Brits helped invent the alpine winter holiday. The love enduresby Jamie Strachan / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
In 1864, Johannes Badrutt, a St Moritz hotelier, made an offer to four British summer guests. He asked them to come back, but in winter. If they did not enjoy themselves, he would pay their costs. He won his wager, and the British love affair with skiing began. From then on, the British appetite for alpine winter sports grew and small alpine villages have, over time, turned into large and highly profitable operations.
Off-piste runs allow skiers to float through deep, untracked snow. Japan, Canada and the American Rockies are famed for “powder” snow, as the low humidity makes it “drier,” giving it a lighter feel. French Chamonix, Swiss Verbier and Austrian St Anton are equally good for powder. La Grave, in France, is the only resort in Europe combining lifts with no pistes and a large area of unpatrolled terrain: a challenge for even the best skiers.
Technology has played a crucial part in the growth of the large ski resorts. One example is Les Trois Vallées, three Savoie valleys—Saint-Bon, Allues and Belleville—with eight resorts between them. A network like this is only possible because of the 200 ski lifts, which can transport 260,000 skiers per hour. Of the resorts in Les Trois Vallées, the largest, Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens, have over 370 miles of slopes, starting from an altitude of 1,100 metres all the way up to a giddy 3,200 metres. Austria’s SkiWelt, Arlberg Circus and Zillertal Superski areas also offer similarly broad areas.
Skis have come a long way since the barrel staves of the 19th century. Today’s composite skis are shorter than before, some convex and some concave, many with upturned ends known as “rockers.” These give advantages both on and off piste, and open up new areas to intermediate skiers.
The resorts have also undergone change. Chocolate-box villages twinkle with the lights of high-end shops, hotels and restaurants. Ski resorts are no longer just a destination for sports enthusiasts; they are high-end destinations in themselves. Now I have finished skiing competitively, I run a chalet company, and A-list celebrities, sportspeople and some of the world’s most successful businesspeople come in droves.
Luxurious chalets and hotels are ever-popular and Herr Badrutt’s welcoming Alpine bolthole is still going strong in St Moritz: a suite at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel over the new year will set you back €12,750 per day. Sadly the management no longer offer wagers to customers.
Prospect recommends three testing French Alpine pistes…
1. Couloir Émile Allais
At the head of the Courchevel valley, at the top of La Saulire, three runs are carved into the rock—the Couloirs. They are not called “corridors” for nothing. They are almost too narrow for skiers to turn. In these bump-strewn chutes, the moguls rear up to near shoulder height, with rock walls rising on either side. They can only be accessed via a path from the top of the lift and they are known as: Croix des Verdons, the Grande and the Émile Allais. The last of these three is the narrowest, steepest and hardest of the Couloirs, so hard in fact that it is no longer shown on the valley maps as a designated piste. Appropriately, it is named after a triple world ski champion.
2. Swiss Wall, Avoriaz
Where the Couloirs are short and brutal, the Swiss Wall is a relentless, punch-up of a mogul field. La Chavanette—to give it its proper name—starts in France and ends in Switzerland. It drops nearly 300 metres in a 1km run and the bumps are so unforgiving that on the Swiss scale it’s rated even tougher than black. At its steepest, the slope yaws beneath you at a stomach-turning 55 degrees, and the exposed flanks of the piste mean it’s often blasted by winds that whip away the top layer of snow, leaving behind slick, blue ice. Falling on this glassy surface can mean completing the run—bruisingly—on your backside. “Only for professionals” says the sign at the top. Sound advice indeed.
3. La Sarenne, Alpe d’Huez
Despite its tricky beginning, this is not by any means the hardest run in the French Alps. Its status comes from being the longest black run in Europe. The piste thumps on for 16km, and unless the edges of your skis are super sharp and your knees well and truly fit for purpose, Sarenne can turn into a draining slog. There are no exit routes from the piste, so once you push off from the top of the Pic Blanc, the 3,330 metre spire at the head of the Gorges de Sarenne, there is no going back. The only option is the full run down to Alpe d’Huez, which nestles 1,470 metres below, where you will arrive jelly-legged, but exhilarated.