It’s not the first time I’ve had the thought. As I sat on a particularly quiet chairlift during my annual pre-Christmas ski holiday to Courmayeur with my three children aged 2, 4 and 13, I considered the spectacular Funivia del Monte Bianco.
Now in the final throes of a four-year, €110 million construction that will completely overhaul the cableway up this Italian side of the Mont Blanc Massif, keen skiers like you and me will be able to reach Point Helbronner at 3462m for the first time in years.
From there you can reach the Toula Pass in a few minutes on skis, and gain access to the legendary Toula Glacier. What follows is a lengthy, engaging and wonderful run, which can often be counted on for deep snow conditions. It takes you all the way down to La Palud Courmayeur with a descent of more 2000 metres. It’s truly breathtaking stuff, and I dream of taking my kids there one day (with a guide, of course).
At that moment, the chairlift juddered and bounced to an abrupt halt. And that’s when the thought hit me: what are the ski runs that I must share with my kids one day?
For a true skier, it’s one of life’s great questions.
Making The List
Naturally, crafting the perfect inter-generational mountain adventure bucket list became my obsession on every button and chairlift for the rest of the week.
So many unusual and amazing days of skiing from ancient history came dancing to the front of my mind – for the first time in years, in some cases. That incredible day of waist-high powder in Colorado… was it really that long ago?
By day three, the shortlist was well over 20 items in length. If I carried on like this, I was going to have to start carrying a notepad in my ski jacket. It was time to narrow it down.
Five was the magic number, I decided. Less would hardly be a list, but anything more and it quickly becomes dotted with excellent (but not unforgettable) also-rans. These had to be five skiing experiences with Daddy that my children would never forget.
So here they are. They aren’t all terrifyingly steep or challenging as you might expect – I’d like to begin completing the list before my kids are all adults! And a couple aren’t ski runs as much as they are short tours that can be done in a day. But it’s a list packed full of vivid experiences and some of the mountains closest to my heart.
Vallée Blanche, Courmayeur/Chamonix
Once the new cable way in Courmayeur is completed in April 2015, the current mid-point Torino Hut station will continue as a mountain refuge connected by way of a 154m tunnel and elevator right through the rock.
It’s either here or at the top of the Aiguille du Midi (if you’re approaching from the French side) that the Vallée Blanche route normally begins – a glorious 20km off-piste glacier itinerary that takes you all the way down to Chamonix’s town centre, snow permitting.
It’s unmarked, unmaintained, unpatrolled and unchecked descent which offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire mountain range. This includes the north face of the Grand Jorasses first conquered by Edward Whymper in 1865 and previously a sight reserved for climbers alone.
If the weather’s good, stop off on Mer de Glace for a picnic, then celebrate the day by washing down some oysters in Chamonix’s main square before the 30 minute bus commute back through the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
Start to finish it’s between four and five hours on skis, depending on how much time you spend taking photos and eating your picnic. And subject to good snow conditions, it’s quite doable for a fit intermediate. You’ll still need a guide though if you want to avoid dropping into a crevasse!
Sella Ronda, Dolomiti Superski
Once upon a time I used to be a rep for the now defunct tour operator Bladon Lines in San Vigilio and Selva di Val Gardena. It’s here that you’ll find the Sella Ronda, which is a circuit around the Sella Mountain – a chunk of rock shaped like a table and shared by resorts such as Selva, Corvara, and Arrabba.
Part of my guiding programme was to do the Sella Ronda, which I preferred to do clockwise. Normally mountaineering round this part of the Dolomites is far out of reach for non-experts. But developments in lifts through the years, and the convenience of the Skipass Dolomiti Superski means that today a full lap of the Sella Massif includes 26km of downhill skiing in one day as part of a ski touring experience most intermediates can enjoy.
In all honesty, you spend more time on ski lifts than skiing, but it’s a wonderful way to the discover the area and go through a lot of different ski resorts with a changing landscape. It’s great fun and a real ski map adventure to do with kids.
Go there on holiday and you’re best off basing yourself in Arabba which has the best link to the Marmolada Glacier and a couple of really nice family hotels such as the Sporthotel Arabba or the Evaldo (more information on the ski holidays in Italy page).
Once my children will get to an expert standard, I’d also like to take them down Val Mezdi (see video above) from the top of the Sella down to Colfosco. This route is accessible after taking the cable car from Passo Pordoi, but if budget allows you can grab a chopper which back.
