Differences between skiing in North America and Europe
If you call yourself a skier or a snowboarder but have not ventured outside the Alps, it is really time you considered a trip across the pond. Six months ago, we decided to extend our offering and we have been all over the US and Canada looking for the best possible ski vacation experiences to justify a longer journey. So, what can you expect compared to Alpine skiing?
Snow - quality and quantity. North American resorts benefit from more snow than European counterparts. In an average winter, Whistler expects over 10 meters whereas Europe's most snow-sure resorts will be delighted with 5. The type of snow varies too. Snow in Colorado and Utah is often slightly less plentiful than in Whistler but is very dry and the result is the lightest and best powder in the world.
Locals and marketing departments are never short of superlatives to describe them, but the ski areas are not quite as extensive as their European rivals in terms of terrain, vertical drop or number of lifts. We have chosen the resorts that have plenty for a great week, even for expert skiers.
The treeline in most North American resorts goes right to the top. As a result, visibility is never much of a problem and because sections are gladed (the trees thinned) the tree skiing can be spectacular.
Huge pride is taken in grooming (piste bashing). Pistes (“trails”) are wider and the corduroy is maintained 24 hours a day. Even skiers who revel in the raw skiing experience of Chamonix and St Anton will find guilty pleasures carving turns on the “groomers” (we openly admit to this!) For the hard-core, there is variable terrain and plenty of moguls. The system of grades is slightly different too. European “red” runs are replaced by “single diamond”. “Black” runs are more comparable with “double diamonds” and are rarely, if ever, groomed.
Whereas in Europe, you ski off piste at your own risk, in the US & Canada, designated areas are integrated into the resort. Access is strictly controlled through “gates” by “ski patrol” (who take a dim view of anyone skiing closed areas). While criticised by some for fostering a lack of individual responsibility, this approach provides a safer, more controlled “backcountry” experience which satisfies 95% of skiers’ needs for fresh powder.
The Americans and Canadians are streets ahead in organization and service. Lift queues are managed (and shorter), ski concierges on hand to carry skis, tissue dispensers and benches strategically placed at lifts stations, speed “monitors” confiscate the pass of reckless skiers and snowboarders and everyone you encounter seems to genuinely want you to have a fabulous vacation. The effect is a far more user-friendly experience (although you might feel nostalgia for a grumpy lift operator or a rude waiter after more than a week!).
As you are traveling further to get there, do ten days and combine a week of resort skiing with a couple of days doing something else – a snowmobiling tour of Yellowstone, a heli-skiing trip or a city stopover in Vancouver, New York City or even Vegas.
In Europe, the slopes are quiet at weekends due to transfer days but the populations of Denver and Vancouver head for the slopes of Colorado and Whistler after work on Friday. Plan your trip (and non-skiing activities) around this.
A common misconception is that the weather is much colder than in Europe. It can be bitterly cold, but no more so than any high altitude Alpine resort. We have had many colder days in Courchevel and Val d’Isère and Colorado boasts over 300 days’ sunshine per year!
When it comes to food and après-ski, while Europe may have the edge, the US and Canada usually offer much better value for money and, like it or not, there is a better chance of your children enjoying the food! On the après-ski front, the Sky Hotel in Aspen would give the Mooserwirt or the Folie Douce a good run for their money.