Combe de La Saulire
Verdict: Good family fun, unless it’s chock-a-block
The summit of La Saulire at 2738m separates the ski areas of Méribel and Courchevel in the Trois Vallées. The classic Combe (pictured above) is the long run to the bottom station of the Saulire cable car. Its only difficulty lies in the steep start. However, this, like the rest of the run, is open and wide. You can either plunge straight into the bowl or take a slightly gentler path on the right-hand side. Once you’ve negotiated this first pitch, the whole slope is a much more gentle cruise with spectacular views.
Up to your left as you head down you can see people descending the infamous couloirs – Sous Pylons, Emile Allais and the Grand Couloir – also reached by the giant red cable car. The only hazard is other people. As a main thoroughfare, it can become unpleasantly crowded, particularly over new year and February half term. If you’re staying in Courchevel, it’s best tackled first thing in the morning, before the hordes arrive from Méribel.
Grading: Itinerary route
Verdict: As mean as they come
Take the Lac des Vaux 3 chairlift to the Col de Chassoure, and there it is right in front of you. If you don’t like what you see, this is the moment to turn back and take the pleasant red run down to Lac des Vaux. Itinerary route Tortin is marked but not maintained or avalanche controlled and when it’s icy, which it usually is, you need razor-sharp edges and a strong nerve. Most probably, you’ve never before encountered moguls quite like these in size and shape – more 4×4 than traditional Volkswagen Beetle. A fall can result in being tossed down the hill like a rag doll.
You gain entry along an icy rollercoaster traverse, the further you go, the gentler the slope. Often it’s safer to dive in early, rather than risk a fall on the bumped-up traverse.
Kitz bühel, Austria
Grading: Red/ski route
Verdict: How those ski racers do it, we’ll never know
The toughest of all World Cup downhill races takes place on the Hahnenkamm mountain each winter. The name of the course itself is actually the Streif – and when not in competition use, it reverts to being plain old piste 21, a family red.
You can cruise it en famille with ease, stopping to marvel at how anyone could possibly manage the humongous jumps and horrific reverse-camber turns of the famous Mausefalle, Steilhang and Hausbergkante included on race day. These expert-only sections are ungroomed and unpatrolled ski routes and often very icy, but can be bypassed on the piste by any sane folk on the mountain.
For races this benign red run is injected with water to make it a 3.3km sheet of ice and the top racers hit 85mph. Austrian superhero Franz Klammer, who won here four times between 1975 and 1984, once said, “Every single racer who gets to the bottom is a winner.”
I once skied it – or rather, slithered down it as slowly as possible behind a guide – just after the Hahnenkamm race. Even with race-prepared skis I found it extraordinarily difficult to get sufficient grip on the ice to maintain any kind of control. “When I did the Streif last year…” is a useful conversation stopper. You don’t have to add that at the time it was in its guise as an intermediate family run and not its unforgiving alter ego.
Grading: Red (but would be blue in a more demanding resort)
Verdict: Serene and sublimely beautiful
No other slope in the world provides equal enjoyment for both a wobbly first-week beginner and a grizzled multi-seasoned expert. The joy of Ventina (just humble number 7 on the resort’s piste map) lies not in its gradient, but in its extraordinary length. From the top of the cable car at Testa Griglia (3480m) to the bottom lift station in Cervinia you travel an astonishing 8km with a vertical drop of 1430m.
For a complete novice with just five days on the nursery slopes under his or her belt, this is the ultimate end-of-holiday goal – a chance to explore the whole mountain. You go home with a sense of achievement and a complete understanding of what makes the sport so addictive. For the more advanced, Ventina is boy (and girl) racer terrain – a seemingly endless, undulating slope for those with the stamina. Bombing down it in one turns even the strongest legs to spaghetti.
Verdict: Its hype is worse than its bite
The Harakiri piste is Austria’s steepest marked run. To groom it they have to use a piste machine on a winch. From the Knorren chairlift it doesn’t look too difficult, a wide and steep piste with a gentle run out. However, fall on the steep section and you’ll slide uncomfortably for up to 150m. The only real danger lies in other people whose bottle often far outweighs their basic technical skills. When flailing bodies are hurtling by on either side of you, the process of completing your own turns safely requires considerable concentration.
