Slopes vs. pistes: A guide to alpine destinations on both sides of the pond
Old-world splendour and sumptuous schnitzel butt transatlantic heads with ranch-style lodges and buffalo chicken. This guide to ski areas on both sides of the pond might just get you thinking differently — your own geography dependent — on what your less familiar snowy abodes have to offer
This title and opening possibly has relevance for those concerned by the recent and apparently pervading decline in European snowfalls. Thinkback to January this year when images of brown slopes with mere slivers of snow festooned social media pages, prompting even the FT Weekend to proffer theories on how the Alps might pivot to survive without skiing as we are used to it. Some experts, although that term might do well to be used advisedly, posit that European Alpine skiing beneath 2,000m will disappear altogether within the decade, forcing resorts to adopt unnatural and eye-wateringly expensive means to stay in the game. Those who do ski will have invariably glimpsed objects more akin to articulated hairdryers hovering above pistes (slopes if you’re American) — these are snow cannons and by process of electricity, sizeable reservoirs and some cryo-alchemistic wizardry, enough ‘snow’ is fired onto slopes to keep them skiable to the valley floor. This model might just endure for beginner, intermediate and risk-averse skiers, but it won’t do much to sate the powder hounds whose fluffy off-piste treasure looks to be increasingly meteo-piratically swindled.In the US, the problem is not nearly so severe and that is by sheer dint of superior elevation — more sophisticated weather-pattern analysis cast to one side just for now.
A skier in Lech circa 1964.
To the Rockies then…
I omit an enormous number of resorts, mountains and ski areas of tremendous quality, but there is only so much you’re likely willing to read. Three winter demesnes, all of which have been on my mind for one reason or another, upon which to shed light. You will note that I have not focused on the grand-slammingly famous Aspens, Vails, Breckenbridges, and Jackson Holes of the Mountain-Standard-Time zone, but on a few lesser-knowns.
Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel own a property at the exclusive Yellowstone Club.
The popularity of the eponymous televisual spectacle cannot be overstated, and it would be more important to note that the national park of the same name is host to some of the world's most beloved fauna as well as the ominously-titled Old Faithful. Kevin Costner and his no-water, all-day-coffee, whisky-at-elevenses rasp has made the name Yellowstone hard to avoid, nigh seared into our collective consciousness. However, there is also a ski resort by this hallowed name and it is unlike any other most of us have encountered. A multi-million-dollar buy-in, with hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in subscription fees, and for that it is pamperingly private to its members and their guests. A software sorcerer by the name of Gates is a founding member. A friend who went as a guest has told me it was the most peaceful place, not to mention high-ranking in the beauty stakes, they had ever skied. No crowds, no queues, practically unblemished pistes, and what feels like ubiquitous butler service on skis. When it snows and snows well, this is possibly the only ski resort on earth where there are in fact friends on a powder day (Google that expression if you haven’t heard it before).
Arnold Schwarzenegger, pictured here in 1998, built a house in Sun Valley in 1994.
Idaho is a Lower 48 some readers might not have heard of but will hopefully now research and be astounded by. Quiet, understated, astonishingly beautiful. Abode of wondrous lakes, rivers, mountains, cuddly critters and big-ass potatoes, Idaho has a lot going for it. Sun Valley is a second home to many affluent west-coasters, a fair smattering of easterlings too, and if you’ve watched the Arnold docuseries, you’ll know that the godly proportioned good governor Herr Schwarzenegger has made it a place to which he will always be back. It would be remiss of me not to mention the kit sported by our favourite barbarian-cum-time-travelling cyborg for the Netflix production: what I think were Prada or possibly Gucci sunglasses paired with a 1980s technicolour onesie. Sun Valley is a haven for good food, great skiing and a charismatic set of inhabitants and visitors. Like Yellowstone, not the easiest place for Europeans and Brits to get to —you’d take one or probably more additional flights in the US alone — but well rewarded for your endeavours you’d be.
Utah offers world-class skiing.
Utah is famed for its ‘champagne snow’ that takes its quality, in part, from the effect of Arctic winds brushing over the Salt Lake astride which Salt Lake City, Utah’s capital, poly-uxoriously sits. Alta, Park City and Deer Valley are the best recognised, but the lesser-heralded contenders are what intrepid skiers should really be seeking. Once a deep-snow-bedecked hill with one piste-basher (minus the bashing bit) to take backcountry skiers ‘cat-skiing’, Powder Mountain was auctioned off under condition of high-quality bids. The founder of an events company bringing together like-minded business folk with a bent for adventure travel won the day, by taking forward bids from his network on two-acre plots and promising to maintain the tranquil integrity of the mountain’s freeriding spirit. Powder Mountain now has more than the solitary cat, but its soul and deep snows remain intact.
