The World’s 18 Strangest Ski Resorts
Curated by Snowcomparison.com. Originally published by Popular Mechanics.
While it seems the slopes have taken a backseat these days to chair lifts, parking-lot size and crowd-control at the lodge, there are still some ski areas where the ride down is what counts. Whether capitalizing on natural terrain, creating snow where snow has never been or reaching with blades spots that humans had yet to unearth, here is a look at 18 of the most unusual places to ski.
Background: The medieval downtown isn’t just quaint in appearance: the two main streets are still largely made up of walls and cobblestone alleys built over 700 years ago, which explains why the town center is largely car-free. And while Kitzbuhel sits at a relatively low elevation, it is top-of-the-heap in a country filled with top-tier ski resorts. A giant ski region that connects seven separate ski areas with a single pass, you have access to 359 gondolas and lifts and more than 1081 trails. Tyrol mayor Franz Reisch imported the first pair of skis here in 1892 and the winter sports resort was born.
Why It’s Unique: Kitzbuhel hosts the Hahnenkamm downhill, an annual race that attracts more than 60,000 international spectators. So steep in certain sections that it cannot be groomed by machine (Austrian soldiers stomp the surface with their boots). A slope called the Streif is also dowsed with water to level it out before the Hahnenkamm. It is the most feared downhill on the World Cup circuit, with a starting-gate drop of 5462 feet leading to the infamous Mausefall jump. The Streif has unsurprisingly been the site of many career-ending falls since the race began in 1931. Lucky for you, with the exception of Hahnenkamm weekend, the course is open to the public, though challenging weather often prevents it from opening completely.
The Mount Hermon Ski Resort
Background: Mount Hermon straddles one of the world’s most infamously contested borders. On one side of the mountain is Israel, and on the other side are Syria and Lebanon. Israel took part of the southern slope, the Golan Heights, during the Six Day War, in 1967. Syria recaptured it on Oct. 6, 1973, the first day of the Yom Kippur War. Israel took it back two weeks later and has held it since.
Mount Hermon reaches 9232 feet, but its peak is actually located on the border between Lebanon and Syria. The Hermon Ski Resort is in Israel’s Golan Heights.
Why It’s Unique: As you drive up to it through the Golan Heights, you pass blocked-off mine fields. The mountain is dubbed the Eyes of the Nation for the view it gives deep into Syria. The Israeli Defense Forces maintain an observation post there, patrolled by the specially trained Alpine Unit. The military base is visible from the ski area, and certain sections of the mountain are restricted to IDF use.
Skiing at Hermon offers an unusual link to the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Bible it is referred to as Ba’al Hermon, Sion, Sirion and Senir. The Gospels say that Caesarea Philippi is located at its base, and the mountain is also thought to be the site of the Transfiguration.
Background: With its namesake flower-studded meadow, its 13,530-foot backdrop of Mount Apharwat and its untouched, impossibly long runs of backcountry powder, Gulmarg is one of India’s premier resorts—a Bollywood favorite. It’s at the western tip of the Himalayas, home to some of the world’s highest peaks, in a range called the Pir Panjals. You can take in views of the 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat from Gulmarg’s slopes. Each season, westerly and southwesterly storms hit the Pir Panjals first and unload on this lucky resort, blessing skiers and boarders with Gulmarg’s so-called “curry powder.”
Why It’s Unique: The highest slopes of Gulmarg are accessible by a single gondola, which pick people up at 8,694 feet and drop them off at 13,058 feet. It is operated by the government-run Jammu & Kashmir Cable Car Corporation. Service is plagued by a spotty power supply and only intermittent ski patrol access to avalanche control explosives (the explosives program was still operating on a trial basis as of 2008). Few have the chops to ride the gondola’s upper terrain, so those slopes are almost exclusively used by expert skiers and snowboarders.
(Photo by kruglov.com)
Background: Mauna Kea is the mother of all volcanoes. Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, it is the state’s highest point—impressive, considering that the majority of it rests under water. Mauna Kea is 32,000 feet from top to bottom, with a 13,796-foot peak above sea level, making it Earth’s premiere site for stargazing. No surprise, then, that the Mauna Kea Observatory is the largest astronomical observatory in the world, with thirteen telescopes along its summit, which are operated by eleven different countries.
Why It’s Unique: A county road that exists to allow scientists access to the observatory also birthed Mauna Kea’s skiers and boarders, locals who take advantage of Hawaii’s rare exposure to snow. With no lifts, no trail maps and no ski patrol, the terrain is best left to the experts, who usually take turns picking the others up after each run. A surfboard has even been known to make an appearance when the famous pineapple powder comes calling. The Mauna Kea Snowboarding Championship was established in 1994 and still continues, weather permitting, to attract international competitors.