In 1993 it cost me 200,000 lire – the equivalent of £90 at the time. It was a great day, captured on the cover of Arnie Wilson’s book Tears in the Snow with a lovely picture of Arnie and the late Lucy Dicker before I guided them down. Front cover photo by Amin Momen and foreword by Clint Eastwood. How good is that?
A word of advice: the round trip of the Sella Ronda should be planned properly. It takes a good six hours. Set off early in the morning and make sure you get to the last lift in time in the afternoon.
The Hidden Valley, Cortina d’Ampezzo
As a ski resort, Cortina has a lot going for it. And the Hidden Valley, a 5km stretch of the Armentarola Valley, is its must-do descent.
Take the Lagazuoi cable car and instead of skiing back down to Cortina, you ski the back side down a long red/blue run down to Armenterola. Just you and stunning nature with no other ski lifts in sight, passing frozen waterfalls, vast honey-coloured crags of rock that harboured resistance fighters during two World Wars (hence ‘Hidden Valley’), and a couple of great spots for a bombardino or espresso enjoyed Italian-style. It’s every bit as beautiful as it sounds.
There’s a long run out, but instead of poling it for miles grab a ride on Europe’s most unusual ski lift – a horse-drawn sleigh. Pay €2, grab hold of the knotted rope behind the sleigh, and be pulled at a speed of one or two horsepower to access the final run.
From Armenterola, jump into a minibus and get a lift to the Cinque Terre ski area (five minutes away) where the movie Cliffhanger was filmed. Here you can have lunch in one of my favourite mountain restaurants, Rifugio Averu, which has one of the best views in the Alps and a selection of delicious pastas on one plate.
For a number of years a good friend and Tourist Office Director Francesco was pestering me to come and see Madesimo. I eventually succumbed to the pressure, taking a group of British ski journalists with me, and I dare say we were all left dumbstruck by the variety of great things Madesimo has going for it as a holiday destination.
The highlight, from a skiing perspective, was the never-ending Canalone run – an ungroomed gulley which drops from 3000m to 2000m giving you a varied freeride experience throughout.
My group for the trip all agreed that this was one of the top ten runs in Europe that ought to feature on every skiers’ to-do list.
The cable car shuts for lunch and there are two lovely runs at the back of it on Val di Le. Between these and Canalone itself is enough challenging skiing to appease even the most reticent expert skiers in your party who think Italy is all about intermediate cruising.
Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole
Admittedly, the list so far has been Italy dominated thus far. But the final spot in my top five and the most technically demanding of the lot is reserved for a special place in Wyoming, USA.
Couloir literally means ‘narrow corridor’. Or, in Skiing English, a brutally steep chute reserved only for the bravest of skiers. Back when I was a seasonnaire and lived for this sort of thing, I had a t-shirt which read ‘Couloir = Cool War’.
And that’s what it was. My war against anything steep and narrow with snow on top. Notable adversaries I took on during that period of my life included Couloir Poubelle (literally ‘Rubbish Bin’) in Chamonix, Canale del Cesso (‘Toilet Couloir’, so called because you stand at the top and s**t yourself) in Courmayeur, and Couloir Marbrées – a 1000m vertical of jump turns where one mistake would lead to a fatal tumble all the way down to Floriano’s Restaurant in the Val Ferret cross country ski area.
But my greatest conquest of all? Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole. Not for its steepness (it has nothing on Marbrées) nor the work required to get there (straightforward lift access). But because of simple fact that you need to jump into it before you even make a turn.
On my first trip to Jackson Hole in 1996, I insisted my guide take me straight there. I knew on my return to the UK the first question my skiing friends would ask would be: ‘So… did you do it?’
Much to my disappointment, the guide told me snow was hard and unsafe. Corbet’s had taken the first round. I swallowed the advice and flew home to a lot of disappointed friends.
In March 2000, I returned to the area for a friend’s wedding. Fed up by the banter from friends that I would never do it, I headed once more for the top of the mountain, and with my wife as witness, inched over to the drop.
As the seconds passed, it occurred to me that like anything, the longer I hesitated the harder it would become. And so off I leapt…
What Would Your List Be?
If you’re interested in experiencing any of the skiing described above for yourself, we can make it happen for you. Get in touch today and we can start planning your tailor-made trip to conquer the descents on my list.
I’d love to hear your feedback, too. Which ski experiences would you most like to share with your kids?