57h best of article: Best Backcountry Skiing Locations in Europe

Best Backcountry Skiing Locations in Europe

Backcountry skiing has grown in its popularity throughout the North America and Japan. But what all Europeans know, and some Americans and Japanese may not be familiar with, is that Europe, specifically the Alps, remains unrivalled as a go-to destination for extreme, technical backcountry terrain. The Alps offers and delivers diverse and stunning routes for experienced and amateur skiers alike. There’s Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and Meije to name only a few. These are perhaps three of the most celebrated areas in European backcountry lore, but they remain so firmly entrenched in our minds because of their open exposure, thrills and challenging terrain that the world never ceases to tire from. The apres scene on the continent isn’t too bad either!

France

Chamonix

TOP CHOICE FOR ADVANCED SKIERS
Legendary terrain
Limitless off-piste options
There’s plenty of other activities on hand if you and your need a day of downtime
Don’t underestimate the terrain!
It can get crowded

Chamonix maintains its deep-rooted allure for adventurers everywhere for good reason: it’s the birthplace of mountaineering, modern skiing and mountain guiding. The town is situated in a valley beneath the highest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc, where it annually attracts skiers, climbers and mountaineers by the tens of thousands. Its historical importance is palpable and its legendary backcountry terrain is at the top of many a bucket list for good reason: there’s 11 ski areas to choose between, all of which offer skiing that is second to none. It’s also the starting location of the much revered Haute Route where you can ski from Chamonix and Mont Blanc to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. For serious off-piste skiers, be sure to consider these three areas for mind-bending runs, terrain and powder:

Les Grands Montets – Argentiere, a small village about 4 miles from Chamonix, is the starting point for mountaineers and skiers to gain access to Les Grand Montets via the Telepherique du Lognan cable car, where skiers will find themselves at a comfy elevation of 10,810’. The off-piste skiing potential here is huge and glacial, with much of it above tree-line and wide open. And very, very popular

Brevent – Flegere – Accessible via Chamonix (Brevent) or the nearby village Les Praz (Flegere), the terrain here is linked, thus the hyphen, and provides ample glacier, ridge and bowl skiing well above the treeline. This area doesn’t get as tracked out as others in the valley and it’s a great place for deep powder skiing and steep, steep lines.

La Vallee Blanche – For some skiers, getting to La Vallee Blanche can be almost as much fun as skiing all the way back to Chamonix: once you make it to Aiguille du Midi via a cable car that gains 9,200’ in elevation in only 20 minutes, you’ll begin your ascent from the station via a knife-edged ridge where there’s no room for error and 50° falls on either side – there’s a cable to hold onto. No worries. With the ascent into La Vallee Blanche, you’ll have an epic 20km day ahead of you completely off-piste as you ski back down to Cham.

Don’t let the picture-perfect views make you forget that avalanches and other pitfalls are a reality here as they are anywhere else. Chamonix is known as the “death-sport capital of the world.’ No joke. While access to backcountry terrain is quick and easy, hire a guide and don’t underestimate any of it no matter how easy it is to get to.

La Vallée Blanche is one of the world’s classic ski runs. Every year thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Chamonix and discover the sheer beauty and perfect powder beneath Mt. Blanc and its surroundings.

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Chamonix - good to know

Skill level

Intermediate to expert

Terrain

Depending on which area you visit, you can expect to find pillows, glaciers, drops, bowls, and tons of powder-filled open fields

Elevation

3,396′

Backcountry Access

Lift serviced and abundant

Snow

Powder fields abound, especially at higher elevations. Average snowfall is 429” annually

Snow

Powder fields abound, especially at higher elevations. Average snowfall is 429” annually

Guidebook

Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles Rouges: A Guide for Skiers by Anselme Baud. Yes, it’s in English!

Get the guidebook here!
Best season

January through March

Location

Haute-Savoie, southeastern France

Coordinates

45.9237° N, 6.8694° E

France

La Grave

TOP CHOICE FOR ADVANCED SKIERS
A true skier’s paradise
No crowds
All backcountry, all the time
Zero avalanche control
So many options, make sure you have enough time!