(Photo by beasy/flickr)
Araucania Province, Chile
Background: In the heart of Chile’s lake district and next door to the Andes, Pucon contains some of Chile’s best views and, at 9317 feet, its highest peak. Chile’s ski season runs from late April to October—in America, the off-season.
Why It’s Unique: Hike 2 hours from the top of the resort’s highest lift to gain access to the peak of Pucon’s at the edge of the Villarrica Volcano. Chile’s most active volcano frequently spews smoke, and a trip to the peak provides a look at the bubbling magma inside. The lava-gouged half-pipes and treeless slopes you’ll pass on your ride back down reveal evidence of past eruptions.
Slush Cup at Sunshine Village
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Background: Originally a log cabin built by the Canadian Pacific Railway as a rest point for horse trekkers in 1928, Sunshine Village added a rope tow and became a skiing destination. By 1934, a horse and sled were available, for $30, to drag travelers out to the village for a week-long stay. Sunshine’s 3300 acres are spread across three mountains, all within Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. It tops out at an elevation of 8954 feet and a vertical rise of 3514 feet.
Why It’s Unique: The 2011 season will mark the 83rd annual Sunshine Slush Cup, a full weekend of events to celebrate the closing of the mountain for the winter. The festivities revolve around the Slush Cup itself, a cold, half-melted pool that costumed skiers try to jump across. Judges award prizes to the skiers who clear the jump, and hand out additional awards for Awesome Air, Best Belly Flop, Excellent Enema and various other titles determined by each year’s particular mishaps. Voted one of the top-three spring parties in North America by Skiing Magazine, it’s a safe bet that with a little beer, everyone goes home a winner.
Woodward at Copper
Copper Mountain, Colo.
Background: While it began as an extension of Camp Woodward, one of the first and most widely recognized action sports camps in the world, Woodward at Copper quickly gained attention in its own right with the opening of its indoor facilities. It is the first of Woodward’s camps focused specifically on skiing and snowboarding, providing riders with both on- and off-hill training. Woodward Copper operates as part of the Copper Mountain resort, 2450 acres of terrain located in the White River National Forest in the Rocky Mountains.
Why It’s Unique: While most snowboarding camps are able to function only during the winter months, Copper is a year-round affair. Opening in February of 2009, the Barn is a 19,400-square-foot indoor training facility featuring 6200 square feet of Snowflex. Unlike Liberty Mountain’s Snowflex Centre, Copper’s use of the material is focused on training for more specific skills; the material provides both jumps and cliff drops that lead into foam pits rather than full runs. Skiers and boarders can do day- or week-long camps (which run through summer) or drop-in sessions, where they are free to use the jump line, rail garden, quarter pipe, log jib or spring floor.
For more information go to the Colorado Ski Authority.
(Photo from coloradoskiauthority.com)
Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre
Liberty Mountain Snowflex
Liberty University, Va.
Background: Founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell in 1971, Liberty University is the world’s largest Christian University and the largest private university in Virginia. The Snowflex Centre was completed in August 2009, the result of the University’s desire to make a recreational space that utilized its 5000-acre mountain property.
Why It’s Unique: Snowflex is the first snow-free ski park in North America. The name “Snowflex” refers to a terrain technology akin to white Astroturf: a monofilament fiber stitched into a carrier layer resting atop a foam shock pad. A sprinkler system sprays the material with friction-reducing Britonmist, produced by Snowflex manufacturer Briton Engineering Developments. The park hosts 500-foot runs, open to students and the public for year-round skiing.
(Photo from flickr/wondersighting)
Janet L Johnson/LoJo Photography
Tarentaise Valley, France
Background: Besides encompassing the 1304 acres of ski area that constitute Courchevel Valley, the resort is also part of Les Trois Vallees, the largest linked ski area in the world. Most of Les Trois Vallees’ 330 runs are above 5900 feet, with Courchevel’s own peak coming in at 8990. It is broken into four separate villages, each named for its metric altitude. The highest, Courchevel 1850, is famous for its lavish accommodations and continuous roster of the rich and famous. The resort was originally commissioned by the Vichy government during Word War II as a state-controlled ski area. The designer, architect Laurent Lapis, began work on the plans as a prisoner of war in Austria.
Why It’s Unique: While skiing the Alps may be a challenge, the real difficulty is in getting there. And though it’s no surprise that this chunk of the largest ski area has its own airport, Courchevel is no beginner’s course: Pilots must obtain certification before being permitted to land on the runway. The 1700-foot strip, with an 18.5 percent grade, requires planes to take off downhill and land going uphill. All this assumes that pilots first manage to successfully navigate through the Alps. Then, of course, you need some ski skills to handle the slopes once you arrive.
- Snowcomparison Team
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