We met at 4 p.m., ready to depart. Luckily, by midnight, we managed to load and secure our gear, mostly on the roof of the minibus, without a roof rack or box. After 1400 kilometers and 16 hours on the road, everyone and everything arrived safely, and we abundantly got what we came for.
Since then, we’ve learned a lot about trip planning and had incredible adventures, from the most remote corners of the Alps to the Caucasus and all the way to Hokkaido. One thing, however, has never changed: we fanatically seek out the best powder, and for this, we are willing to make almost any sacrifice. No number of transfers, no journey too long, no late-night planning, no early mornings, no sweaty climbs, and no shivering on mountain tops have ever made us regret it. In the 2023-24 season, we offer five freeride destinations, and the following comparison will guide you through them.
Since 2018, every year in the second half of January, we head to Japan. Our destination is Niseko, the largest continuous ski resort on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan. In the fortunate El Niño years (excluding 2020), around 20 meters of snowfall during the relatively short season from late December to early March. Lifts go up to 1200 meters on the 1308.5-meter-high volcano, and our accommodation in the authentic Annupuri village is at 300 meters. This 900-meter or 1009-meter in case of climbing elevation is more than enough for epic rounds in the best powder possible, with fresh layers even twice a day.
Apart from fantastic snow quality, off-piste skiing is much safer than in Europe due to the typical absence of avalanches. The mountain is less steep, and the temperature is less variable, rarely going above 0 degrees Celsius. This prevents the formation of dangerous ice layers in the snow cover, and instead of rocks or glaciers, the snow falls on dense bamboo vegetation, which better retains the massive snowfall, making it less prone to sliding.
Our general approach is to climb only as much as necessary to ski in powder snow. This is usually minimal in Japan. Short traverses almost always lead to untouched areas, but for the scenery and interest, we often climb to the top of the mountain, where the lift doesn’t take us. In this case, we advise riders to secure their equipment on to their backpacks because touring skis or splitboards are not necessary for climbing. In case the weather allows us to climb Mount Yotei during the week on an optional expedition, renting touring equipment can be arranged on-site.
Hot springs (onsens), the illuminated mountain until 9 p.m., the very cozy accommodation, and the divine food all contribute to making our trip to Japan consistently the most popular and unique freeride destination.
Georgia has been on the European freeriders’ radar for quite some time now, primarily with the Gudauri region, where developments are happening at an incredible pace. We, however, target another valley, Mestia, where pigs still wander in narrow alleys among stone houses, and shashlik is grilled on charcoal next to the restaurant entrance.
At the end of the valley, the Tetnuldi glacier rises with its 4858-meter peak, which we can reach by lift up to 3165 meters. It’s a real high-mountain freeride paradise with many different steep chutes and high-altitude freeride circuits. With a little climbing, additional areas open up. In case of bad weather, we head towards the Hatsvali forest, where an extra-fast and new cable car allows us to collect kilometers on very exciting, wooded, and steep terrain.
For one of the days, depending on the group’s stamina, we take a bigger trip towards the Chalaadi glacier or the Ushguli valley, where we can ski over 2000 meters in elevation among breathtaking, grand valleys between nearly 5000-meter peaks. If the team decides and conditions justify it, cat-skiing and heli-skiing options are also available, which we can arrange on-site at the best possible price if needed.
The locals’ laid-back attitude and the variety of foods also make Mestia attractive for those with less alpine inclination. Each evening brings a new restaurant, and each one is so good that we’d happily go back there the next day. Our tour leader, Charlie, has thoroughly explored the area both in the winter and summer. The local guides welcome him as an old friend, and together, they are guaranteed to find the best available routes on the mountain.
SULDEN AM ORTLER, ITALY
Sulden am Ortler is a uniquely atmospheric village and ski resort in South Tyrol. In the shadow of the nearly 4000-meter Ortler and Königspitze, the village at 1800 meters is elegant, very Alpine, and not at all touristy. People come with a bigger purpose to the small ski area. Most come for mountaineering, some for skiing the high-altitude and snow-sure, wide, sunny slopes with fantastic views, and even fewer for freeriding. Yet, the terrain’s potential is astonishing, with nearly 1500 meters of vertical descents accessible within a few minutes of climbing directly next to the resort.
For this trip, we usually take a larger bunch, and guided off-piste skiing takes place in groups based on freeride experience. Our main guide, Olaf, the head of local mountain rescue, ensures that everyone can shred on exciting terrain safely according to their skill level. If you’re just starting out with freeriding, we’ll help you on easier slopes closer to the trails to deepen your skills. More experienced riders can tackle couloirs they probably wouldn’t venture into alone. On one or two days, we usually take a larger trip outside the resort as well. This is when you can truly feel the power of nature and the size of the mountains. On these days, touring skis or splitboard equipment is recommended, or even snowshoes can be provided if needed. The mountain is so beautiful, and our favorite Italian family-owned restaurant in the village is so good that we often recommend participation even for the less freeride-oriented at a discounted price. There are worse ways to spend half a day than enjoying skiing in the sun, taking breaks sweetened with eggnog, and then indulging in a fantastic wellness session before treating yourself to a gourmet dinner.
Our newest snow destination is so new that we’re also going for the first time this season. Therefore, everything we write here is currently based on others’ reports and our exciting plans. Nevertheless, the concept of riding on untouched slopes down to the ocean and then retreating to our red wooden house for a sauna before the evening fish soup has long captivated us.
Lofoten has no ski lift, so the camp is exclusively for ski tourers and split-borders. We’ll stay in communal accommodation, and weather permitting, we plan to go ski touring for 5 out of the available 6 days, guided by GoBeyond friends with extensive local knowledge. On the rest day, those who wish can try some Arctic surfing in Unstad, where all equipment is provided to ensure the experience is memorable for reasons other than freezing to death. The surf session always ends in the panoramic sauna. For those not interested in surfing, there will be plenty to see during the trip. If we’re lucky, the play of the northern lights will make Lofoten’s unparalleled natural environment even more memorable.
For those who love mountain climbing and freeriding, Chamonix needs no introduction. The European mecca of mountaineering and steep skiing exudes an atmosphere, unlike any other town in the Alps. It’s quite possible that on the way to the Aiguille du Midi, Europe’s highest mountain station, we’ll be traveling in a cabin with world-famous athletes who may have moved here from America or Scandinavia to ski on this special mountain year-round.
In case of fresh snow, we wake up to avalanche explosions, and if necessary, by 7 a.m., we’re already waiting for one of the first cabins to take us from the deep valley to 3800 meters in 20 minutes. From there, descending through legendary slopes and glaciers, we reach the iconic glacier train that takes us back to the town.
In Chamonix, every well-known outdoor brand has its own store, and it’s not embarrassing to sit in the bars with your harnesses attached, and carabiners jingling to have a drink. Only last year Charlie climbed Mont Blanc five times, and he is greeted in the mountain huts as a regular, so he will show us which slope to aim for based on current weather and snow conditions.