Europe’s top ten freeride ski and snowboard Descents
A round up of our favourite backcountry descents around Europe for skiers and snowboarders, including a bunch of classic off piste itineraries and a few little-known lines, with plenty of hiking and route finding involved to ski ten brilliant days of freeride adventure. Europe is on our doorstep but its freeride and backcountry is relatively overshadowed by the big-boy mountains across the Atlantic. So pack your fat skis, split your snowboard and take your pick from these 'local' powder runs!
Published on Tue 02 Apr, 2019
Tower Ridge and Tower Gully combo
Ben Nevis, Scotland
Spring is an ideal time of year to have a crack at some Scottish freeride classics, weather is generally more agreeable and snow conditions are more stable than in the dead of winter. Tower Gully is the longest and possibly most coveted gully off Ben Nevis’ summit and often holds snow well into summer. In true Scottish backcountry style the entry is extremely steep, at 55 degrees, and is often guarded by monstrous cornices. Once in the gully, be sure to swing a right to avoid dropping over Tower Scoop cliffs and then continue down to enjoy an exciting descent in the jaws of Scotland’s highest mountain. Combine with a climb up Tower Ridge* to reach the entry point for the ultimate Scottish backcountry day out.
*Tower Ridge has a Scottish climbing grade of Difficult and at this time of year offers an elegant climb with some straightforward scrambling sections and enough exposure to give it a distinctly alpine character.
Pas de Chevre
If the snow conditions allow, the Pas de Chevre offers freeriders a vertical descent of 2,100m from the top of the Grands Montets cable car, off piste all the way back to Chamonix. From the top of the lift, head to the west and then descend down the Pas de Chevre couloir. With sections of 35 degrees and big mountain scenery, this classic route presents a serious backcountry feel for hardly any effort and typically holds powder off piste long after a snowfall. There is a choice of several freeride variations if you’re looking to up the ante: down the Central Couloir, Rectiligne or Couloir du Dru. Check out this route early-to-mid season to ensure snow cover, especially for the section of moraine before the Mer de Glace.
Les Couloirs du Lac
La Grave, France
Almost all the skiing in La Grave is off-piste and so the resort provides an epic backcountry playground with many lift accessible freeride descents. To reach the three Couloirs du Lac, ski the Chancel side from the top station and take a sharp right turn towards Breche de Pacave. Continue down the wide open face before choosing to descend one of the three corridors that lead to the Lac de Puyvachier. Patou is located skiers right, Le Banane is located in the centre and Couloir du Lac is on skiers left. The couloirs provide short steep freeride sections reaching between 35 and 40 degrees, making them great introductory backcountry routes before tackling some of the more sustained steep off piste in the area.
Monte Rosa, Italy
The Marinelli couloir has gained legendary, almost mythical, status amongst steep skiers searching for the ultimate freeride descent. The 3,000 metre couloir carves an aesthetic white line down the east face of the Monte Rosa in the Italian backcountry. This route is not for the faint-hearted however, with sustained sections of 40-45 degrees, extreme exposure, and sometimes demanding a short rappel part way down. The couloir can be reached from the Swiss side with a night in the spaceship-esque Monte Rosa hut. Alternatively, you could reach the 4,300m high entry point by helicopter. This is serious backcountry skiing on a Himalayan-like scale and demands a great deal of winter mountaineering knowledge, and patience for the perfect conditions to occur.
North face of Mittagskogel
Pitztal, Tyrol, Austria
The north face of the Mittagskogel is a freerider’s dream - it’s no wonder the Pitztal Wild Face freeride competition returns here every year. The 25-minute hike to the summit from the southside of the mountain is well rewarded with a 1,510m vertical freeride descent down chutes and gullies galore. There is a main channel on the north eastern flank that allows for fast wide turns all the way to the foot of the mountain. The ridgeline offers many different drop-in options onto the north face that will appeal to all levels of freeride ability. You can ride off piste all the way to the foot of the Pitztal Express and head back round for another run.
Jiehkkevarri East Couloir
The Lyngen Alps are quickly becoming a fashionable freeride destination. One route on our list of top off piste is the east couloir off Jiehkkevarri, described by the late ski mountaineer Andreas Fransson as, “a future classic for the new generation of mountain skiers.” Jiehkkevarri is the highest mountain in the region at just 1,833m, but don’t be fooled, these smaller peaks still offer a dramatic big mountain ambience and backcountry in the Arctic circle. The couloir is a relatively straightforward ski down 800m of vertical descent but there are seracs above your head on the lower part of the descent, so don’t hang around. The best time to visit Lyngen is between mid March and mid April for a more solid snowpack in the backcountry and a mix of powder and spring skiing.
Dent Jaune Couloir
Dent du Midi, Switzerland
The Dent Jaune couloir on the north west face of the Dent du Midi is an iconic line that can be seen for miles around. Access from the north side is encouraged, in order to assess the off piste conditions by climbing the couloir itself. It is also easily accessed from the south side, and with a night in the Dents du Midi backcountry refuge at 2,884m, the ascent to the entry point at 3,004m would be far more agreeable. The couloir is around 45 degrees at the top, before sustaining 40 degrees for 600m of freeride descent. From afar it looks seriously intimidating and offers an impressive ride between high rock walls.
Skiing in Slovakia is a bit like shopping at a farmer’s market, we all know it exists but it’s easier to navigate the supermarket (or mountains) we know best. Take a chance on Slovakia's backcountry however, and prepare to be dazzled. In good snow conditions, Slovakia has epic freeride terrain that challenges any off piste in an Alpine resort. The peak of Chopok (2,024m) dominates the skyline in Jasna resort, and at just a 20m vertical hike from the top of the highest lift. The northeast face of Chopok is an attractive backcountry option, with scores of lines, wide chutes and cliff drops at your disposal. From the foot of the face you can simply freeride back to the piste and head up the lift for round two. Aim to arrive in Slovakia between mid January and mid February for the best chance of powder.
The tiny resort of Nax in the Valais region of Switzerland has just five uplifts and a handful of runs, but with neighbouring resorts like Grimentz and Verbier, you can be sure the freeride terrain is going to be awesome. The resort sits on the western flanks of the 2,654m Mont Noble, but the uplifts also give access to some hidden backcountry gems on the north east face of this mountain. Once at the top of La Combe chairlift you can simply traverse the south east ridge to find your ultimate drop-in point. With wide open powder fields and narrow couloirs to choose from, a freerider is spoilt for choice on this 1,600m descent. Ride off piste down into the valley and bear north aiming for a hairpin in the road at 991m, where you can leave a car in advance.
Backside Mont Fort
It’s hard to pick a favourite off piste route in Verbier with so many to choose from, but the backside of Mont Fort is certainly one adventure for the backcountry bucket list. The route takes you off the summit, down alongside the immense Cleuson dam and through powder fields with options to hike up for some extra freeriding. There is a huge rush for first tracks on a powder day in Verbier, so be up early and make a beeline for your chosen off piste route. From the top of the Mont Fort cable car duck under the rope on the left of the staircase and follow an airy traverse to the other side of the mountain. The run begins with a steep couloir, that if you happen to get to first, provides a spectacular freeride descent.
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