Miller touts backcountry skiing in Europe as a bucket list experience
Owner and Director of International Alpine Guides Dave Miller spoke at Mammoth Lakes Brewing Company on Wednesday as part of the ongoing Mountain Culture Speaker Series. In a presentation accompanied by his own remarkable photographs, Dave explained why the Alps are a backcountry skier’s paradise.
“Backcountry in Europe is completely different,” Dave said.
“It’s not just ‘backcountry’ over there. There are three categories: Classic touring, which is point A to point B; Ski Mountaineering, where you access runs through mountaineering; and Free Ride, somewhat new to Europe.”
Dave recalled his collection of experiences in the Alps through this three-pronged heuristic.
The Haute Route is the pinnacle of Alpine touring. The trip from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland takes 7 or more days skiing. Along the way you stop at huts, century-old commercial hostels hanging off lithic peaks. The huts on the Haute Route are restocked by helicopter. “The food is better than you would expect.”
Dave has traversed the route 16 times.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “It’s not just ski touring, it’s mountaineering, its experiencing different cultures, it’s epic.”
The Haute Route was first traversed by ski in 1911, and has become by far the most famous touring route in the world.
Dave also spoke of the Ortler Route. Beginning in the German Speaking independent Italian province of Sub Tirol, lost to the allies in World War One, and ending deep in the Italian Alps, the Ortler is a kinder journey than the Haute. It consists of three huts in 6 days. When a skier is not traveling linearly, they “can do whatever they want,” said Dave. Ski a circuit of rapturous backcountry, sauna, enjoy a hot tub, or sit back and drink cappuccinos and beer. The huts are less precarious on the Italian route and are therefore stocked by snow cat.
“The food is better in Italy,” Dave said. He described the ecstasy of a Swiss rosti in an Italian hut, “Hashbrowns with amazing Swiss cheese and an egg.”
The huts provide the essentials. “You want the lightest set-up possible for touring.” A skier only brings what they need for the journey: two-buckle boots, light skis, and a harness and ice axe in case of a glacial rescue. The huts provide everything else.
“Chamonix is the epicenter of ski mountaineering,” said Dave. Mountaineering as a sport began in Chamonix, when in 1786 a bored doctor offered a cash prize to anyone who could summit Mont Blanc. Crazy men in goulashes transversed gorges and glaciers for the prize. Alpinism, and therefore ski mountaineering, found its spirit in those mad men.
Ski mountaineering, now an established sport in the Alps, is not for the timid. On a trip to Chamonix, Dave, not knowing Mont Blanc, followed a French couple down the couloirs. He followed the pair until they decided to get cheeky and jump off of a cliff, skis on, and throw their parachutes.
Dave was perturbed.
“Free riding is what everyone from the US wants to do, but doesn’t know it.” Dave described European free-riding as, “lift-assisted backcountry.” Alagna, Italy is the Mecca of free riding.
“They do not have resorts like we know them,” Dave said. In the Dolomites, there is a ‘resort’ of over 400 lifts from valley to valley, all on the same lift ticket. It costs $60 a day.
Not only is the terrain more expansive in the Alps, it is also less crowded. “When skiing ‘off piste’ [off the marked trails], you can go all day and see no one.” Dave described ‘off piste’ runs that were within sight of a chairlift that no souls dared enter.
“Backcountry in the Alps is something every serious skier must experience.”