The level of difficulty also varies depending on conditions. But even when freshly groomed on a blue-sky day it’s wise not to underestimate Harakiri. The sting is in the tail – just when you think you’re over the worst and pick up a bit of speed for a flourish at the finish, you’re suckered into the steepest pitch of all. Luckily there’s then a virtually flat run-out.
Jackson Hole, USA
Grading: Double black
Verdict: Off the scale
“Someone will ski that one day,” guide Barry Corbet remarked to his boss Paul McCollister in 1960, as they surveyed Rendezvous Mountain four years before the opening of Jackson Hole resort. They were gazing up at a narrow snow-covered cleft in the rock face. It has since become known as North America’s scariest slope. Local ski patroller Lonnie Ball finally conquered it in 1967, and since then thousands have stood on the lip trying to summon up the courage to take the plunge.
The standard entry is a drop off a cornice that can be as tame as two metres or as fierce as nine metres, depending on the snow. As soon as you land, you must immediately throw all your weight forward and make an instant right turn around a rock. That’s the tricky bit. If you survive the turn, the couloir, which is only around 200m long, quickly opens up into a pleasant powder run.
Grading: Itinerary route
Verdict: Exhilarating, exhausting
This is one of the Alps’ classic mogul runs. Situated in the Rothorn sector of Zermatt’s ski area, this sits higher than 3000m, so you lose your breath quickly. Lots of snow is needed to cover the rocks in the area, and it’s not normally open before late January or early February.
The entry to Triftji can be a little tricky and you need to sideslip or snowplough on to the face. The difficulty then lies in the length rather than the pitch and is dependent on conditions. If you aim to get down without exhausting yourself then sound technique is pretty much a requisite.
For those with any energy left, a drag lift brings you up for a second lap. Or head down to Gant and on to the gastro hamlet of Findeln for a much-deserved lunch.
Val d’Isère, France
Grading: Red (but should be classified black at the bottom)
Verdict: Long, breathtaking and deeply satisfying
On a good day, when the slope is near deserted, this is one of the best runs in the world. It’s named after two of Val’s racing legends, Henri Oreiller and Jean-Claude Killy. It’s a World Cup downhill course, but don’t let that put you off – when not prepared for racing, it’s testing but far from forbidding for any confident intermediate.
The recreational start is at the top of the Funival underground funicular. A couple of steep pitches get the adrenalin going. In good conditions put in a short sequence of GS turns and straight-line the second half of each pitch. The run flattens out before dropping down past La Folie Douce and Le Triffolet, two popular mountain hangouts, and into a natural halfpipe.
The tricky bit is the penultimate section beneath the lift pylons. A couple of easier pistes join the OK here, and the run often becomes icy. Other people hesitantly slipping and sliding can prove a bigger hazard than the slope itself. The secret is to stick to the middle of the run and turn as little as possible on the ice.
Dave Murray Downhill
Whistler Blackcomb, Canada
Grading: Single black
Verdict: A true test of stamina
This is one of the world’s fastest downhills. It was the venue for the men’s race at the 2010 Winter Olympics – the closest competition of all time. Switzerland’s Didier Défago and the nine finishers behind him all clocked 1min 54sec. It well may take you a little bit longer.
The run is named after one of the Crazy Canucks, a group of Canadian racers of the late 1970s, who blazed a trail with fearless, often reckless, skiing. Dave Murray had three World Cup podium finishes before becoming Whistler’s director of skiing in 1982. He died in 1990 from skin cancer, aged 37. Located on Whistler Mountain, the run starts at the top of the Garbanzo Express chairlift and finishes 3.1km later at Creekside at the base of the mountain. The top racers hit 92mph on the steepest section, and make just 33 turns at an average speed of 81mph. Even at half that speed it feels like you’re racing for real.
Without the prepared jumps and artificially iced-up surface of race day there are no real hazards – except other people. As several runs intersect the course it’s important to keep your speed under control at all times. Take particular care at the so-called Toilet Bowl near the start, where an abrupt rollover precedes a steep pitch. The ground also falls away abruptly at the Weasel, a section near the top station of the Creekside Gondola.