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The European Alps Grand Ski Tours Compared

In the last 10 years, we have skied most all the European grand ski tours, not just once, but twice, if not three times each. Of course there are more, but the big ones, the famous tours, are all under our belt. As a resource for people researching which they would like to do, I thought to rate them and see how they compare. I know which is my favorite, would it really come out on top? The candidates are:

The Haute Route’s final descent, below the north wall of the Matterhorn straight to Zermatt.

The Haute Route Ski Tour

Probably the most famous ski tour in the world and, for good reason, likely in number one position on most backcountry skiers must hit lists. We have done the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route twice and by both versions, the classic via Chanrion and the Verbier/Lac des Dix variation. Being the only true point to point tour on the list, the Haute Route demands that you stick to an agenda – a static tour. It is a complicated route requiring every skill in a skiers toolbox; steep skiing, fitness, navigation, glacier travel, and mountaineering.

Switzerland’s Berner Oberland Ski Tour

Like all the tours on the list, with the exception of the Haute Route, the Berner can be done however a skier chooses. In where you please, out where you please – a dynamic tour. To start at the highest point, most parties go into the Bernese Alps at the Jungfraujoch, from Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen. Once within the massive region, there are numerous huts and countless ski lines, all of which are accessible from an initial descent to the Konkordiaplatz. There are also several 4000 meter peaks to climb, though not completely by ski. One disadvantage (some may see this as an advantage) of the region is the enormity of the terrain, as such, part of the itinerary is guaranteed to include long slogs skinning up low angle glaciers. Also, in poor weather the options are more limited for travel, and GPS use becomes mandatory on the featureless glaciers – know how to use navigation tools and be prepared. Exiting the area is typically done via the Lötschental or south towards Riederalp where buses and trains take you back around to the Interlaken area starting point.

The Ortler Ski Tour, Italy

The Ortler itself is a major Italian peak straddling the Swiss Italian border. But the ski tour is more in the mountain group east of the Ortler. Accessed via Solda (the Italian Solda!), Santa Caterina or the Val Martello, the Ortler is another dynamic tour without a strict agenda. Visitors can research what they want to ski, have a tick list, then as conditions permit start to move around and ski the favored lines and peaks. Classics include the Cevedale, the Punta San Matteo and the magnificent Gran Zebru, or Königspitze in German. One issue with the Ortler is the requirement to exit where you started, this or a very complicated process of getting back.

The Silvretta Group, Austria

Beginning in Ischgl, Austria, on the north end of the Silvretta Group, this ski tour sits on the Swiss Austrian border and can either be done as a point to point, or a dynamic tour with multiple nights in the same huts. Arguably the nicest hut on any ski tour in Europe is on this tour, the Jamtal Hut; complete with wi-fi, climbing gym and luxurious private rooms. The tour is typically started in Ischgl with a tram ascent before a short tour to the first hut, the Heidelberger. From here it is possible to move through the range east to west, essentially making a big circle connecting huts and ending just up valley from Ischgl at the village Galtur.

The Piz Bernina Group, Switzerland

As much a mountaineering experience as ski tour, the Bernina Tour is very much a dynamic agenda. This is big, alpine, glaciated terrain that requires absolute knowledge of much more than skiing. The starting point is almost certainly the Diavolezza Cable Car which takes you to one of Europe’s most impressive “Huts”. The Diavolezza Hut is really more of a hotel and fine restaurant complete with arguably the best view in all the Alps. The tour usually begins with an ascent of the Piz Palu before heading to any number of options which allow for a bouncing around the Bernina Group. Climb the Bernina itself, the easternmost 4000 meter peak in the Alps, or head south into Italy before crossing back to the Swiss side to Sils Maria or the Coaz Hut.

Choosing the European Alps Ski Tour : The Criteria

For ranking, I considered the following factors: the views, the huts, the skiing, can you escape, logistics and the overall experience. Details to rank are below. My choice for best of category sets the standard, then the others are compared to the best. A 5 is the highest, 1 the lowest.

The “yard” as seen from the Ortler’s Rifugio Branca, 5 star terrain

The Views: This one is simple, how dramatic is the landscape you are in. Will you be blown away by the views and is it a completely unique experience because of this.

The Huts: Undoubtedly all the huts are going to impress an American visitor and be a big part of the overall feel – but truly, some are a lot better than others. Food is a big factor, remote alpine huts get their food flown in and as such it is not so fresh. Others, closer to villages get fresh food daily and the quality can be much higher. Some huts even offer private rooms and showers, others only dorm style rooms and no showers.

The skiing in the Alps can be big and intimidating. Berner Oberland.

The Skiing: This one was tricky as all have great ski terrain. But, the nature of the tours can affect how you get to ski, or how easily accessible it is based on the tour itself. For instance, the Haute Route requires you get from point A to point B. You don’t always have the time to get to ski what you want vs. what you have to ski to get to where you need to be. This compared to tours like the Ortler where you wake up and base your objective on the conditions, the crowds and your energy.

The Escape: Can you get away? Can you get some terrain to yourself? Or, are you going to be in a procession in a skin track trench followed by a carved up descent. There is always the possibility of escape, but how friendly is the terrain to allow this and how much time will you have to do so.

The Logistics: This is one of the big ones for a visiting American skier. Having to rely on huts, knowing how to get in and out of areas, glaciers, weather, and knowing how and where to find the escapes – make for logistical issues, some more than others. Researching information about these ski tours is overwhelming if you are a first time visitor. Meanwhile, the huts are a blessing and a curse in that they complicate matters by having to decide when you’ll arrive, booking, and making them all work out with conditions. You must reserve space at huts. The weather can change your plans and then affect your entire agenda, this is what is looked at for the rating. How easy is it to “deal” with the tour’s logistics.

