Richie Bartlett Jr.
For those that still have their skis and balls intact…
The world’s scariest ski runs – and how to conquer them like the pros
The world’s most daunting descents aren’t the sole bounty of Winter Olympians and daredevils. Here’s how to conquer them, if you dare
Lancashire-born skier Dave ‘The Rocket’ Ryding made history when he became the first Briton to ever win World Cup Alpine skiing gold on January 22 in Kitzbühel. Five years earlier he’d clinched second in the slalom event in the Austria resort, which, until now, had stood as both his and Great Britain’s best ever result.
It’s an achievement that has sent the snow-sports world into overdrive – a matter of weeks before the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. It’s arguably the best confidence boost the 35-year-old could have wished for.
In clinching the gold he’s also rocketed British skiers towards their own triumphs on the slopes – ski holiday bookings have been soaring in recent weeks and the nation is more eager than ever before to get back on to the pistes.
Are you brave enough to channel your inner Olympian on your ski holiday though? We take a look at the most treacherous ski runs on earth and how, if you’re up for the challenge, you can conquer them.
The Streif, Kitzbühel
The winner of the Hahnenkamm World Cup downhill ski race, which takes place on The Streif in Kitzbühel, garners a huge amount of respect from spectators and fellow competitors alike. It’s infamous for being the most challenging run on the World Cup circuit, and has played host to more than its fair share of devastating crashes over the years. The Streif is open to the public for the rest of the season – anyone can tackle this beast of a run – and sits next to the slalom course where Ryding rose to greatness.
Face de Bellevarde, Val d’Isère
This was built as the men’s downhill course for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Val d’Isère. No single section is particularly steep – much of the difficulty lies in its length, and in icy conditions you need razor-sharp edges and quick wits. The run winds gently around the shoulder and initially looks positively easy. Don’t be fooled. Once on the face itself you will have your work cut out. In sparse snow conditions, rocks break through the piste and the volume of other skiers on the run – inept and otherwise – can be an added hazard.
La Chavanette, Avoriaz
The name is unfamiliar to most skiers but its sobriquet – the Swiss Wall – strikes terror into the hearts of those in the know, who recognise it as one of the most rapid descents on any piste map. “For experts only,” says the sign at the top. If that’s not enough to instil a sense of dread, the angle of descent will – it is so steep, you cannot see what lies ahead. Once you have completed the first half dozen turns and rounded an overhang, the Wall is revealed as a steep but wide 200m slope, frequently heavily mogulled.
Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole
Corbet’s has a worldwide reputation as the run that every hardcore skier must do once in a lifetime. More people come to Jackson Hole to look than to leap, and it usually takes several visits before you pluck up the courage. The terror lies entirely in the start. The “easy” way is a vertical jump from the left-hand side. You usually have to leap three to four metres from here. Once your skis make contact with the snow you need to throw your weight forward immediately to regain control and turn sharply to avoid a large rock. The alternative entry is a jump of at least six metres – scarier, but you avoid the rocks.
Delirium Dive, Banff
Delirium Dive is a classic steep slope on Goat’s Eye Mountain in Sunshine Village, one of the three ski areas of Banff, Alberta. This is the domain of hardcore skiers; the ski patrol insists you wear an avalanche transceiver and carry a shovel and probe before you are even allowed on the lift. The main purpose is to deter intermediate skiers and confine the run to those experienced enough to own their own gear – you cannot rent safety equipment anywhere nearby. From the top you can’t see what lies ahead. But once you build up the courage to take the plunge, you quickly find yourself in a pleasant bowl with a choice of exits.
Grand Couloir, Courchevel
This is the widest and easiest of the infamous trio of Courchevel couloirs and the only one currently marked as a run on the piste map. The most difficult part is the path from the cable car station at La Saulire. In icy conditions, you can’t help wondering if your snowplough will end up doing an unscheduled ski jump into one of the two more demanding descents. If it hasn’t snowed for a week or two, the moguls at the entrance can be enormous and the first few turns become a question of survival rather than skiing. But the slope quickly widens and the second half can be glorious.
The degree of terror that Tortin inspires in skiers in Verbier depends on the snow cover. In an excellent season, it may be hard to see what the hype is about – but come back when the powder is less plentiful. Access to the run is via a traverse from which you must pick your spot and take a left turn onto a wide but steep slope. In high season the moguls that develop here are nothing short of horrible. The further you go, the more frightening they become…
Supposedly the steepest piste in Austria, Harakiri touches 78 degrees at its most terrifying point. It is a relatively short run, dropping straight down the northern face of the 2,000m Penken mountain, above the town of Mayrhofen. In icy conditions, it’s a challenge for most skiers.
Backside of the Valluga, St Anton
This run down to the nearby resort of Zürs is technically undemanding – once you have found the nerve to start. It begins at the very top of the most challenging ski area in Austria above St Anton. You are only allowed into the final sightseeing cable car with skis if you are accompanied by a qualified mountain guide. The first serious slope usually has good snow cover and the angle is far from severe. However, it ends in a precipice. Miss the left-hander through fear and lack of commitment and you will end up on rocks 700m below. Once you are through the danger zone, a sequence of turns brings you on to the Ochsenboden piste for a long cruise to the village of Zürs and the bus home.
Le Tunnel, Alpe d’Huez
The difficulty of Le Tunnel depends entirely on the conditions. In soft powder and warm sunshine the descent should be benign once you have conquered the unnerving first turn. However, when it’s cold and icy the tunnel takes on a more sinister character. Any fall that’s not immediately arrested can result in a slide of 200m – or worse. The tunnel itself is a 60m horizontal passage through the rock. The full horror is revealed when you emerge on the far side. The slope falls away to your left at what appears to be a wicked angle.
La Grave, France
The tiny resort of La Grave, accessible from Les Deux Alpes, is a haven for extreme skiers. The area is largely unmarked, has no formal avalanche control and offers some of the most challenging terrain in the world. Skiers enter at their own risk. The resort’s solitary cable car takes skiers to 3,200m and the top of the huge La Meije glacier, from where they can choose their own descent, taking care to avoid rocks, vertical cliffs, crevasses and avalanches.