World’s Most Obscure Ski Spots
Skiers and riders on solo lines, exploring places previously unheard of for snowsports, against sensational backdrops.
We search more and more for the obscure places to visit, to get off the beaten track and away from other travellers. With this trend extending to skiing and snowboarding, some are no longer saving up to spend a winter week away in a big-name Alpine resort but rather aim for the further, more random places to get kicks.
Perhaps this shift is one truer to the origins of the sport, a more authentic mountain experience. Skiing came about in Europe as a means of transport and a way to see the mountains. And ironically it’s for this very reason why there’s recently been rise in popularity of ski touring as we become more health conscious, both physically and mentally.
Our preference for exploring and discovering new places and cultures builds on this initial relationship: us in compelling, formidable landscapes. And through skiing, to be lost within the incredible power of the mountains.
Film series ‘A Skier’s Journey’ by Jordan Manley featuring ski adventurers Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots explores some of the world’s more obscure ski areas on a six-month trail across various continents, mountain ranges and cities.
“There was a curiosity for us to be alone and feel free from the normal ski experience and create our own unique one. One that would make others feel like venturing out onto their own skin track or expedition,” Sayers says of the journey through some of the world’s less known ski destinations – to us anyway – travelling freely.
Or is perfect snow the quest? It could be simply the experience of mountains, searching, the motion, the sounds, cold, getting to know snow and people through their interactions with snow.
What is a skier’s journey after all?
In recent years Japan has enjoyed being the world’s coolest ski destination. The dry and abundant powder is why you go, and it is pulling more and more Europeans that way. And with the added temptation of experiencing the food, landscape and culture, as well as the chance to explore Eastern cities, it will no doubt continue to lead on this front.
So, where else is attracting the adventurous skiers among us?
It will quickly become a major location with ski culture there growing more than anywhere else in the world. There’s been exponential growth in the number of resorts in China from just 11 in 1996 to more than 500 currently. The Chongli resort cluster is the site of the upcoming Winter Olympics. Wanlong, Doulomedi and Secret Garden have changed ‘from villages to boom town’. And it makes sense…
The country that is known for its innovation and dedication to being fast and the future regarding infrastructure is also experiencing an economic upturn. The Chinese wealthy are investing and driving the construction of new resorts, and with the expanding middle class the sport is becoming increasingly fashionable. It’s a skiing revolution, if ever there has been one. Not to mention a foil and escape from the smog-choked cities.
And now with Beijing set to host the 2022 Games, the government is adding facilities to towns of over 10,000 to increase its presence in winter sports dramatically by then.
The country’s north eastern resorts are popular for those new to skiing and boarding. Then there’s Beidahu for decent vertical, Changbaishan for powder and the Himalaya for freeskiers and big mountain backcountry skiing (not commercial). Close to Beijing, Nanshan Ski Resort is China’s most accessbile. The season runs to late-February and the resort has lots of park and pipe features, with more structures always on the way. Xiling Snow Mountain – 120km from Chengdu in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province – is an easy access resort with the mountain reaching to above 5,000m, though the pistes run from a decent 2,400m.
See here for more of adventure skiing in China with big-mountain skier Xavier de le Rue skiing volcano Changbaishan.
A himalaya adventure with dry, crisp powder, breath-taking scenery and lift-accessible backcountry skiing as well as snow leopards, black bears and Rhesus Macaque monkeys.
In the Pir Panjal peaks of India is ski resort Gulmarg, located at the extreme western edge of one of the six mountain ranges that form the Himalayan Mountains. It’s overlooked by the 8,000m Nanga Parbat.
Gulmarg was established as a ski resort in 1927 by two British Army officers, when a British ski club was also established, but before was a vacation spot for Mughal kings and in the 19th century was a popular retreat for the British elite during the Indian occupancy. Apparently of the 730 population of Gulmarg, 99% are male.
Gulmarg’s famous ski route is a six-mile-long, one-mile-steep vertical descent to Drung. Just miles from the disputed Line of Control, which divides India from Pakistan, this part of the Kashmir Valley remains heavily militarized but is becoming internationally popular and is just 52km from Srinagar Airport. The resort has one gondola going to 4,000m and single-run tickets can be bought from 500 rupees (£6). Three or four runs per day are normal but the bowls become tracked out early in the day so you need to travel further afield to get fresh lines.
A country covered in mountains has the 800km-long Hindu Kush with 100 peaks rising to over 6,000m. The Koh-e-Baba mountain range at the western end of the Hindu Kush has glaciers and permanent snow. 100-150 miles west of Kabul lies Bamyan ski resort – ‘The Place of Shining Light’. There are not many international visitors at all but there are plans and events to build the sport.