The Haute Route

The Overall Experience: Every one of these tours is going to be a great experience, but again, the standard I have set is according to which is potentially most rewarding. Countless factors weigh in to influence the overall; the weather, the snow, the group, the season, etc… and of course all the subjective factors as well.

Using a Mountain Guide

The decision to use a mountain guide to do these tours is highly recommended. Immediately the logistics issue is solved, the ability to escape a possibility, and the overall experience will probably be much better. Also, if the weather is bad, instead of sitting it out inside, a guide will likely have an entertaining backup plan. With regards to a guide, I have heard people say, “How hard can it be, get in the trench and go”. This might be true if the weather is splitter and you are there high season (April), but the second the sky closes, it whites out and you are on a glacier, the trip goes to hell quite quickly. The Alps are not to be taken lightly, they may be crowded, but they are not tame – it is serious terrain. See guides list, bottom.

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The Alps Ski Tours Compared

Conclusion

So what does this mean? The Haute Route sucks? Not at all, it means the Haute Route has the potential for the biggest experience and best views, it is just difficult to pull off without some logistical help. And the Berner Oberland is the best? Maybe, for me… I had great conditions each time I was there and it is consistent across the board. If I had to choose, the best ski tour is undoubtedly the Ortler. The Haute Route is something every skier must do, the Berner is simply an amazing place with great skiing, the Silvretta a close second to the Ortler in every way, and the Bernina a place for ski mountaineering.

Point being…. they are all great. But if you are going to choose just one, then I hope this method helps you determine which tour is best for what you are after.

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American UIAGM Guides Specializing in European Ski Touring

These are all friends and guides we know to be fully knowledgeable about Alp ski tours. I asked them about the list to see which tour they would comment on.

Cosley Houston Mountain Guides : Our favorite? You’re asking us to walk into a French chocolatière and pick out the single best morsel. Well, we have to give very high marks to the Ortler. Perhaps it the showers, or the full bar, or the great food, the cappuccinos, the hut keepers, or the great terrain where most every day takes in a high summit.

The Queyras, southeast of Grenoble, also deserves honorable mention. This is the “Wild West” (well, East, actually) of France. Great snow, fine huts with showers! and very few other skiers. There’s a good chance you’ll do some trail breaking here.
But, really, all the tours are great. Each has its own unique flavor, and rewards. And they all require skiing, lots of skiing. So how bad can that be?

 

Francis Kelsey : The Haute Route. It’s the oldest and most well known tour. Even though the shortest way between two points is a straight line, I prefer a few detours along the way and like to mix things up a bit. Some of the best skiing I have done has been on this tour. With any tour or trip into the mountains, timing and knowledge play crucial roles on how the trip unfolds and also on how interesting (ie fun) it turns out. There are very few tours that will bring such incredible diversity and feeling of accomplishment as the Haute Route. This route brings every mountain skill set into play, nearly every time.

And finally, how appropriate is it to rally two of the world’s alpine meccas via skis. That’s just plain uber cool.

Howie Schwartz : Sierra Mountain Guides : Our favorite is the Ortler, even though it is so trendy now, but we like to start in Solda with an amazing off-piste day at the resort. Then the intensity ramps up to classic ski mountaineering and steep descents. We are skiers and this is truly a skiers circuit that maximizes the quantity and quality of skiing. Certainly less high and wild than some of the other more classic tours but, as you know, the food and espresso are in another league in Italia. I think for Americans that already get their wilderness experiences closer to home, the Ortler is a very unique and special ski destination.

Tim Connelly : The Ortler Tour: Some of my favorite skiing days have been had in that great playground standing opposite the Rifugio Branca. The ins and outs of Cima Giacomo and  P.Matteo and the longer journeys through Palon de la Mare on to P. Taviela, just such good times. Of course skiing from the summit of Il Gran Zebru will have a special place in my heart; grinning still at the memory

The Haute route (via Verbier): While touted as the over used/ busy trade route of the alps I have had some spectacular days on this route that will keep me raving about it. Isolated, steep lines from Rosablanche and around Arolla remind me of my La Grave haunts and full on high mountain adventures around the Pigne de Arolla have tried to kick my butt — love it! I’ll be back.

Margaret Wheeler : ProGuiding

Mike Bromberg : Mountain Pro : It’s hard to pick a favorite when each tour has it’s own unique character, but the one thing I can be definitive about, is that the Ortler crushes the competition when it comes to Coffee quality. I generally prefer a circuit with layover days planned at several huts as opposed to point to point traverses in order to really maximize the ski potential and achieve a greater sense of place in a specific area. Keep your style in mind (fast & light or freerider?) and remember that shared expectations will end up being crucial to the success of any mountain experience.

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Comments 4

  1. Nice job reviewing all the elements of Alps ski touring. I was on a Margaret Wheeler Pro Guiding Trip just this early April. Thanks for helping me research my next trip to the Alps!

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks Bob, Your comment was my goal, so success! They are all good, it’s hard to go wrong. Let me know which you choose as I am curious which people choose and why.
      Dan

  2. Dear Sir/Madam,
    I am interested in your ski tours, but I need your guidance.
    I am an intermediate on pist skier.
    I am 39 years old and my physical fittness is OK.
    Last year I started to ski off pist and ski touring.
    My ski touring experience is about 15 hours in three days.
    Should I improve my skills to join your tours?
    Thanks in advance

  3. Pingback: 7 Hut To Hut Ski Touring Options In Europe | A Mountain Journey

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