La Grave is all that its name implies: it’s a severe, serious gnarly area, and its powder and lines are truly incredible. The town itself is tucked away and only dedicated, avid skiers make the journey. Those who do are richly rewarded. The skiing area is vast and untamed, and, thankfully, never crowded. The town itself is sleepy and content with its status as a ski area playing hard-to-get. The signage on the runs is as existent as avalanche control is on the mountain. But, hey, if you’re going there, you probably know all this and can’t wait to ski in a truly one-of-a-kind place. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else, get a guide and make your first earned turns safe and sound.

A couple routes in the area include Couloirs du Lac and Vallon du Diable. The former offers great steep skiing and can be combined with other runs via Girose Glacier. It offers plenty of couloirs, but without prolonged high angle runs, thus making for a good intro to the area. Vallon du Diable is a much longer ride with a more difficult entry, but it’s run throughout the valley makes it worthwhile, and the area is known for ice climbing as well. Regardless, though, take note of the signage: “Beyond this point you face dangers and complex routes requiring mountaineering experience and proper equipment. Once you start out, it’s very difficult to turn back. Please ask for advice before!” Ask for advice indeed. Enjoy La Grave, and take the time to get to know it. Your thoughts on skiing the backcountry won’t ever be the same after you’ve skied here.

High mountain landscape with sun

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La Grave - good to know

Skill Level

Strong intermediate to expert

Terrain

Gnarly and big!

Elevation

La Meije 13,064’

Backcountry Access

Two-stage lift. First stage at 5905’, second stage 10498’. After that, there’s a t-bar for a little extra vertical gain. After that, It’s all downhill from there

Snow

Incredible and abundant

Snow

Incredible and abundant

Guidebook

La Grave, L'Alpe d'Huez, Les 2 Alpes Off Piste by Francis Ginet and Fabrice Villaret (English AND French)

Get the book here!
Best season

Late winter through early spring

Location

Southeast France, Hautes-Alpes

Coordinates

45°02′49″N 6°18′24″E

Switzerland

Zermatt

TOP CHOICE FOR ADVANCED SKIERS
The Matterhorn is very, very cool
Off-piste access and convenience. Zermatt is constantly upgrading its lift infrastructure so getting to the backcountry areas isn’t that hard or physically demanding
Year round snow!
It’s Swiss! It’s pricey!
You’ll need to get up early to get the goods

Located in the Swiss Alps and very close to Italy, Zermatt is famous for its proximity to the Matterhorn. This majestic peak is admired by skiers, mountaineers, hikers and every outdoor adventurer. The Matterhorn isn’t the only draw, though, the valley in which Zermatt is situated is home to thirty eight 13,000’ peaks. Some say that the scenery alone is worth the visit but it doesn’t mean that this is only thing to check out in Zermatt. This place offers 365 days of snow and very convenient off-piste access. Most backcountry skiers will make a combined trip and visit Cervini, an Italian resort on the other side of the Matterhorn. Between those two towns there’s 223 miles of skiable terrain most of it above 6,000’ in elevation, which makes Zermatt a popular bucket list entry.

The best skiing at Zermatt for the backcountry is the Stockhorn face. Here there’s official ungroomed double black runs that offer incredible bumps of eleven hundred meters (Triftji) on the north face, and then there’s unofficial runs on either side that area that are ripe for the taking. Great care needs to be taken here, because crevasses are an issue, as are avalanches. Consider hiring a guide if you’re new to the area. There’s no crevasse danger on the other side of the face, and the bowls on offer feature plenty of rocks and small cliffs. So plan your route accordingly.

Also not to be missed is the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise at the Klein Matterhorn area. This area offers 36km of backcountry runs, including a huge drop of 7200’ that’ll take you back to town. The terrain here has been made ‘safer’ to backcountry dangers by having certain areas filled. What’s inbounds is plenty for a day of longer runs, but if you venture out of bounds, crevasses, avalanches and all the rest are a reality and must not be ignored.

GoPro: I’m beggin...

