Wendy Fisher - extreme big mountain skier and former US Olympian - picks her 5 favourite ski destinations around the world, including Chamonix, Whistler and a few you probably haven’t heard of…
Skiier in Chamonix (Dreamstime)
Europe has some of the biggest ski areas in the world; they just keep connecting to one another. But Chamonix feels like the root of it all.
Even off the slopes, being in Chamonix is such a cool European experience. It takes you back in time. You can just imagine all the old mountain climbers, how they’d huddle in the town, how it was the centre of climbing all those glaciers and peaks.
I love that you can walk everywhere, and I love the food. You can go to the bread shop and the cheese shop and the meat shop, and then make yourself the most wonderful sandwich that you just can’t duplicate in the United States.
In terms of skiing, the Brevent area is amazing. There are chutes that run all the way from the top of the lift to the valley floor. There’s great backcountry access from both the Brevent and the Aguille du Midi on the other side.
Each ski area in the Chamonix valley is small if you judge it by the piste map, but you can still find a new adventure and unique skiing at each one.
I love the James Bond trails that involve dipping and dodging through the trees to get back down to the base area after you’ve been off adventuring.
It’s amazing how many people still say to me, ‘You can ski in South America?” Portillo in Chile and Las Leñas in Argentina both get amazing snow. When they get a snowstorm, you can get six feet in one go. That’s mind-blowing; it’s an experience in itself to be there during a storm.
Portillo has a big yellow hotel set by a lake between two huge mountains. It’s a bit like a cruise ship on land in the middle of nowhere. It has a great après experience because everyone who’s skiing there eats dinner together and goes to the bar late at night. It’s an old school feeling that you don’t get in a lot of places any more.
The terrain is amazing. You ski on one side of the mountain first and then follow the sun round for the second half of the day. You can traverse high, open bowls with amazing gradients. There are chutes, little jumps and open terrain. And if you really want to get after it (and you’re in great shape, because it is at 10,000ft), you can hike higher.
Portillo has great lift access, with terrain that will challenge any skier, but if you love hiking, it’s amazing. You can traverse further and further out to new powder stashes, and it feels almost like a private ski resort, as there are hardly any tracks.
I’ve also had the best spring skiing, the best ‘corn snow’ ever in Portillo. Corn snow is when the temperature just starts to heat the snow so it becomes creamy: when your edges cut through the snow, it’s like whipped cream, it’s so smooth. August is one of the best months to go, which is just hitting their spring time.
Downhill action on Crested Butte (Kevin Krill)
I visited Crested Butte on a road trip 20 years ago and liked it so much that I stayed. I’m still there now.
The reason I love it starts with the ski community. There are a lot of great skiers, but the vibe isn’t too intense. It’s a really fun environment.
Crested Butte has quite a small ski area. It isn’t on the scale of places like Whistler or the Chamonix valley but it’s a fun mountain. It also offers all types of skiing, allowing me to combine my ski racing background with my ‘big mountain’ side.
It has a technical element that a lot of ski areas don’t have. If you want to give it some and scare yourself and play and challenge your technique, this is a fun place.
But then I don’t want to make it sound intimidating to the average skier, because it also has big open bowls and easier ways down. My boys Devin and Aksel, aged nine and 11, can ski almost the whole mountain and they love it.
Las Leñas (Dreamstime)
Experiencing Las Leñas should be on everyone’s hit list. It has some spectacular terrain that you wouldn’t expect from South America, so when you get there you’re, like, ‘wow’.
I used to go there with the US ski team. It doesn’t have the same social aspect as Portillo, but the food is good, the accommodation is funky 1970s-style, and there is the most amazing lift access.
There are runs that have these amazing, 2,000ft vertical, super-long chutes that you can’t believe are just open for anyone to go down. There’s a chairlift that is quite famous, called the Marte lift, that you use to access a lot of this terrain. It’s really beautiful and super fun to ski.
The hard thing about Las Leñas is that it gets quite windy, and when it’s really windy they can’t open the Marte lift, and then you’re hosed, because that’s the lift that you want to get to if you’re that type of skier.
The rest of the ski area is very mellow. If you go with a family and you have intermediate skiers, they’ll love it too.
Skiers' silhouettes on Whistler (Dreamstime)
Whistler is a no-brainer. It has amazing terrain. I’m not much of a groomer skier anymore. I try to avoid the groomed trail. But Whistler has these great groomed pistes: long, long runs all the way down the mountain.
Being able to cruise for that long, uninterrupted, is amazing. But then there is other amazing terrain too, with loads of nooks and crannies. And as the area includes the resorts of Blackcomb and Creekside, you can really spread yourself out.
A downfall is that it’s crowded, especially if you go during the holidays. But it’s a mountain that has a fun energy, lots of enthusiasm. There’s a theme park atmosphere in the sense that there’s action all the time, whether it’s in the village or on the mountain. You can’t go wrong with Whistler.
Wendy Fisher stars in the latest Warren Miller film Here, There and Everywhere, which is touring the UK in January, starting in Truro on Jan 9 and ending Jan 19 in Penrith. Here, There and Everywhere features thrilling skiing and boarding everywhere from Alaska to Greenland to the Swiss Alps, plus extreme backcountry snowmobiling, comedy pond-skimming and fatbiking. See www.warrenmiller.co.uk for more details.
Main image: Skier in the high mountains (Dreamstime)