It’s one of those key statistics we’re all drawn to when comparing ski areas – how big is the lift-served vertical drop?
But not all big, lift-served verticals are created equally, and there are more than 50 ski areas claiming at least a 1700m lift-served vertical. Before being dazzled by the numbers you need to check the small print, or at least the piste map.
Can you ski the full vertical in one go? Do you need to take a lift halfway down to get to the bottom, as is the case between the top and bottom of Les Arcs, or is there a big cliff in the way, which you’ll find if you ever thought about skiing from the highest point above Wengen or Garmisch down to the valley.
How likely is it that the lower section of the lift-served vertical will have snow? If you time it right you might be able to ski off-piste below Meribel or Verbier for example, but those lower sections are unofficial off-piste terrain.
Check that the descent is feasible for your ability level. Many of the longest descents are wholly or partially off-piste routes of varying levels of difficulty which may be increased by weather and snow conditions on the day.
Finally, does the descent arrive back at the base of the lifts so you can head straight back up? A few of the long descents, for example from the peaks above Davos, or again down from the summits of Les Arcs to neighbouring Villaroger, are wonderfully long runs but end up in neighbouring hamlets – so you need to get a ski bus, train or taxi back.
Europe’s biggest drop: The Vallee Blanche, Chamonix, France
The Vallee Blanche is an iconic descent of 2755m, creating runs of up to 22km down from 3790m to 1035m – the longest descent in the world over the biggest lift-served vertical.
The image portrayed is of floating down through light powder and spectacular scenery but sadly weather conditions means that the reality is rarely like that.
Let’s be clear on what skiing the Vallée Blanche requires. At the very least you should be a good intermediate skier. Most of the usual route (and there are many others) would rate as a blue for gradient and challenge, but you do need stamina to keep going all the way down and then, at the bottom, tackle the long flight of 350 stairs back up to Montenevers rail station for the ride back to Chamonix.
You need a guide – this is high-altitude, glacier terrain and sadly most winters one or two people still fall into crevasses or are lost in some other accident; it’s very foolish to tackle the Vallée Blanche alone.
Unless you know it like a local, ski the Vallée Blanche with a guide. Even someone confident on reds can ski it with the right guide who knows your ability, but remember it’s a glacier with many deadly crevasses, often hidden by snow bridges of unknown strength. Chamonix has been called the death-sport capital of the world, but it doesn’t need to be dangerous there to enjoy the majesty of the highest peaks in the Alps.
Thirdly you need a head for heights. Your day begins with a vertigo-inducing, ear-popping 2800m-vertical ascent of the Aiguille du Midi. But for many people the most challenging part of the Vallée Blanche experience is shuffling along the icy ‘arête’ that links the lift station to the start of the ski run (although for experienced mountaineers, it’s no doubt a walk in the park). You have a rope to cling on to but you are carrying your skis and wearing your ski boots of course – crampons and roping your party together are often options offered. Snowboarders have the advantage of more secure footwear but the disadvantage that the board is more likely to catch the wind.
Other than that you just need good gear, a helmet, standard off-piste avalanche kit, your camera, a sandwich and some drinks for the way down, and you’re sorted.
10 of the world’s biggest verticals
Here’s a list of the biggest verticals to ski without needing to take a lift or jump a cliff halfway down in order to make the full descent. The majority do, however, require some, or all, off-piste skiing and many need lower sections to be snow covered (which they rarely are) and sometimes skiing terrain that isn’t even usually considered as regular ‘off-piste.’ All are in France, Switzerland or just over the border into Italy.
2769m Vallée Blanche, Chamonix, France
2509m Verbier, Switzerland (the full vertical involves skiing on below Verbier which is subject to snow cover down to 821m and there’s no official piste on that lower section).
2269m Zermatt, Switzerland. The biggest on-piste descent possible, but the top lift required to make the full vertical, Europe’s highest topping-out at 3899m, is only usually open in summer for glacier skiing, when lower runs are closed. Slightly longer descents are possible to Valtournenche on the Italian side of the border but these require an off-piste stretch or a drag lift ride mid-way down.
2220m Les 2 Alpes, France. The longest, normally open full on-piste vertical available in the world.
2200m Alpe d’Huez, France. Serving the world’s longest back run, the 16km Sarenne descent.
2138m Meribel, France. As with Verbier, this descent, beginning up at La Saulire, requires snow cover on an off-piste section at the bottom down to Brides les Bains, which is usually closed.
2100m La Grave, France. The cult off-piste descent.
2092m Courmayeur, Italy. Runs on the Italian side of Mont Blanc are almost as long as the French runs, accessed by a separate lift system (currently undergoing a €100m upgrade ahead of opening in 2014).