The Aga Khan Foundation – an organisation that invests to break the cycle of poverty throughout the world – aims to encourage snowsports enthusiasts to visit the area and so since 2000 the open backcountry race, the Afghanistan Ski Challenge, has been organised in the Koh-e-Baba Mountain Range.
This year there were, 50 participants: 30 Afghan, 20 international.
Rules: No weapons allowed. Everyone starts at the same time. The winner is the first person to cross the finish line having successfully registered at all the check points along the way.
Skis and snowboards allowed (boarders need splitboard/snowshoes).
The Republic claims 16 ski areas; some are very small with just ski hills and no accomodation, others are bigger and are growing as the sport does.
Associated with Western culture, skiing is steadily becoming a popular pursuit for cosmopolitan Turks, along with other trends such as the hipster coffee culture. The city elite travel from Istanbul and Ankara to the resorts of Uludağ and Kartalkaya, and to the even smaller Bozdağ from Izmir on the west coast, which Turkey refers to as its second and ‘European’ city. Uludağ – ‘dağ’ Turkish for mountain – is accessed through Bursa, a rich and historical city south of Istanbul on Turkey’s Asian side on the Marmara Sea. The resort has 25km of pistes up to 2,300m and is an ideal weekend break.
I lived in Istanbul for several years and I took on the challenge of visiting as many resorts as possible. Uludağ was my local and it’s a fantastic resort for beginners and low-intermediates. City snow days – although the obvious choice to get some space from the city – are not the time to visit. The infrastructure isn’t the best and lifts don’t run if there’s too much snow. Add thousands of untaught skiers and boarders (and a huge dose of masculine bravado) onto crowded pistes and watch out for your legs.
I thought the crowds and noise was daunting in Istanbul… It is, however, a totally amazing experience and a really good exposition at modern Turkish culture. A benefit of these popular city resorts based on the western model is that there are bars, clubs and restaurants that do apres and nightlife. Heli skiing is also cheap here, much more so than anywhere in the Alps.
Kartalkaya in the Köroğlu Mountains in the province of Bolu is another popular city ski resort, close to the Istanbul-Ankara highway. Kayseri and the Erciyes resort in the middle of the country attracts nationals.
The east of Turkey is less travelled and now perhaps more dangerous than it has been in previous years due to its proximity to Iraq and Syria and an area of Turkey suffering from civil war. The ski resorts further east, however, are away from this and offer the best, most remotely beautiful and extreme of Turkey’s skiing. Bitlis in eastern Turkey near Lake Van hosts some of the world’s hard-core snowsporters. Experienced skiers and boarders could adventure this way with their own transport to find powder and be deep in Turkish culture and travel the less trodden trail.
Erzurum is one of the highest-altitude provinces in the country has two big ski areas: Palandöken is Turkey’s largest ski resort with 72km of piste. It has a summit of 3,185m with night skiing until 8pm and is where the national ski team practices. The second is Konaklı, newly established (2011) and certainly growing.
Reasons to ski in Turkey – to experience the country’s extraordinary hospitality in an environment where there are few tourists.
Snowsports in Lebanon have been around since the early twentieth century but skiing in the Middle East may still surprise some. The Mount Lebanon range extends the length of the country and runs parallel with the Mediterranean coast, receiving a fair amount of precipitation and so snow. It has six resorts, Mzaar Kfardebian being the largest, Cedars the oldest and Laqlouq most family and beginner friendly.
The Alborz mountain range in northern Iran stretches from the border of Azerbaijan along the Caspian Sea, finally merging into the Aladagh Mountains. Dizin Ski Resort is the largest and 75 miles north of Tehran. It was founded by a group of foreigners who were searching for mines in the central Albourz. Established in the 1960s it was where the national ski team practiced. Until recently there was segregation of male and female skiers with a fence down the middle of the slopes. The area has drier air and so receives lots of dry snow, but also gets the sun.
Shemshak is Iran’s second largest resort. The views on the two-hour drive from Tehran are alone worth experiencing and the extensive and challenging off piste, the low cost – in Western standards – and flood-lit piste skiing add appeal for trying skiing somewhere new.
Chile’s skiing, while not extraordinary as we’ve known about South America skiing for a while, is definitely a cool place to head to during our summertime. Santiago is flanked oh-so-gorgeously by the mountains of the Andes and Chilean Coast Range. And then with the country being basically a long coastline, you can be at the beach within a few hours.
The list goes on. More interesting examples that come to mind are Lesotho in Africa, and skiing in Greece.
And then there’s the skiing on some of the world’s bleakest, harshest terrain: Iceland.