Motion blur from fast movement along a piste at the ski resort of Zermatt, Switzerland.
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Zermatt - good to know

Skill level

Intermediate to expert

Terrain

There's a vertical descent of 7,477’. The terrain options are near everything you can think of

Elevation

Zermatt sits at 5,276’

Backcountry Access

The best off-piste terrain can be accessed via surface tows (tough luck for snowboarders)

Snow

Zermatt is one of the rare places in Europe where you can ski even in the summer! Many routes are north facing which is good news for everyone

Snow

Zermatt is one of the rare places in Europe where you can ski even in the summer! Many routes are north facing which is good news for everyone

Guidebook

Check out this panoramic map of the area

Best Season

Late March through early May

Location

Canton of Valais, Switzerland

Coordinates

46°01′N 7°45′E

Switzerland

Verbier

TOP CHOICE FOR ADVANCED SKIERS
Beautiful scenery and more options than you can count
No hassle access to pristine off-piste and backcountry
The apres routinely ranks as best of the best
This great experience comes with even greater price
Gets crowded during weekends and holidays

There wasn’t really a formal competition but Verbier is often mentioned as one of the best off-piste destinations in Europe. This can be mostly contributed to the large area it covers and convenience of access. Verbier is a part of Switzerland’s famous Four Valleys ski area which has 256 miles of skiing terrain combined. With near perfect ski lift infrastructure, it allows for easy access to freeride areas. This off-piste mecca offers many options that mostly cater to intermediate and pro skiers so you better prepare in advance to make the most of your stay here. It’s a great place for families because the resort caters to non skiers also.

Within Verbier and the Four Valleys, there are two other designations for backcountry excursions: there’s Ski Tours and High Mountain Tours. Both of these are not marked, maintained, controlled, and all the rest. They are intended for the advanced and expert backcountry skier only. So make sure you know what you’re getting into before you make your ascent. Or better yet, go with a guide! The terrain on offer via lift is incredible. Mont Gele, part the range north of Mont Fort, when open, offers zero groomed runs down and sits at 9917’. There’s plenty of mogul runs as well at Tortin Plan du Fou and Gentianes. If you’re looking for tree runs too, make your way over to Bruson and you won’t be disappointed. The back of Mont Fort will treat you to views of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, and then, if you can handle it, especially with a guide, there’s the Bec des Rosses, home of the Freeride World tour. Regardless of how intense the backcountry terrain can be at Verbier, the area and its surroundings have plenty of terrain for the new off-piste skier too.

Verbier, Switzerland - 18th January 2015. A skier skiing in fresh powder near Verbier, Switzerland.

Engrained: VERBIE...

This is a photo taken from one of the highest points in Verbier in mars 2009. To the right in the picture can you discover a fascinating alpine hut.
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Verbier - good to know

Skill level

Intermediate and expert with few options for beginners

Terrain

Steep and intermediate runs, large powder fields. Couloirs, bowls, tree runs, glaciers, chutes, this places has almost everything

Elevation

4,921’ - Verbier resort altitude

Backcountry access

Easy access due to excellent ski lift system

Snow

There's plenty of it, but it can get tracked out quickly on weekends

Snow

There's plenty of it, but it can get tracked out quickly on weekends

Guidebook

Freeride Verbier by Gilbert Crettaz

Get the guidebook here!
Best season

January through March

Location

Canton of Valais, Switzerland

Coordinates

46.0961° N, 7.2286° E

Italy

Dolomites

great for families with young skiers
Visually stunning mountain range
Amazing ski touring opportunities
Less snowfall than other areas in Europe
Fewer high angle descent and expert options

Located in northeastern Italy, the Dolomites, part of the Southern Limestone Alps, offer tons of skiing options across 12 linked resort areas. While the peaks of the Dolomites may not outstrip the height and powder of those northwestern Italy, they do offer incomparable surroundings and tons of touring options. For a lot the backcountry runs available in the Dolomites, hiring a guide is almost a necessity due to the resorts offering very little off-piste action of their own. A lot of good runs are hard to find and reading the terrain is still an essential part of any tour. A couple resorts stand out from the other for their off-piste offerings: Val Gardena, Arabba Marmolada and Val di Fassa.

