Freeriding: Five of the best off-piste ski resorts
The challenge of skiing away from the crowds can give you both an adrenaline rush and a sense of serenity, says Chris Madigan
La Grave, France
When a ski resort has only one groomed run and it's top of people's wish lists, even if the road leading to it is buried by a rockslide, it must be pretty special. And it is. This virtually piste-less ski sauvage environment could give you the most satisfying freeride experience of your life. Or it could kill or seriously injure you – a fact most people involved in the industry know all too painfully.
There are routes close to the brooding Meije massif – the Couloirs des Trifides; the North East Couloir of Pan de Rideau – so steep in parts (50 degrees plus) that, at times, you have to be roped up to your guide for protection. However, there are other, more open pitches between 35 and 45 degrees with the right balance of challenge and fun – for example, Banane couloir is steep and narrow, but short and doable.
If your guide knows the Secret Garden variant on the Chancel Classic, it's well worth the detour – when you look back to see your path from the bottom of the mountain, you'll be amazed you made so many turns on a white postage stamp atop a sheer cliff.
La Grave is potentially closing after the season ends, because the company, which runs the rickety, slow gondola lift (not something people complain about – it's a chance to catch your breath), only has the lease till June and is losing money because La Grave is so hard to get to. If it's rescued, it's likely to be by Les Deux Alpes, a resort that's linked (depending on the weather) over the ski area summit. If this happens, we can expect new pistes to be installed.
Currently, you can stay in Les Deux Alpes and hire a guide to take you over. It's worth hiring the guide for an off-piste day there first before tackling La Grave. Not only is it a place where you need a guide, but it's good to have one you know and who knows how to push your envelope without endangering you.
Tour operator Neilson's Mountain Experts programme (free ski hosting and taster lessons with instructors from the European Ski School and Ecole du Ski Francais) is a good way to find a guide you can trust.
On the one hand, there is "Verbs" – the resort of choice for royal divorcees, ex-Army one-hit wonders and affluent upper-class visitors from Made In Chelsea. Then there is Verbier, home to the Freeride World Tour's climactic Verbier Xtreme competition, snowboarding Ski Sunday presenter Ed Leigh and Faction big mountain skis.
The mountain the pros ride, the 50-degree Bec des Rosses, is only reachable after a two-hour hike. But Verbier's Four Valleys area has plenty of off-piste for mere mortals too. In fact, in Mont Gele, you'll find a mountain with no groomed runs at all – the entrance to the cable car is festooned with "Experts Only" signs. Instead of pistes, the pyramid simply offers a panorama of descents – some starting with a knife-edge ridge, others narrow couloirs and a few with easier traverses into big bowls.
Long descents lead to other possibilities – if you end up at Tortin, the cable car up to Gentianes leads to two classics – Highway and Stairway to Heaven (the latter requiring a hike).
It's not all hardcore. Savoleyre, for example, accesses a gentle, sunny off-piste cruise, with little rocks to jump off for the more adventurous, ending up among pretty chalets in the forest. In addition, 11 of the best off-piste runs in the resort (some of them the best in the world) are itineraires – marked, avalanche-protected and patrolled – but ungroomed runs.
If you want to go anywhere else, you should have a guide, because this place has riders comfortable with jumping 100ft cliffs. You really don't want to follow their tracks without knowing where they're going.
La Plagne, France
Generally regarded as a family piste resort, La Plagne's ski area doesn't have the off-piste reputation of its near neighbours Tignes-Val d'Isere or the Trois Vallees, but that simply means there are fewer people champing at the bit to eat up the freshies after a snowfall.
The true adventure is to drop off (and it sometimes does mean a drop) the back of the Glacier de Bellecote peak on the north side. You'll end up in the village of Nancroix, part of the Les Arcs ski area. But luckily, a cable car connects you back to La Plagne, so (as long as you have a Paradiski pass) you can stay over there for the afternoon and ride the east face of Aiguille Rouge as a bonus.
Other La Plagne favourite expeditions are the wide valley from Roche de Mio down to the pretty village of Champagny in the Vanoise National Park, the bowl below Les Verdons, and for tree lovers, the forest above Montchavin.
Oxygene ski school runs specialist Steep & Deep off-piste instruction and guiding. VIP Ski has luxurious chalet-apartments on the slopes at Plagne Centre.
Grimentz is in the remote Val d'Anniviers, sandwiched between valleys with more famous resorts – Verbier on one side and Zermatt on the other. It's one of the most underrated ski areas in the Alps, but its fans like it like that because it's a true hidden gem, especially if you prefer to ski off-piste.
With a guide, you can explore a wealth of options from atop Roc d'Orzival – wide-open powder fields leading to whooping routes through trees to the valley floor. The connected village, Zinal, also has some great stuff – a choice of three Chamois couloirs, or an epic descent to the Moiry dam, before crossing it on skis.
What makes them even more special is that the best runs are reachable from either the top of a lift or a short walk up from one. What's more, Grimentz is one of a handful of bases in Switzerland where a helicopter can land in the village, which means convenient heli-skiing to boot. This includes a drop on the Pigne d'Arolla, near the Matterhorn and the Italian border, followed by a five-mile journey in pure isolation over glaciers, rockfields and meadows, dropping nearly 6,500ft over a couple of hours.
Frozen Action can tailor-make a weekend in an attractive chalet, with guiding and heliskiing, plus dinners, wine-tasting evenings and more. Or book directly with mountain guide company Mountain Tracks.
Unlike many of the resorts of the Dolomites, north east of Milan, the villages in the three valleys of Monterosa, in the Aosta valley, north-west of Turin, are not particularly glamorous. The real wealth is up the mountain and off the pistes.
Some of the best routes require effort – a half-hour walk from the lift-served Salati Pass takes you to the secluded Zube Pass, from where you can drop 5,900ft in complete peace, down to the village of Alagna. The Punta Indren lift to 10,700ft is a gateway to a huge number of routes back to Alagna or into the Gressoney valley.
The third base is Champoluc, which doesn't lack for freeride terrain either. Plus, it's the run-out for longer descents reached by helicopter – heliskiing is far less restricted in Italy than neighbouring countries and a single drop, which will give you a day's descent, costs from €280 (£239) including guide.
Champoluc's old Breithorn Hotel is now run as a chalet-hotel by Ski Total, while sister company Esprit Ski has a family base in Gressoney – staff at both can book guides or heliskiing for you… "OK Timmy and Tilly, you stay in Snow Club while mummy and daddy do a heli drop on the 14,000ft Colle del Lys, ski over glacial terrain, dodging seracs and crevasses."
CHRIS MADIGAN is a travel writer, former deputy editor of the Daily Mail Ski Magazine and now a regular contributor to The Telegraph's ski coverage. He always skis off-piste with avalanche safety equipment and a guide, and has recently taken an International Snow Training Academy off-piste security course.