hotel right on the slopes with 20 rooms and 20 apartments. In Val Thorens try the Hotel Le Val Thorens (doubles, $96-$160; seven-day packages $739-$1,119; 011-33-79-00-04-33), with 81 rooms plus a Jacuzzi and sauna.

To reach the "secret" runs you'd never find on your own, book an instructor-guide through the French national ski school, L'école du Ski Français (about $35 per hour; call 011-33-79-08-60-31).

Switzerland has lifts that run like trains that run like clocks. It's no surprise that Swiss hotels are better managed and their guests more pampered than in any neighboring country. For your first taste of Swiss skiing, two top choices are Verbier, in the country's southwest corner, and St. Moritz, in the eastern canton of Graubunden.

Halfway between Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, Verbier is all about space, with high peaks and long lifts (more than 180 of them). Best of all, you can ski on every flank, every exposure of each lift-served peak. The Tortin run on the backside of Mont Gélé, with its acres of large, beautifully formed bumps, may be the only truly aesthetic mogul run on the planet. Mont Fort and Mont Gélé are pointed intrusions in the sky, and you dive off their summits like an astronaut coming back to earth. For steeper-is-better skiers, there are always new couloirs and near-vertical gullies; for the laid-back, miles of powder await after each storm.

Reach Verbier via two short train rides from Geneva; first to the Martinez station, then to Le Châble. From there take the first leg of a three-stage gondola right up to Verbier. For the best views in town, stay at Verluisant (doubles, $226-$339, evening meal included; 011-41-26-31-63-03), a gracious hotel under the Savoleyres lift.

St. Moritz has a hundred-year lead on Gstaad in the race for snob capital of alpine skiing. It's less tied-together than other super-resorts, but you'll find plenty to ski on two large mountains; there's Corviglia, above St. Moritz itself, and Piz Corvatsch, just across the Engadine Valley. A few miles away is Diavolezza, in a glacial, fairy-tale setting. Even though St. Moritz has more than its share of luxury hotels, it's often preferable to stay in one of the smaller villages. The towns of Celerina, Silvaplana, Sils, and Zuoz are scattered among the frozen lakes in the broad upper Engadine Valley, where you can stay in traditional houses with meter-thick walls. The Crusch Alba (doubles, $167-$208, breakfast included; one-week package, $583-$667; phone 011-41-82-71319), a 500-year old inn in the cobblestoned town of Zuoz, is about 12 miles east of St. Moritz: Use your ski pass to ride the hourly train to the slopes. A must-ski run is at Diavolezza, the easy but spectacular descent on Morteratsch glacier. A close second: the uppermost slopes of Piz Corvatsch, with balconylike views of Piz Bernina and its high neighbors.

For ski instructor-guides, contact the tourist boards in Verbier (011-41-26-31-62-22) and St. Moritz (011-41-82-33-147). Private half-day lessons cost about $122 per person; group lessons cost about $35.

Austria, with its tidy villages of whitewashed buildings and onion-domed churches, wins the prize for over-the-top alpine charm. But the Austrian Alps are at a lower altitude than the rest, which means that you can ski off more summits without trespassing into the realm of mountaineering.

Start with the historic home of Austrian ski teaching, St. Anton and its Arlberg neighbors. Lech, Oberlech, and Zürs form one integrated "ski circus," while St. Anton, St. Christoph, and tiny Stuben form another circuit. St. Anton is the best base; the address of choice is the old Hotel Post (doubles, $113-$197; seven-day packages, $614-$1,210 per person, including six-day lift ticket; 011-43-54-46-22-130), with 68 rooms just a short 100 meters from the lift. At the very least, come for a lunch of wild game and good wine.

Valluga is one of the mountains that dominate St. Anton, and the trail accessed off the final stage of the gondola is a steep thriller--when it's open (it's often closed because of avalanche danger). The uppermost slopes over St. Anton are seldom groomed, so they're a magnet for good powder skiers. To book an instructor-guide, contact the St. Anton ski school (private instruction, $200 per day per person; call the St. Anton Tourist Board, 011-43-54-46-22-690).

A few miles away, across the Flexen Pass, the Lech-Zürs Skigebiet (ski region) offers long touring days on skis: from one lift to the next, valley to valley and village to village. The classic all-day, self-guided Rundfahrt tour takes you from Zürs to Lech and back again by a different route, so you never have to ski the same slope twice. (For information, contact the Lech-Zürs Tourist Board, 011-43-55-83-21-610.) From Zürs, ride several lifts up to the Madloch saddle: The backside opens a long, lovely run down to the village of Zug. More lifts and runs take you up above Oberlech; in the afternoon, the Rüfikopf Bahn lifts you over a cliff to an unlikely series of snowy benches, where you begin the trek back toward Zürs--with a detour to ski the Trittkopf foothills in the last light. Days like this are best finished at one of the mountain huts above town, drinking schnapps and waiting until moonrise for the ski back down.

See also:

Euro-Ski Deals

Filed To: Snow Sports

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