Had enough of the crowded trails at your usual ski resorts? Prefer pristine snow, challenging climbs and spine-tingling declines? Ready to stare insane vertical drops straight in the face and even risk the possibility of an avalanche?
Get to it, then. Wax those Rossignol backcountry skis, strap on your helmet and avalanche safety gear, and go off-piste.
Here are some locales across Europe and the U.S. worthy of the toughest winter adventurers.
offers one of the most beautiful settings in the world for extreme skiing, as premier Alp peak Mont Blanc looms majestically over this small town of 10,000. Located in France's Haute-Savoie region, it was appropriately the home of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. During the summer, mountain bikers and climbers flock here to flex their muscles, but the name Chamonix has always remained synonymous with great winter sport.
Think about spending six days ski-mountaineering in the Mont Blanc range with the
and guide Russell Brice, certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association. Brice has ascended the highest mountain in Europe more than 85 times, and its rounded summit is accessible via backcountry skis. Stand atop the roof of Europe and take in your conquest, arms and poles raised to the sky. Of course, you'll also need to have skills with an ice ax and crampons to be able to get to the top.
Guide Yan Raulet, also IFMGA-certified, offers tours on both the French and Italian sides of the mountain, ranging from two to five days. Start by skiing off-piste from the lifts at Les Grands Montets, at 3,233 meters (10,606 feet). Then climb up to the Aiguille du Midi, famous for the
, which brings tourists up to a terrace at 3,842 meters, where on a clear day, you can take in breathtaking views of the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and the Grand Combin.
When sufficiently rested, and the awe inspired by your surroundings has begun to abate, descend into the Le Refuge du Requin, "The Refuge of the Shark" in French, for a bit of repose. It's a hut tucked away along peaks appropriately resembling the dorsal fin of one of those menacing fish.
A caveat: Much of the Chamonix backcountry terrain is best skied by experts, as it is often quite steep, and avalanches are more prevalent here than in many other spots.
Located 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle,
in Sweden is one of the world's northernmost ski resorts. It's based in the Lapland part of Sweden famous for the heritage of the Sami indigenous people, who are known for their herding of reindeer. Not far from neighboring Norway, Riksgränsen literally translates into "The National Border" in Swedish.
While the resort offers 34 runs and six lifts, "The National Border" makes its name among those looking to go off trail and explore its 60 summits over 1,200 meters. A daylong off-piste tour of the surroundings goes for 895 krona per person, or about $110. You'll need three to six skiers to make a group. And starting in May, you can take advantage of midnight runs because, well, the sun never goes down that far up north during the summer.
Another unique offering at Riksgränsen is the snow and avalanche course. If you've always thought you could be better equipped safety-wise as you plan future off-piste excursions, consider spending a day perfecting your use of a transceiver, shovel and probe. It costs 995 krona (about $120).
Offering an amazing expanse of nearly unadulterated ice and snow, Lapland provides an intriguing experience for those looking to explore the world. But if you go, bring more than your usual winter gear. It's usually well below freezing.
Saint Anton, Austria :
Home of the 2001 Alpine World Ski Championships where the host country dominated the medal count in typical Austrian fashion,
Saint Anton am Arlberg
offers varying levels of skiing for skilled amateurs. And while you may never be Hermann Maier, you certainly will feel like an Olympian on the slopes of the Arlberg Mountains, where some of the premier off-piste skiing in the world can be yours. A Mecca for advanced skiers, the region boasts 85 mountain railways and lifts, more than 170 miles of prepared trails and over 110 miles of powder and granular snow slopes.
Saint Anton in Austria, a Mecca for advanced skiers, boasts almost 300 miles of trails and slopes.
offers the English-speaking services of owner and IFMGA-approved guide Graham Austick.
Five-day courses can bring you up to speed if you feel like you're not yet completely comfortable in fresh powder, and one-day options vary between the resorts of the Arlbergs: St. Anton, Rendl, Stuben, Lech, Zurs and Sonnenkopf.
Truly advanced skiers might want to consider touring the Otztal Mountains southeast of Saint Anton by plummeting down the Tirol region's highest mountain, the Wildspitze, and its 2,000 meters of vertical skiing. Six-day tours with Piste to Powder include mountain guide and instruction, three nights B&B accommodations, four nights half-board and accommodation in huts, and all climbing equipment: harness, crampons, rope, ice ax, shovel and avalanche transceiver.
Come to this former mining-camp-turned-upscale-ski-resort
to take advantage of some of the best expert ski services in the U.S. Knowledgeable skiers combine with perfectly challenging conditions for an amazing off-piste experience.
offers several options for those looking to check out the back country on skis. Based on a unique relationship with
, Adventures is able to combine ski-lift access with out-of-bounds skiing. Powder and packed-powder snow can be found on drops ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Steepness also varies. Slopes are rated starting at an intermediate blue square level to triple black diamond. Just buy a lift pass at the Ski Co. and set yourself up with one of Adventures' two American Mountain Guide Association-certified guides.
You can also opt for backcountry hut trips that come with fully serviced cabins at Adventures. Trips range in length from two to five days, and include your AMGA-certified guide, a pre-trip ski-training day for those with little or no off-piste experience, a one-day lift ticket, avalanche-rescue equipment, a sleeping bag, three meals a day and transportation to the trailhead.
Nate Herpich is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has also written for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and Sports Illustrated.com.