Lots of backcountry routes are based around Marmolada (the highest mountain in the Dolomites), the peaks of Belvedere and the Sella massif north of Marmolada), most of which have slackcountry access at the resort. Because the area doesn’t receive the snowfall as it does elsewhere in Europe, power days are quick to get tracked out, but are still worth the effort and trip, due to the stunning mountains on offer. Though the area gets less traffic than elsewhere, keep in mind that avalanche conditions still need to be heeded, also, be mindful of crevasses when skiing Marmolada.

Ski Tour Italy Do...

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Dolomites - good to know

Skill level

Intermediate to advanced

Terrain

Glaciers, bowls, chutes, some tree skiing too

Elevation

Marmolada is the highest mountain at 10,968’

Backcountry Access

Most resorts in the area offer slackcountry access, but the rest is best left to a guide

Snow

There’s usually enough, but the region isn’t dumped on like other parts of the alps

Snow

There’s usually enough, but the region isn’t dumped on like other parts of the alps

Guidebook

Ski Mountaineering in Dolomites by Enrico Baccanti and Francesco Tremolada

Get the guidebook here!
Best Season

January through mid-March

Location

South Tyrol, Italy

Coordinates

46.4102° N, 11.8440° E

Austria

St. Anton

Massive backcountry opportunities
The apres routinely ranks as best of the best
It can get crowded. Get up early to enjoy a powder day

St. Anton’s renown comes from its world-class offerings both on- and off-piste. If you want to go off-piste and have the scare of your life, consider taking the Valluga 2 cable car to the highest point and let er’ rip (though, you must have a guide with you to even make it this far!). The terrain is steep and there’s always plenty of powder in this area of the Alps. One thing to keep in mind is that the off-piste terrain here demands and commands your attention. Definitely consider a guide. St. Anton’s apres is equally as famous as its skiing. You’ll be able to party as hard as you ski.

Shot of the alps in winter

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St. Anton - good to know

Skill level

Intermediate to expert

Terrain

Above tree line, plenty of bowls, cirques, chutes and powder fields

Elevation

4,994' base

Backcountry access

Lift serviced with plenty of options

Snow

Continental perfection

Snow

Continental perfection

Guidebook

The Arlberg Ski Touring Guide by Andy Thurner

Get the guidebook here!
Best season

January through March

Location

Tyrolean Alps, Austria

Coordinates

47.1296° N, 10.2682° E

Italy

Courmayeur

Heli-skiing!
Diverse backcountry options, including skiing to Chamonix
Off-piste options can place you in three countries
Weekend crowds
Less lively apres scene

While not to be overlooked by bolder face named nearby resorts, Courmayeur is an attractive candidate for exploring the sunny side of Monte Bianco. While the resort itself has plenty on offer, the good, challenging lines are most rewarding. Consider varied options form Cresta d’Arp at 9038’ or ski the famed Vallee Blanche and head to Chamonix! For the more technical runs, one must hire a guide, which is definitely not a bad thing. There’s plenty of 40° angled routes to be shredded and the lift service offers quick rides to challenging terrain. Some classic routes include Arp Vieille, where you’re in for a descent of 2624m, with fantastic views of glaciers and good couloir and bowl skiing to be had. The Arp Dolonne is another route worth discovering off of the Cresta Youla and Create D’Arp lift. This route has ample powder all season long and offers plenty of choices for descent along the way.

Vertical Frontier...

Italy. Courmayeur. Mont Blanc Region. Lone climber on a snowy ridge in the Mont Blanc Massif
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Courmayeur - good to know

Skill level

Intermediate to expert

Terrain

Tree skiing, chutes, bowls, cirques, glaciers and moguls!

Elevation

4,016' base

Backcountry access

Plenty of lift serviced backcountry access

Snow

Excellent continental pack

Snow

Excellent continental pack

Guidebook

Don’t let the title fool you. Mont Blanc Freeride by Domenico Gusti and Giorgio Passino

Get the guidebook here!
Best season

Mid-January to March

Location

The sunny side of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Italy

Coordinates

45.7969° N, 6.9690° E

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