Now for the Europeans to stake something of a claim…
Zürs & Lech
Princess Diana in Lech, 1994.
Their lower-lying neighbour, a magnet almost exclusively for drunken British men with next-to-zero skiing ability, St Anton is arguably now the most famous resort in Austria, beyond even Kitzbühel. As someone immensely fond of Zürs, who has next-to-zero interest in St Anton, the connection by an admittedly impressively wrought sequence of lifts between the two is somewhat upsetting. It has, however one might feel about it, created a vast skiing area and boomed the business of mountain restaurants and exclusively bibulous pitstops alike. Zürs and Lechare old-world gems, especially the for-mer. Instead of the Louis Vuittons you might find in resorts like Courchevel, you have shops selling premium-quality dirndls and traditional Austrian jackets, all set amid even more traditional, highly charming architecture. Home to some of the best mountain guides in the world, as well as a formidable ski school, it is an excellent place to ski as a family, irrespective of skill sets. Some of the best off-pisteing I’ve had has been here, mostly achieved by ski-touring (skins on skis),with barely a soul, save the odd chamois or ibex, to be seen.
Les Trois Vallées
Louis Vuitton is among the luxury brands that cater to Courchevel's glamorous clientele.
Comprising Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens, this is the largest contiguous ski area at least in the Alps and possibly the world. Glitzy as Courchevel might have become, in no small way to please its predominating (or biggest spending at least) clientele, it retains certain unvanquishable qualities. I once skied with a guide who, unbeknown to me as a knee-high-to-a-grasshopper youth, was a world-champion downhill skier who would have made a world-champion freerider had Red Bull and the Extreme Sports channel existed when he was cutting his teeth. We skied what are still regarded as among the world’s premier couloirs in a magnificent amphitheatre of bowls, glades, cornices and jagged peaks. You can ski Courchevel in the early morning, Méribel in the late morning, Val Thorens at midday, and be back at Courchevel or Méribel for lunch. Alongside Aspen and Yellowstone, Courchevel might hold the crown for celeb-spotting ski-capital of the world. The folks skiing the couloirs with me probably won’t be bothered by any of that, mind you.
St Moritz & Engadin Valley
St Moritz has played host to the world's pre-eminent snow polo tournament since 1985.
Winter home, inter alia, to jolly hocky-sticking ex-Army Brits who hurtle headfirst down a death-defying ice-shoot. Apologies to my ex-Army buddies. Next to Gstaad’s GreenGo, St Moritz has the priciest Alpine nightclub by way of the Drax Club and, while not quite belonging in the same sentence, the polo-playing community has something of a jamboree on one of the frozen lakes. The Engadin Valley has a lot to offer and even more to endear herself, boasting spa hotels with natural thermal waters, valley villages with medieval architecture, museums and galleries galore, and idyllic lakeside restaurants at the foot of towering mountains reachable by snowshoe, cross-country ski or even horse-drawn carriage. Every year in mid-March, the Engadin cross-country ski marathon attracts the great, good and all manner of Lycra-bespangled loons with a cross between a swimming hat and a prophylactic atop their noggins. Thanks to the Valley’s proximity to Italy, the often tight-but-toned elements of Swiss culture are loosened and their culinary offerings broadened. With a guide, skins and the right attitude, adventurous skiers can find their backcountry delights. A place diverse in its offerings and easy on the eye to boot.
So if it’s the glitzy shops, glam hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, Joneses, celebs, royals and miscellaneous glitterati that keep the invernal Euro-Alpine flame alight — and I confess a needless dollop of cynicism herein as there is much more of the wholesome to keep one to this part of the skiing world ingratiated — then the Alps, under transformation as they may be, remain a special, rarefied place to be. Much as I wouldn’t want these magnificent mountains festooned with summer travellers, I would like to see their businesses not go out of business, so I’ll say this: they are extraordinarily beautiful between snow-melty late spring and intensely colourful autumn. Whether to your feet, the air or treaded tire you take, for an immensely enjoyable, soul-soothing experience a vernal, aestival or autumnal week will make. As for the US, her skiable abodes might not have the history, the culture or the architecture, but they do seem to get the better of the snow.
Eddy Downpatrick is the founder of Aristeia Travel and is taking bookings for his bespoke winter-season skiing, Northern Lights and Southern Hemisphere (including New Zealand, Patagonia, Brazil and the Serengeti birthing season).
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